Confronting Class

At Andover, I am poor, which is to say that compared to the vast majority of the world, I am wealthy beyond belief. My family owns a house, two cars and health insurance. I own sparkly earrings, leather boots, a record player — in other words, things I don’t need. But I don’t pay tuition at Andover. If you see me buying food at Susie’s, I am using the $20 my scholarship grants me every Friday that I use at my discretion.

Class, like many other markers of identity, is fluid, and changes over the course of someone’s life. So although my mother enjoyed an affluent upbringing attending a private school in Fort Lauderdale, I grew up in a home with fewer luxuries. Class is also fragmentary: during a meeting at Outliers, the affinity group for full-scholarship students on campus, we separated the different aspects of class. Socioeconomic class is made up of social capital (who you know), cultural capital (what you know), monetary capital and assets. Unlike some students at Andover, I will not be the first in my family to attend college. My father wears Hermés ties to his job at a hedge fund. I have immense privilege in being raised by people who know the ins and outs of this system.

Unlike issues regarding race, ability, mental illness and gender, all of which have been analyzed both in The Phillipian and in larger school discussions, class remains a defining yet relatively unchallenged aspect of Andover life. Most of the time, others see me as no more than another white girl from Connecticut. Many friends, however, have been shocked when I reveal that I am a full-scholarship student and since then have danced tentatively around the subject. Nonetheless, my friends have also been extraordinarily kind and generous, trying their best to make things more comfortable for me. Usually, my socioeconomic class is not a salient part of my experience.

At the same time, though, sometimes I walk by groups of students sitting at Paresky Commons or in the library, and I am struck by the uncomfortable feeling that they are all extraordinarily wealthy. Their homogeneity is not necessarily negative, and in any event, students shouldn’t just befriend others from disparate socioeconomic classes for the sake of diversity. Still, the school’s ethos of “Youth from Every Quarter” seems disjointed with the reality that most students maintain social circles with those most like them. Moreover, it seems at odds with the necessarily divisive essence of a school like ours. While a need-blind policy and generous financial aid have provided amazing opportunities for students like myself, in order for our school to survive, approximately half of students need to pay full boarding tuition — $48,850. In 2012, the average yearly income in the U.S. was $51,371.

Our need-blind strategy allows Andover students to maintain the tempting illusion that we are here purely on academic merit, that it is merely coincidence that 45 percent of the “best and brightest” come from families that make more than $250,000 a year. The criteria by which we judge intelligence and merit are often based on codified markers of class. But we avoid that idea, instead pretending that class doesn’t exist and unconsciously seeking connections with people whose similarities with ourselves confirm these misconceptions. Ignorance about and refusal to acknowledge socioeconomic class lead to insular ideologies and social circles, within which no one actually learns anything new.

So in actuality, class is a fundamental part of each student’s experience at Andover. But I am tired of students refusing to face that reality, of pretending that the easiest and most comfortable solution is the best. While I understand the urge to stay with those who understand your particular experience or struggle, it’s also important to surpass those barriers. At Andover, probably the most diverse place any of us will ever experience, we should make an effort to connect with people whose experiences are unlike our own. The first step to making these connections effortless and comfortable is to begin to talk openly about what separates us in the first place. The responsibility to make Andover a more inclusive place falls on students, regardless of their place on the socioeconomic spectrum.