Socializing with Ivy League elitists

“But you don’t seem poor” — five words that I’ll never forget. In the fall of 2009 I arrived at Wellesley College after having spent my entire life in a small town in Ohio. Most of the kids that I had dated in high school were the same kids I played with on the playground. Our families knew each other and we all grew up relatively the same way. Flash forward to my first fall semester at Wellesley, and the story gets really interesting.

My first experience occurred when a friend from Wellesley took me to visit a high school friend who was now at Harvard. Saying that I was nervous is an understatement. We agreed to go after dinner, and I rushed to my room to change. I quickly realized that I had no idea what to wear to a get-together at Harvard. I finally settled on a Wellesley sweatshirt and a pair of Uggs – my most expensive shoes – rather than a pair of cheap rain-boots that I had been wearing that day. I felt insecure about not having anything designer or expensive to wear. Since arriving at Wellesley I’d noticed the differences between my clothes and everyone else’s. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love my clothes and shoes. After working in retail for a few years in high school, I’d managed to acquire quite the wardrobe for pretty cheap. My clothes, however, lacked the labels.

My friend showed up to get me in black heels, red lipstick, and a gorgeous black top. I felt like a four-year-old in my jeans, sweatshirt, and Uggs. When I stepped off of the bus at Harvard, I stepped into an entirely different world. My friend introduced me to her friend and his seven roommates. I immediately noticed differences from the boys that I had dated back home. They were discussing art and literature and something called a “gap year.” Apparently, most of them had taken a year off before attending Harvard to pursue other interests.

To my surprise, our evening involved a lobster dinner. Lobster? I’d never really had any seafood before. Where I’m from, it’s pretty landlocked, making good seafood nearly impossible to find. I sheepishly admitted that I’d never tried lobster – only to be met with blank stares. During dinner I quietly ate while everyone talked about all of their amazing travels. I had never been out of the country, and still haven’t. At the end of the evening I left feeling uncultured, uneducated, and more importantly – unimpressive.

After a few more times hanging out with that group, I realized that they didn’t understand where I came from – but also that they didn’t want to understand. For the rest of my first year I avoided Harvard all together. Eventually sophomore year I met another group of guys at a party. They were interested in who I was, my major, and my background. I grew up very differently from almost all of this new group, but this time it was okay. It was actually more than okay: they appreciated my differences and wanted to get to know me.

Comparing those experiences at Harvard during my first versus second year of college taught me that it’s not a certain school, or even a certain socioeconomic level, that causes people to judge my background; it’s more on the individual level. If someone doesn’t try to understand me or doesn’t respect me, I’ve learned to let it go and walk away. People that aren’t willing to take the time to understand you aren’t worth your time. I’ve learned to value myself and my experiences, even when it feels like others don’t.

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Emily Loftis is First Generation College student at Wellesley College. Emily is active on Class Action’s First Generation College Student Organizing project. She is a Classical Civilizations and Media, Arts, and Sciences double major, with an interest in class equality.

1 Response

  1. This is great. I’m glad you are able to talk and share about your experiences with Class. People need to hear about it, they really do. What I’ve discovered, after over 20 yrs of struggling to earn cred and be accepted by the privileged class is that they really are incapable of understanding me. I can’t take their very real limitation as a sign I have no worth. What you have learned so early in your college career is is true. The privileged class lack imagination into the lives of others unlike themselves, which makes even an innocent mixer with them a struggle. They have this uncanny ability to take whatever you say and toss it into a vat of hot bubbling irrelevence. You really need a tremendous amount of faith in your own perceptions to counteract this sort of annihilation.

    It’s hard to watch others bask in an inherited confidence, while you try and get warm in your little working-class hovel of chronic doubt. It’s enough to make a person crazy. And that’s how the little people are kept out of the privileged world. It’s so subtle, even people from those classes who think they are “open to differences” really aren’t. It’s a stretch for them to comprehend limits, they are just from a different world, a world in which everyone gets “a gap year” (I just learned what those were too, as I work with adolescents and many of them are from privileged backgrounds).

    I see Class everywhere in my professional life, I’m a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, and work as a therapist. What I’ve noticed is, becoming “a professional”, someone with authority to some degree to help others, is a piece of cake for kids who grow up with parents who are also “authorities”. I work with doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, and while we do get along (they think me funny), it is hard sometimes to stomach their arrogance.

    If someone speaks with authority (which the privileged classes tend to do) they will be believed and honored and others will emulate them. Sorry to rant, but it shocks me how silent and enduring these differences are. You have to be in it to see it though. It’s real. I’m glad you figured out early that the Harvard crowd wasn’t for you. They will never see you. They really can’t, it’s their privileged limitation. From what I’ve observed the privileged only have eyes for themselves. Additionally, they turn the eyes of the non-privileged away from themselves. The only chance of ever assimilating comes with complete surrender of the self, they will only take you in if you become puddy in their hands, willing to allow them to mold you into their own image. Like I said, they need to turn you into something they can recognize, and you in turn let them because you can’t stand being invisible. They have no interest in allowing someone from below any artistic license when it comes to who they can become in their world. You become like them, which means completely divorced from your own background, your own history, your own gut responses. Say goodbye to you, or don’t even try (unless, of course, you’re a rockstar, in that case you can do what you want. The privileged need to be entertained too).

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