Making Space for Class

The Claremont consortium has resource centers that raise
awareness of, and create discussion space for, the role of gender identity,
sexual orientation, spirituality, and some racial identities (though not
indigenous ones) in students’ backgrounds and everyday experiences. But what
about socioeconomic class? I believe that Pomona College would benefit from a class resource
center as one small step toward a larger revitalization of resource centers on
campus to expand our on-campus discussion of privilege and power dynamics.

A class resource center would likely bring academic and
psychological benefits to students of all socioeconomic backgrounds, and add to the political awareness of wealth inequality in our society at large. As
measured by the Gini coefficient, wealth in the United States is more unequally distributed than it is in any other industrialized country, and its distribution is in fact comparable to that of industrializing countries
like Russia, India, and Nigeria. Where the U.S. government has left off integrating
people of different socioeconomic backgrounds, Pomona should step in, with initiatives
to increase low-income and first-generation student representation on
campus and address the challenges these students face once they arrive.

Research by Northwestern University professor Nicole
Stephens underlines the cultural mismatch these students face entering college. Stephens found that university deans and promotional materials espouse
an independent view of college culture, namely, the upper-class expectation
that students should blaze their own paths and pursue their own interests in
college. In contrast, Stephens found that first-generation and low-income
students are socialized in environments with fewer resources, where they
develop a more interdependent outlook that emphasizes community engagement and working
with others.

Dr. Stephens set up an experiment in which first-year
students either attended a panel of upperclassmen offering tips related to
social class, such as, “As a first-generation student, I relied more on my
adviser than my peers,” or a panel that offered tips unrelated to class, like,
“If you have a question in class, ask the professor.” Each panel featured the
same eight students, representing a mix of genders, ethnicities, and
socioeconomic backgrounds. The only factor that changed was whether they
discussed class.

First-generation students who attended the class-sensitive
panel got higher grades and sought out more resources during their first
semester at college, compared to first-generation students who attended the class-blind
panel. Students with one or both parents holding a
four-year degree also benefitted from attending the class-specific panel.
Students who attended the class-specific panel displayed lower levels of the
stress hormone cortisol, greater appreciation of difference, and more social
engagement than their peers who had attended the class-blind panel.

Some readers may ask, “Why
does Pomona need a class resource center? During orientation, students see
panels that discuss class and other diversity topics such as race. Isn’t that enough?” A class
resource center would be an appropriate way to facilitate more widespread and purposeful discussions of class. It
is true that many Pomona students are aware of social class and its impact on
student experiences at college; however, we need to expand where, and between
whom, discussions of class and class privilege occur.

In fact, I suggest that we need to expand discussions of any type of privilege. The discourse around America Pub suggests that Pomona students need
more experience interacting with each others’ perspectives, particularly the perspectives of historically marginalized groups, of which low-income and
first-generation students are two.

Let’s redefine privilege from its stereotype as a concept
that professors and hippies use to make other students feel guilty about
themselves. Privilege plays out in small, daily interactions, and learning
about privilege from that perspective makes broad patterns more recognizable.

Take class privilege as an example. How do Pomona’s
pre-med classes support first-generation and low-income students from underfunded
high schools? How do macroeconomics and microeconomics address poverty
creation? How can we adjust the study abroad programs to support students from
interdependent cultural backgrounds? Which student organizations are
inaccessible to first-generation and low-income students? In many ways, Pomona
could be more engaged with low-income and first-generation perspectives, and a
class resource center would facilitate that.

These kinds of questions should interest all Pomona
students. We are here to think critically and learn from each other’s
experiences. A class resource center would be a step toward recognizing and
ameliorating the discomfort that low-income and first-generation students may
experience when placed in an institution that was not created for them, while
making students from all backgrounds less stressed and more comfortable taking
in the perspectives of others.

There is currently no physical space, no systematic discussion,
and no academic department specifically designated for discussing and
investigating class, even though class is a highly salient contributor to our
experiences at Pomona. I hope that Pomona will establish a class resource
center in the near future to acknowledge and address these important issues
within and beyond our campus.

Nicholas Sundback PO ’14 is an international relations major and Spanish minor. He is a member of the Associated Students of Pomona College Committee on Campus Climate and Diversity.

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