Although I have only recently realized it, I have always felt like an outsider while at school. It first occurred in high school when I decided to take classes within the International Baccalaureate program. I had always been very good at making friends and did not expect to feel uncomfortable. I was, after all, still at the same institution, though with new peers. When I walked into class with a group of students who had been studying together for four years or more, it was one of the first times in my life that I felt ostracized. They knew a plethora of writing strategies, study habits, and academic rules that I had never heard of before. School became something at which I had to work hard, even though in the past I was able to navigate it with ease. Socially we were even more different.
When the students from my program were studying with private tutors and taking expensive ACT prep classes, my friends and I were stealing booze from our alcoholic parents and sneaking out of the house to smoke cigarettes at the park. While they were scheduling their SAT subject tests and college interviews, I was trying to figure out how best I could help three of my best girlfriends who had all somehow gotten pregnant in their teens.
The problem was only exacerbated when I started working and moved out of my mother’s house during my senior year of high school. I suspected that no one else was experiencing anything similar to my newfound independence and it made me feel so alone. When I decided to go to community college, my peers judged me and questioned my decision. In a class where the majority of students were going to Ivy League schools and their liberal arts equivalents, going to a two year school was not only unacceptable but embarrassing. Financially, it was the best option for me. Since I was supporting myself, I needed to go to a school that allowed me to work full-time. While at community college, I joined an honors program and could not help feeling a similar dissonance. Although the other students in the program tried their best to invite me to group activities, I could never go because I was always working. With my busy schedule, I found it difficult to keep up with the workload. Although my grades were adequate, I always felt less intelligent than the other students. When everyone else moved on to four-year universities, I stayed behind because I was unsure as to how to go about balancing my personal and financial responsibilities while still pursuing my education.
The third year of community college was imperative for my academic career because it connected me with an administrator who initiated my transfer to a four-year school. With the help of some fantastic professors, I became much more confident in my academic abilities during my first year at Smith. Socially, however, I was even worse off than before. Being geographically separated from my friends and family made the differences between other Smith students and I seem insurmountable. I have still not overcome this divide. It emerges in class, at meal times, at campus events, and anywhere else you can imagine. I might say something that would be completely acceptable at home that is completely unacceptable here on campus. I frequently do not understand words in class that are common knowledge to the other students (it was at Smith that I discovered the meaning of “neoliberalism”). Oftentimes I hope to engage in healthy debates with other students that quickly get out of control–conversations gone awry when passionate debate becomes an argumentative struggle. It is not uncommon for me to feel misunderstood, shut down, and confused.
Thankfully, my experiences at these institutions has given me the vocabulary to speak about these issues. I was amazed by how simply having the words to describe what I was feeling made my struggles concrete and real. It was at Smith that I realized the root of my discomfort developed from class differences. I also “discovered” that I am a first-generation college student. Terms like these clarified and explained the differences that I had not been able to put into words and helped me find a few other students with whom I could relate. I realize that there are many students on campus who come from working class families and countless students who are first generation. However, I frequently find that because we are at different points in our lives, we have little in common. Those differences make me, sometimes irrationally, uncomfortable. I know that there are very few students on campus who have jobs and that, out of those who do, very few of them rely on those jobs to pay for food or bills or rent. Many students on campus come from liberal families that have instilled progressive values into them from a very young age. Countless students engage in excessive drinking and smoking which I, having done it for most of my adolescence, have moved on from. Even small things like the fascination that most students have with the play Hamilton seem elitist and therefore out of my reach.
Fortunately, now that I have access to this new vocabulary I am better able to recognize the reasons for my feelings. That is a tool I wish I had had access to before my time at Smith. Yet, recently, I have realized that I wish I did not see the differences between my peers and I so clearly. Because I have such an amazing and supportive group of friends at home, my relationships at Smith can be awkward and inconsequential in comparison. Differences between my peers and I cause rifts in both social discourse and ritual. As a result, my experience at college has been lonely. Although I originally blamed other students for creating the divide between us, I am also at fault for our lack of meaningful communication. Over time, I have subconsciously cultivated an intense prejudice against the wealthy and elite. Because of this, I often misjudge others before getting to know them simply because we come from different social classes. Lately, I have been spending more time getting to my peers and attempting to look past our differences. I approach this by thinking of my experience at Smith as if I were an anthropologist and the college is my field site. I try to consider every student and professor here to be subjects who behave in ways that I simply do not understand. More importantly I strive not to perceive those unfamiliar actions as negative experiences that divide us. Instead, I aspire to understand where the other students come from. Everyone experiences struggle in their lives and social class is far from the only factor that generates adversity. I hope to work on listening to those hardships and putting them into perspective by striving for less biased interactions. Consequently, I hope to be able to recognize why my biases exist and how they play into the formation of my relationships at Smith and elsewhere.
Tiffany Wilt ’17is a transfer student from Montgomery Community College. She was born and raised on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. and currently calls Wheaton, Maryland her home. After graduation this Spring, Tiffany plans on attending Georgetown University to complete a Masters degree in Latin American Studies.by