Grappling With Class: An Unspoken Divide
Published: Thursday, March 15, 2012
Updated: Friday, March 16, 2012 16:03
Petersen’s studies must lead to something bigger post-graduation. Landing a consulting or investment banking job that pays about $70,000 would mean a starting salary two-and-a-half times the amount Petersen’s single mother makes at the job she has had much of her adult life.
“You have to understand for people from my situation, you are your family. This is potentially a huge change for your family, especially going to a school of the caliber of Georgetown,” he says.
For students of upper-middle class backgrounds like Ryan Wilson (COL ’12), former co-chair of the Diversity Initiative’s Admissions and Recruitment Working Group, the need to apply a Georgetown education to real-world results isn’t as urgent.
“I’m in the position right now where I’m trying to go to law school, but honestly, if it doesn’t work out, I can go back home and wait until an opportunity comes up,” he says. “And if I were in a lower socioeconomic background, that is not an option, flat-out.”
CLASS ADJUSTMENT OUTSIDE THE CLASSROOM
According to Hinkson, college students’ interactions beyond the classroom are dominated by collective behaviors and norms that sharpen the unseen lines dividing students who are on different points of the socioeconomic spectrum.
“For students from the upper-middle class, it’s just taken-for-granted knowledge and a way of being. It’s what we refer to as cultural capital,” Hinkson says of the social scene, the style of dress and the way of speaking that can signal social class to others.
Just as with academics, students not endowed with upper-crust cultural capital are forced to catch up.
“Schools don’t teach students cultural capital. It’s what you learn at home, and schools reward students for cultural capital,” Hinkson says.
The son of a mechanic and a legal secretary, Ryan Zimmerman (COL ’12) was taken aback when he first set foot on Georgetown’s campus.
“There were people wearing brands I had never seen before,” he says.
These fresh-faced observations would soon have a substantive impact on Zimmerman, a first-generation college student.
“As soon as I got to campus, I started to change how I dressed and how I acted and to step into a role that is very indicative of Georgetown,” he says.
Zimmerman has worked 20 hours or more each week in college to support these changes in lifestyle. With his own drive and the help of others, he has crafted a support network to help manage everything from everyday finances to weekends on the town to future career opportunities.
Jaclyn Wright (COL ’12) says she has intentionally cultivated a social life that doesn’t revolve around spending money as a way of leisure, despite the fact that bars and restaurants in the Georgetown neighborhood encourage these spending habits for many affluent students. A working-class student writing her thesis on access to elite institutions in higher education, Wright says her academic passion stemmed from her social interactions.
For students of higher socioeconomic backgrounds, being cognizant of class difference does not come easily.
“We try to hide behind the broke college student mentality, and we don’t necessarily get into what’s really going on here. We’re all not struggling in the same way,” says Wilson.
Along with other students interviewed, Wilson says he has observed social segmentation based on class — a divide that can only exacerbate the issue.
“I think most people hang out with people of similar backgrounds and are never forced to confront those very awkward moments,” Wilson says, going on to describe interactions he has had while shopping for groceries with friends of lower socioeconomic backgrounds. “There were several times where I’ve been embarrassed where people say, ‘You can’t even tell me how much a gallon of milk costs.’”
Katherine Wolfenden (COL ’12), a former columnist for The Hoya, is working on a senior thesis that pertains to Georgetown’s approach to diversity and difference. Wolfenden says her lower socioeconomic status affects every area of her life.
“Class for me is more a reality of my life, it’s not about what people are wearing,” she says, adding that perceived norms at Georgetown can run counter to many students’ socioeconomic backgrounds. “People here definitely have a warped sense of what normal is.”
EASING TRANSITIONS, ENABLING DISCUSSIONS
Sarah David Heydemann (SFS ’09), a program coordinator in the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor, served as co-facilitator for a discussion on social class in A Different Dialogue this fall. Over the course of many sessions, she found that the idea of assimilation of lower-income students into a higher-class culture was particularly relevant at Georgetown, where the son of migrant-workers may be sitting in class next to the daughter of a major corporation’s CEO.
“I think that that transition can be really confusing, and I don’t know if there are folks out there really talking about [it],” she says.
The Georgetown Scholarship Program, founded in 2004, seeks to ease that shift. The brainchild of Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Charles Deacon and Dean of Student Financial Services Patricia McWade, GSP not only opens the door to Georgetown for students from less affluent backgrounds through financial aid but also seeks to keep it open during their time on campus through support and programming.