By Tania Ortega ’19
As a student on full financial aid, I am not here to say “thank you” to the students (and their families) who are not on financial aid. But I am also not here to tell everyone all about my experiences as a student on full financial aid on this campus filled with wealth.
The discussion that occurred Thursday, November 4 was spurred by Swarthmore’s Daily Gazette article titled “The Admissions Office Doesn’t Care About Your Values.” During the more facilitated portion of the discussion, the group was presented with a set of questions to reflect on. One of the questions was, “What does a socioeconomically conscious campus look like?” When trying to answer this question for myself, I could not come up with an answer. Maybe the purpose of coming together in a space like this is to create an answer.
I, however, am struggling to genuinely believe that this can be the outcome of conversations like the one we had on Thursday. When breaking out into smaller groups, I was honest with my two other group members and told them that I did not have an answer for this specific question. After hearing some of their responses, I was able to come up with one aspect that would, in my opinion, be present in a socioeconomically conscious campus. Maybe it was the fact that I explicitly stated that I come from a low socioeconomic background and am on full financial aid; or maybe it was that the “point” of this discussion was to address the experiences of students like me, but the small group discussion soon turned into what felt like a Q & A, with questions like “okay, what would you want to see changed or done differently? What do you want?” directed at me. I appreciated their willingness to hear my opinion and their interest in knowing how things can change, but why did it feel like I had to educate or teach them? And why was I expected to know the answer?
What happened in this situation is what, I feel, happens across campus, whether it be in similar situations or in class settings. Students coming from underrepresented and/or marginalized backgrounds are often put into a position in which they are forced to educate those who are unaware, or they are forced to know the answer to the difficult and broad question of how things can change. It is great that people are asking questions and trying to combat the campus culture and narrative that marginalizes some students. But at the expense of whom?
Of course I want things to change on this campus. Of course I want to be treated with respect during any one of my shifts at any one of my three jobs on campus. Of course I want to feel like my ability to afford something is taken into account in teams and large group settings. Of course I want to feel like my experiences (or lack thereof) have not hindered my ability to succeed on this campus. But does it require me being vulnerable and completely open in front of a large group of people that are completely unaware of my experiences? Does creating change on this campus come at the expense of my emotional and mental well-being?
Though there were others in the room that shared my experiences and sentiments (i.e. I was not the only student on financial aid who was present), I still felt tokenized. I felt like I, along with the others who shared during the latter—deeper—part of the conversation, were being put on the spot; it felt like a spectacle. The dynamic of the smaller group, combined with the initial comments being made in the larger group, evoked a visceral reaction in me: my body tensed up and I felt a lump in my throat. I had to say something, so I shared something in the larger group; no one asked me to share, nor did anyone force me to share, but I did not want people to leave the room thinking we had all engaged in deep, meaningful discussion when the first half of the large discussion was very on the surface (and consequently rather unproductive), which I think is the inevitable outcome of discussions like these if the students who are the subjects of these discussions (i.e. in this case, students on financial aid) remain silent.
And here is where the contradiction lies. I did not want to be emotionally vulnerable in front of a large group of people that I had never met and may never talk to again, but I also did not want people (read: students not on financial aid as well as administration and faculty) to leave the space patting themselves on the back and/or thinking they “did a great job in acknowledging the different difficulties of being on financial aid” with only on-the-surface comments being made during the discussion.
I ask myself what I would like to see or experience instead, since spaces set up in this way are too mentally and emotionally demanding of students already working hard to succeed in an institution that is not made for them. After presenting this opinion, it is also probably expected of me to offer up an answer or alternative. I do not have one.
It would have been unrealistic to think that a solution could have come out of this event, but that is not to say that it was not a step in the right direction. This was a chance for members of the community to come together and explore different experiences and perspectives, which began to occur during the latter half of the large group discussion. This mainly rings true for those students not on financial aid, since they were the ones hearing our stories. It took someone to break the tension and say what was on [some] people’s minds to get an honest and sincere expression of opinion, perspective, and experience, though the perspectives that were shared were really only our perspectives.
It was a step in the right direction, but I do not believe that the current structure of the process we are using towards creating change is the one that we should settle on. All of this is not to say that I did not appreciate this discussion and the participation and presence of different members of the community. I appreciate having had a space where I would not be judged as aggressive when getting upset while I voiced my sentiments. What I will ask is whether it was and will always be necessary for me to publicly display how overwhelming and emotionally demanding my daily experiences can be. I wish to believe that awareness and progress on this campus does not necessitate a public display of vulnerability from the same students whose very presence on this campus is an act of vulnerability.
It seems and feels as if the responsibility of creating change is falling on our shoulders; yes, I am the one who is directly experiencing and is being affected by these things (i.e. financial aid status). Yes, I want my voice—my experiences and perspectives—to be included in these discussions. I want to be a part of these conversations, but it cannot just be me and cannot solely be my responsibility. Who else is part of the community and needs to be a part of the conversations? Who can we include that can help us move away from the tokenization that occurs in some community-wide discussions? I do not believe that simply having administration, faculty and staff in the room where these conversations take place is enough because I believe that the structure of our conversations is what first needs to be addressed. Though I cannot offer an alternative (because I do not have one), I hope that I have offered a different perspective that invites expansion and criticism.