By now we’ve all heard the spiel about Senior Gift. Whatever graduating seniors donate goes toward funding arts, athletics, and financial aid. These donations are, we are told, crucial. The higher our participation rate, after all, the more inclined our alumni are to donate themselves.
“Donate,” we are urged, even if we can only spare 10 bucks. “Donate,” we are e-mailed, and texted, and Facebook messaged. We are bombarded with reasons to donate in the hope that one will resonate and stick. Maybe we’re grateful that Harvard accepted us. Maybe Harvard did change our life. Maybe we want to give back. We all have our reasons, we are told. There are excellent, marvelous, insightful, and blessed (really, blessed!) reasons to donate to Senior Gift.
We hear these braindead megaphones, we become nauseous, and we agree that there are reasons to donate to Senior Gift. And then we give.
But there are many compelling reasons why one shouldn’t donate to Harvard. A donation to an institution with an endowment of $33 billion, almost none of it spent on its student groups, where 30 percent of students are not on any kind of financial aid (requiring an income in top-one-percent territory) is not exactly the best way to dent socioeconomic poverty. Giving to efficient, conscientious charities—or giving money directly to the poor—works better.
Another reason not to give is to protest Harvard’s problematic ethical positions. Harvard’s refusal to divest its funds from fossil fuel companies, in spite of widespread dissent from its faculty and student body and in spite of the obvious ethical problems in promoting companies that actively accelerate climate change, is at this point no secret. If rallies at Massachusetts Hall lead to nothing but arrests, don’t give to Senior Gift. Hit them where it hurts and zip up your wallet. Refuse to give them a dime until they divest. They’ll listen.
But my personal reason for not donating has to do with poverty. As I’m writing this, I feel that I have to validate my poverty. I never had that sad emotion before Harvard. I come from a single-parent, immigrant household. Mom worked as a housecleaner as my brother and I studied. We would come to dinner, see that our mom’s plate was empty, and be told (in Polish) that she wasn’t hungry. We would look at each other, hesitate, worry, feel our stomachs knot, listlessly eat our food, and retreat to our studies with a newfound, cruel energy.
When we were accepted into an elite high school, free of charge, it meant the world. Here was an opportunity out.
The high school was free to everyone admitted. People got in because they were smart, not because they could simply afford to pay. If there were books I couldn’t afford, or clubs I didn’t have the cash to participate in, my school took care of that. I was made equal to every other classmate, whether rich, middle class, or poor. And I felt equal. I never felt small. I felt like a student, not a poor student, and that meant everything.
Then I came here. I was told, for the second time: You get in because you’re smart, because you deserve to be here, not because of how much you can pay. I believed it.
Since then, I’ve wanted to believe it, but have spent four years encountering administrative and personal classism instead. I’ve had my poverty, or the effects of my poverty, repeatedly insulted by wealthier classmates unconscious of their insensitivity. I bet it sounds unacceptable for something like this to happen at Harvard, but if you’re really well off and reading this, then you’re likely guilty of this insensitivity yourself.
One fresh example comes from a House’s open email chain. Several students were looking to hire some freshmen as servers for their pre-game. They denied any elitism. They understood elitism as undesirable and bad, but they couldn’t understand how much like a small worm their message made me feel. Or how they might make that poor freshman feel, who will serve them sullenly, obediently, as he thinks about just how much he needs that extra money to buy a school book or toothpaste, which the University will not pay for.
And on the administration’s end, the same problem arises. I’ve been told that I get full financial aid because I deserve to be here, because I’m an equal human being, fully equal to those lucky enough not to need the aid.
Still, though, I’m asked to write letters thanking my donors for my financial aid. If I don’t respond, I am reminded abstractly and unemotionally by subsequent “REPLY TODAY” e-mails.
I am told to be grateful. The implicit message remains that I don’t get full financial aid because I deserve to be here; I deserve to be here only because someone covers my full financial aid. I am told that I had better be grateful. That’s how Harvard actually makes me feel.