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Class Differences Limit Interaction

Class Second in a two-part series

NO WRITER ATTRIBUTED

Veronica Terriquez '97 didn't know what to say when a friend asked whether her parents were coming out to visit her this past Junior Parents Weekend.

"Usually I say it's a long flight, but the reality is they can't afford it," says the junior, who lives in the Los Angeles area.

When a friend's parents, both lawyers, asked Terriquez what her parents do for a living, coming up with an answer was equally difficult.

Her father, who went to school only through sixth grade, is on disability and began working full-time at 13 doing mostly manual labor. Her mother, who earned a General Equivalency Diploma, processes personal income-tax forms.

Terriquez and others say class background become readily--sometimes painfully--apparent at parents' weekends and alumni reunions.

And the issue of socioeconomic differences, a subject rarely broached outside the classroom at Harvard, is not limited to events like these. Class background can affect and even dictate a Harvard student's social life, extracurricular activities, academic pursuits and personal values.

Class Interaction--Merely Superficial?

Sixty years ago, working-class day students commuted daily by subway from Charlestown, Boston and surrounding areas, unable to afford suites in Harvard's recently built undergraduate Houses. Labeled "meatballs" or "untouchables," they lived separate existences from wealthier students.

Today, nearly all students live on campus in randomized, uniform housing. This, and an increasingly diverse socioeconomic population, forces students from different classes to interact socially and academically, at least on a superficial level.

But has there been much change over the last few decades? The touch-stones of college life--dorm life and professors, Saturday nights and spring break with friends--still have a decidedly elitist twist at Harvard.

The College's social atmosphere, replete with black-tie affairs and private social clubs, can intimidate or alienate poorer students.

"You see a lot of people who come to Harvard who are immediately scared off by rich people. Other people live in a cocoon of rich culture," says Jeremy W. Linzee '97.

Class differences are frequently evident in students' leisure options and preferences, and as a result, Harvard's social scenes are frequently demarcated along class lines.

While wealthier students casually cite dinner, movies and plays, clubbing or barhopping as weekend activities, poorer students say that these

"When you're making between $65 and $80 per week, spending $6 on a play and $5 for a concert does become a chore," says Joshua D. Bloodworth '97, a New Yorker who describes himself as halfway between working and middle class. ("I identify with the black underclass, my parents identify with the working class," he explains.)

Quiet Tensions

The values and tastes acquired as a result of class background also serve to deter students of different class backgrounds from socializing together.

Lauralee Summer '98 says she never watched plays or movies growing up, and still doesn't in college.

"I don't really enjoy sitting and watching a play, because I just never did it," she says. "That was never part of my culture and I don't think I could fit in with people who regularly do."

Summer grew up with a single mother who lived on Aid to Families With Dependent Children, the federal welfare program, and was homeless while in the fourth and eighth grades.

"I remember hearing about the U.C. earlier this year, when they were planning [last fall's Gala Ball]. There was a suggestion that they offer financial aid, rather than asking, 'Well, wait. Why would these people want to go to a formal anyway?' It's sort of alienating," says Matthew M. Davis '97, a student on full financial aid who grew up a small rural and industrial town in Michigan.

When students from different backgrounds do spend time together socially, students say there is often an underlying, unspoken tension.

A simple affair like dinner with friends can become complicated if one person wants to look at different menus before entering a restaurant. Conversation about past experiences can become suited for fear of excluding or embarrassing a member of group.

To Davis, class tension "comes up mostly in terms of comfort with being in the position of consumer. I'll go into a store with a friend, and [they will] just have a sense that they know how to work the system better. They'll know to ask questions about the product."

Travel and vacation plans, a routine topic of conversation at Harvard come March and May, also underscore class differences.

"When people talk about summer plans, travel seems to be one of the biggest things," says Davis, who jokes that he is "never going to qualify" for frequent-flyer miles.

"If the way people relate is talking about travels, I wouldn't be able to bring anything to that conversation because I didn't go anywhere," says Bloodworth.

Rey F. Ramos '98 worked 40 hours during his weeklong spring break. During vacations, "I just work, never go home," he says.

Birds of a Feather

Perhaps because of the fact that social activities are generally dictated by class, or perhaps because of the tensions and anxieties surrounding interaction between members of different class backgrounds, students seem to retreat to those of their own socioeconomic background to find friends and roommates.

"It might just be that you look for friends that you have things in common with. Class might be one of those things," said Funke I. Sangodoeyi '97. "I don't think it would be a conscious thing. If you meet somebody you can talk to them about your family and if your family backgrounds are similar you have something to talk about."

By students' sophomore and junior years, social divisions between classes have often crystallized in Harvard's various clubhouses. Exclusive social clubs like the Signet and the Hasty Pudding, as well as the nine all-male final clubs, tend to reinforce class boundaries.

To join the clubs, students are "punched" by friends or older acquaintances, often students they knew growing up or from high school. This among other things, largely prohibits socioeconomic diversity, since most of the club members come from private or boarding schools.

While class "is not an issue for initiation, there are a lot of formal events, so you are expected to act accordingly," says Joshua D. Powe '98, a final club member.

For students who aren't members, these clubs--with expensive monthly dues, ritzy parties and beautifully decorated clubhouses--seem both an expression of Harvard's wealth and a direct contradiction to the egalitarian and meritocratic values espoused in academic and extracurricular spheres.

Academic Elitism and the Debt Dilemma

Harvard's reputation for social elitism matches its reputation for academic elitism.

While the University's curricula may encourage students who enter to "grow in wisdom" and "serve mankind" upon graduation, a degree in fine arts or social studies is not necessarily marketable, and doesn't ensure a future job.

Many working-class parents consider Harvard's liberalarts ideals impractical in light of their economic circumstances, especially when students have to a carry large debt burden once they leave school.

As a result, poorer parents often expect children to concentrate in something than can be applied to a future career path--an expectation which may run counter to their children's academic interests.

"They expected me to learn a trade or learn something to get a specific job," Terriquez says of her parents. "They saw college as a specific trade school, like, 'Learn to be a lawyer.' They don't grasp the concept that sociology isn't a job."

Benjamin Kunkel '97 transferred to Harvard from Deep Springs College, a full-scholarship two-year school with about two dozen male undergraduates, and says that the specter of debt inhibits academic freedom at Harvard in a way it didn't at Deep Springs.

"Nobody was going into debt as a result of Deep Springs; this encouraged an intellectual freedom with economic constraints," he said. "If you feel in a sense financially indebted to your family this can restrict your intellectual freedom and what seems conceivable to you."

"Different Ways of Organizing One's World"

Clearly, for most students, the implications of class are much greater than membership in a club or choice of concentration. Class doesn't just determine activities or friends, but can determine values and mindsets as well.

"The difference between classes is the difference between two different worlds. It's complete foreignness. It's a different culture. I'm not trying to relegate people into cultural roles, but yes, I do feel more comfortable with my friends from [home]," Summer says.

Class means more than the terms more fortunate and less fortunate can convey, says Ourania R. Tserotas '97, who grew up in inner-city Chicago. Different class backgrounds result in "different ways of organizing one's world. Differences mean a lot more than paycheck," she says.

But if class quietly pervades almost every aspect of student life--leisure, friendship, extracurriculars, academics--then why isn't it discussed more?

Unlike the often openly-political discourse surrounding issues of race, gender and sexuality, class at Harvard is still an uncomfortable topic for many, to be discussed only in intimate settings.

"It's really wild that we've come to be able to talk about gender, certainly, and race and ethnicity, but not about class yet. I think it's the next thing we have to address," says Lee A. Warren, associate director of the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning.

"It has to deal with the whole American culture. We try to imagine ourselves as a classless society and we definitely don't have a history of talking about this. And I think it's embarrassing to people, maybe less so for working-class [people] in some ways, although maybe not at Harvard," Warren says.

Summer concurs, conjecturing that the numerous negative stereotypes of wealthy people prevent real discourse of class on campus.

"I think a lot of times [wealthy students] feel they should carry this burden of guilt, or it's not comfortable for them to talk about [it]."

"I think it only comes up between close friends and roommates, when you get to know someone well enough that you feel comfortable that it won't be accusations or curiosity just for the sake of novelty or voyeurism," Summer says.

"The environment that Harvard creates doesn't allow it to come up," Tserotas says. "Everything is provided for us here. There isn't an instance that would make class such a blatant issue. It's kind of sugarcoated." Tserotas says the reluctance to tackle class issues headon is both a boon and a curse.

"It definitely makes it more comfortable for working-class people, because we're not dealing with it, but it creates a false sense," she says. "People don't realize that beyond Harvard people don't all live this way, which ultimately is really hurting a lot of working-class people."

Conformity or Transformation?

Class background certainly affects students' Harvard experiences. Simultaneously, Harvard effects students' socioeconomic futures.

Some assert that the prospect of wealth and social respect was one of their main incentives for attending Harvard. Others hesitate at the notion of class transformation--and what some see as the abandonment of culture and past.

Julissa Reynoso '97 grew up in the South Bronx. The daughter of parents who immigrated illegally, she currently supports her mother and sister, and helps to pay for her college education.

As a Latina woman, she says that her ethnic and class identities, differing markedly from those of other students, are inevitably being shaped by Harvard, whether she likes it or not.

"Harvard doesn't have bureaucrats to understand a Dominican immigrant woman from the South Bronx. She just has to adjust and deal with it," she says. "It probably makes me a better person."

While Reynoso says she has always rejected elitism and that elitism was despised by her community, at Harvard she feels she has become part of what she has always hated.

"Just the fact that I have that name attached--Harvard '97--it's like adding another last name to your name," she says. "From where I come from, your last name means everything, your economic strata. Harvard is a last name. It puts you in the highest caste. You can't erase it."

Many poor and working-class students are ambivalent about Harvard itself--an institution that essentially guarantees for its graduates the wealth and elitism that it symbolizes.

The median net worth of a graduate of the University is $952,400, according to the most recent market-research study conducted by Harvard Magazine. Median household income is $125,800. Half have pursued post-graduate study, and two-thirds hold professional or managerial jobs.

"In terms of education--how much advantage you've taken of the opportunities presented to you--you can graduate at whatever level of education and connections that you choose," Mary B. Lawless '97 says. "The fact that we all go to Harvard and will have gone to Harvard, we have a certain common ground already, which will help ease over divisions like gender, class, whatever. If we choose to when we graduate, we can be rich."

Rather than elation over the possibility of the economic prosperity that eluded parents and friends from home, many students from poorer backgrounds expressed a deep uncertainty over whether the opportunities--some would say transformation--offered by Harvard are without drawbacks. Some fear being branded as sell-outs.

Ramos, who hopes to work as a doctor helping innercity residents, says success in the South Bronx is defined as "living in your phat house and getting out of this hell-hole."

Now that he's at Harvard, he doesn't think that's such a difficult task and that the real challenge is combining skills acquired through education with social responsibility.

"The magical thing about this place is it's a class bridge. Once you come in here, you know you can't go back down," he said. "It's easier to flow into the mainstream of yuppiedom. I don't know if I can say they're selling out. It's just the easier thing to do."MATTHEW M. DAVIS '97

"When you're making between $65 and $80 per week, spending $6 on a play and $5 for a concert does become a chore," says Joshua D. Bloodworth '97, a New Yorker who describes himself as halfway between working and middle class. ("I identify with the black underclass, my parents identify with the working class," he explains.)

Quiet Tensions

The values and tastes acquired as a result of class background also serve to deter students of different class backgrounds from socializing together.

Lauralee Summer '98 says she never watched plays or movies growing up, and still doesn't in college.

"I don't really enjoy sitting and watching a play, because I just never did it," she says. "That was never part of my culture and I don't think I could fit in with people who regularly do."

Summer grew up with a single mother who lived on Aid to Families With Dependent Children, the federal welfare program, and was homeless while in the fourth and eighth grades.

"I remember hearing about the U.C. earlier this year, when they were planning [last fall's Gala Ball]. There was a suggestion that they offer financial aid, rather than asking, 'Well, wait. Why would these people want to go to a formal anyway?' It's sort of alienating," says Matthew M. Davis '97, a student on full financial aid who grew up a small rural and industrial town in Michigan.

When students from different backgrounds do spend time together socially, students say there is often an underlying, unspoken tension.

A simple affair like dinner with friends can become complicated if one person wants to look at different menus before entering a restaurant. Conversation about past experiences can become suited for fear of excluding or embarrassing a member of group.

To Davis, class tension "comes up mostly in terms of comfort with being in the position of consumer. I'll go into a store with a friend, and [they will] just have a sense that they know how to work the system better. They'll know to ask questions about the product."

Travel and vacation plans, a routine topic of conversation at Harvard come March and May, also underscore class differences.

"When people talk about summer plans, travel seems to be one of the biggest things," says Davis, who jokes that he is "never going to qualify" for frequent-flyer miles.

"If the way people relate is talking about travels, I wouldn't be able to bring anything to that conversation because I didn't go anywhere," says Bloodworth.

Rey F. Ramos '98 worked 40 hours during his weeklong spring break. During vacations, "I just work, never go home," he says.

Birds of a Feather

Perhaps because of the fact that social activities are generally dictated by class, or perhaps because of the tensions and anxieties surrounding interaction between members of different class backgrounds, students seem to retreat to those of their own socioeconomic background to find friends and roommates.

"It might just be that you look for friends that you have things in common with. Class might be one of those things," said Funke I. Sangodoeyi '97. "I don't think it would be a conscious thing. If you meet somebody you can talk to them about your family and if your family backgrounds are similar you have something to talk about."

By students' sophomore and junior years, social divisions between classes have often crystallized in Harvard's various clubhouses. Exclusive social clubs like the Signet and the Hasty Pudding, as well as the nine all-male final clubs, tend to reinforce class boundaries.

To join the clubs, students are "punched" by friends or older acquaintances, often students they knew growing up or from high school. This among other things, largely prohibits socioeconomic diversity, since most of the club members come from private or boarding schools.

While class "is not an issue for initiation, there are a lot of formal events, so you are expected to act accordingly," says Joshua D. Powe '98, a final club member.

For students who aren't members, these clubs--with expensive monthly dues, ritzy parties and beautifully decorated clubhouses--seem both an expression of Harvard's wealth and a direct contradiction to the egalitarian and meritocratic values espoused in academic and extracurricular spheres.

Academic Elitism and the Debt Dilemma

Harvard's reputation for social elitism matches its reputation for academic elitism.

While the University's curricula may encourage students who enter to "grow in wisdom" and "serve mankind" upon graduation, a degree in fine arts or social studies is not necessarily marketable, and doesn't ensure a future job.

Many working-class parents consider Harvard's liberalarts ideals impractical in light of their economic circumstances, especially when students have to a carry large debt burden once they leave school.

As a result, poorer parents often expect children to concentrate in something than can be applied to a future career path--an expectation which may run counter to their children's academic interests.

"They expected me to learn a trade or learn something to get a specific job," Terriquez says of her parents. "They saw college as a specific trade school, like, 'Learn to be a lawyer.' They don't grasp the concept that sociology isn't a job."

Benjamin Kunkel '97 transferred to Harvard from Deep Springs College, a full-scholarship two-year school with about two dozen male undergraduates, and says that the specter of debt inhibits academic freedom at Harvard in a way it didn't at Deep Springs.

"Nobody was going into debt as a result of Deep Springs; this encouraged an intellectual freedom with economic constraints," he said. "If you feel in a sense financially indebted to your family this can restrict your intellectual freedom and what seems conceivable to you."

"Different Ways of Organizing One's World"

Clearly, for most students, the implications of class are much greater than membership in a club or choice of concentration. Class doesn't just determine activities or friends, but can determine values and mindsets as well.

"The difference between classes is the difference between two different worlds. It's complete foreignness. It's a different culture. I'm not trying to relegate people into cultural roles, but yes, I do feel more comfortable with my friends from [home]," Summer says.

Class means more than the terms more fortunate and less fortunate can convey, says Ourania R. Tserotas '97, who grew up in inner-city Chicago. Different class backgrounds result in "different ways of organizing one's world. Differences mean a lot more than paycheck," she says.

But if class quietly pervades almost every aspect of student life--leisure, friendship, extracurriculars, academics--then why isn't it discussed more?

Unlike the often openly-political discourse surrounding issues of race, gender and sexuality, class at Harvard is still an uncomfortable topic for many, to be discussed only in intimate settings.

"It's really wild that we've come to be able to talk about gender, certainly, and race and ethnicity, but not about class yet. I think it's the next thing we have to address," says Lee A. Warren, associate director of the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning.

"It has to deal with the whole American culture. We try to imagine ourselves as a classless society and we definitely don't have a history of talking about this. And I think it's embarrassing to people, maybe less so for working-class [people] in some ways, although maybe not at Harvard," Warren says.

Summer concurs, conjecturing that the numerous negative stereotypes of wealthy people prevent real discourse of class on campus.

"I think a lot of times [wealthy students] feel they should carry this burden of guilt, or it's not comfortable for them to talk about [it]."

"I think it only comes up between close friends and roommates, when you get to know someone well enough that you feel comfortable that it won't be accusations or curiosity just for the sake of novelty or voyeurism," Summer says.

"The environment that Harvard creates doesn't allow it to come up," Tserotas says. "Everything is provided for us here. There isn't an instance that would make class such a blatant issue. It's kind of sugarcoated." Tserotas says the reluctance to tackle class issues headon is both a boon and a curse.

"It definitely makes it more comfortable for working-class people, because we're not dealing with it, but it creates a false sense," she says. "People don't realize that beyond Harvard people don't all live this way, which ultimately is really hurting a lot of working-class people."

Conformity or Transformation?

Class background certainly affects students' Harvard experiences. Simultaneously, Harvard effects students' socioeconomic futures.

Some assert that the prospect of wealth and social respect was one of their main incentives for attending Harvard. Others hesitate at the notion of class transformation--and what some see as the abandonment of culture and past.

Julissa Reynoso '97 grew up in the South Bronx. The daughter of parents who immigrated illegally, she currently supports her mother and sister, and helps to pay for her college education.

As a Latina woman, she says that her ethnic and class identities, differing markedly from those of other students, are inevitably being shaped by Harvard, whether she likes it or not.

"Harvard doesn't have bureaucrats to understand a Dominican immigrant woman from the South Bronx. She just has to adjust and deal with it," she says. "It probably makes me a better person."

While Reynoso says she has always rejected elitism and that elitism was despised by her community, at Harvard she feels she has become part of what she has always hated.

"Just the fact that I have that name attached--Harvard '97--it's like adding another last name to your name," she says. "From where I come from, your last name means everything, your economic strata. Harvard is a last name. It puts you in the highest caste. You can't erase it."

Many poor and working-class students are ambivalent about Harvard itself--an institution that essentially guarantees for its graduates the wealth and elitism that it symbolizes.

The median net worth of a graduate of the University is $952,400, according to the most recent market-research study conducted by Harvard Magazine. Median household income is $125,800. Half have pursued post-graduate study, and two-thirds hold professional or managerial jobs.

"In terms of education--how much advantage you've taken of the opportunities presented to you--you can graduate at whatever level of education and connections that you choose," Mary B. Lawless '97 says. "The fact that we all go to Harvard and will have gone to Harvard, we have a certain common ground already, which will help ease over divisions like gender, class, whatever. If we choose to when we graduate, we can be rich."

Rather than elation over the possibility of the economic prosperity that eluded parents and friends from home, many students from poorer backgrounds expressed a deep uncertainty over whether the opportunities--some would say transformation--offered by Harvard are without drawbacks. Some fear being branded as sell-outs.

Ramos, who hopes to work as a doctor helping innercity residents, says success in the South Bronx is defined as "living in your phat house and getting out of this hell-hole."

Now that he's at Harvard, he doesn't think that's such a difficult task and that the real challenge is combining skills acquired through education with social responsibility.

"The magical thing about this place is it's a class bridge. Once you come in here, you know you can't go back down," he said. "It's easier to flow into the mainstream of yuppiedom. I don't know if I can say they're selling out. It's just the easier thing to do."MATTHEW M. DAVIS '97

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