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When I first came to Harvard, the last thing I expected was to tell a professor something they didn’t know.
Before college, I had never met anyone who had attended an elite university. I didn’t think being low-income was particularly important — after all, nearly everyone I knew growing up was low-income, too. I just wanted the education and opportunities not available in my rural, working-class hometown. I had no way to anticipate the culture I was about to encounter, where most interactions appeared to revolve around how many of your high school classmates also attended Harvard or what country you visited over spring break. Being the only one from my high school to ever be accepted to an Ivy League institution, I sometimes felt I no longer understood the context of what people around me were saying.
But while this was alienating coming from my peers, I could understand it — they didn’t have any reason to know about experiences other than their own. What surprised me, however, was that professors, teaching fellows, and advisors often assumed I was wealthy and became dismissive or disbelieving when I tried to tell them that I came from an underserved public school system. If you’re at Harvard, the logic went, you didn’t really attend an underserved school. Since I couldn’t show them my school’s textbooks literally falling apart or my lifetime of being discouraged from pursuing my education, I didn’t know how to respond. I eventually had to conclude that many professors and TFs simply don’t know how to interact with low-income students. Given how difficult it seems to be for some to understand, I’m not sure why it is our job, as low-income students, to teach them.
For a culture that places a high value on students connecting with professors through concepts like networking and mentorship — so much so that we are even given chances to invite professors out to dinner — Harvard culture offers few incentives for professors to try to relate to students who aren’t from the same background as they are. I wish the teaching staff would take a moment to remember that just because a student doesn’t immediately introduce themselves as low-income doesn’t mean they’re not. I wish they would realize that it’s hard to describe yourself with terms like “first-gen” when you have never heard this term before, much less heard it defined. It’s true that Harvard culture does not typically define words; but since every professor has a much higher level of education than anyone in my hometown, understanding that not everyone knows the definition of coded language should be easier for them than it is for me.
These assumptions don’t have to continue. Resources already exist that could help professors understand students’ backgrounds — such as the book “The Privileged Poor,” in which Anthony A. Jack (another Harvard professor) describes the experiences of the “Doubly Disadvantaged,” students like me who are low-income and went to under-resourced public schools. But this knowledge is only useful if they access it.
Correcting assumptions shouldn’t be our job either: Students shouldn’t have to teach their professors. Low-income students are not trained diversity educators. On the contrary, they’re the least likely to have the cultural capital necessary to communicate effectively with professors in the first place. Our job is to study and learn, not to reveal personal information to accommodate someone more educated and experienced than we are.
Instead of putting the burden on disadvantaged students to describe the obstacles they have had to overcome to get to Harvard, professors and TFs should educate themselves on inequities in the U.S. education system and on the changing demographics of Harvard students due to the financial aid program. They should ask students what their previous education was like rather than acting as though this subject is taboo or irrelevant at a college where students prominently feature their elite prep schools in their email signatures.
Using this knowledge, professors and TFs can take the initiative to help students understand their proficiency level in subjects they might never have formally studied, define academia-specific references such as office hours, and take low-income/first-gen students’ complaints seriously. In this time of remote classes in particular, they can question slogans like “Harvard Everywhere,” which rest on the false premise that “Everywhere” equals Cambridge or Manhattan in terms of access to opportunities and a culture supportive of academic achievement, and push back on colleagues who promote these ideas.
I have met professors and TFs who genuinely do not make assumptions about their students. They take the time to learn about their students’ backgrounds and don’t place the burden on them to correct them if they assume wrong. But if the rest won’t try to understand, perhaps Harvard should step up its training to ensure that all the teaching staff has basic knowledge of where students come from, especially the different levels of education and cultural knowledge they bring with them. After all, educating others isn’t supposed to be a student’s job — it’s the professors who should do the teaching.
Tessa Wood ’21 is a Romance Languages & Literatures concentrator in Eliot House.
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