Students Discuss Social Class at Harvard

Students from various racial and socioeconomic backgrounds came together yesterday night to discuss their perspectives on wealth and diversity at Harvard, in an informal discussion sponsored by the Harvard Foundation.

While more than two-thirds of Harvard students receive some form of financial assistance, many of the roughly 30 undergraduates who attended the event expressed frustration with the lack of discussion around issues of wealth at Harvard.

Some contended that conversations about diversity tend to be confined to race, culture, and religion, but fail to center around social class.

Discussion facilitator Bronwen B. O’Herin ’12 introduced the event by noting that, though Harvard has the largest endowment of any university, fewer than one-eighth of its students come from the poorest 40 percent of U.S. households.

The taboo nature of speaking about socioeconomic status at Harvard took center stage after discussion participants were asked to describe their experiences with issues of class on campus.

Several students said that their Harvard experiences had made them reconsider the social class with which they self-identify.

“When I first came to Harvard I considered myself to be lower middle class ... but that perspective changed when I began to speak with my roommates, and that’s when I discovered that I was actually closer to upper middle class,” said Olamide V. Olatunji ’14.

Among students in attendance, there was also a consensus that assumptions about wealth are tied not only to individuals but to the Harvard name in general.

“Everyone believes just because you go here, that you’re going to be rich and successful,” said Michael Fountaine '12-'14.

The discussion also touched upon how social class affects students’ activities and self-presentations.

The arts, in particular, were characterized as extremely time consuming, rendering lower-income students with on-campus jobs unable to participate.

Other student groups that require international travel were deemed inaccessible for students with little disposable income. These constraints led some students to question the true breadth of opportunities for lower income students at Harvard.

Students highlighted specific clothing items and behaviors as being used by students to indicate socioeconomic status.

“I think wealth displays itself in very interesting and subtle ways like whether or not you work on campus,” said Winta Z. Haile ’12.

Other students cited the common Hunter rainboots and Longchamp purses for women, and boat shoes for men, as markers of status.

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