Leave Your Assumptions at the Door
On a fast darkening December afternoon, a group of students—with just a sprinkling of faculty and staff—filled every seat and windowsill in the Orchard Room at Franklin Environmental Center to talk about a traditionally touchy subject. Money.
The panel discussion, advertised as “Breaking the Silence about Money at Midd,” was organized by the Middlebury branch of the larger national group U/FUSED (United for Undergraduate Socio-Economic Diversity), started by students involved in the College’s Institutional Diversity Committee (IDC).
The panelists represented the full spectrum of the Middlebury community—including Shirley Collado, dean of the college and chief diversity officer; Matt Birnbaum ’12; Jackie Davies, director of student financial services; Manuel Carballo, director of admissions and coordinator for multicultural recruitment; Jackie Doty, a custodian with facilities services; Natasha Chang, Brainerd Commons dean and visiting assistant professor of Italian; and international student Kaireth Kim ’14.
The discussion lasted for more than 90 minutes, and even then had to be stopped by moderators with assurances that it was, no doubt, the first of many conversations to come. As Sam Koplinka-Loehr ’13, one of the organizers, noted after the room reluctantly cleared out, “It was great to see so much sustained honest discussion around issues that deeply affect our lives but are often swept under the rug. It’s apparent that students, faculty, staff, and administrators beyond our intimate group feel that our community could benefit from a consistent space for sharing personal experiences around socioeconomic class.”
Panelists began by introducing themselves—both professionally and personally—in a socioeconomic context. Collado reminded the group that she was the first in her family to have the privilege of attending college as part of the Posse Foundation and emphasized her firm belief in full access for everyone to educational opportunities—something her current role at the College allows her to pursue. Jackie Doty, who began by saying, “I’m just a custodian after all, I don’t see a lot of the classism,” was one of the most astute and articulate when the discussion later turned to dorm damage. As Doty sees it, there are the students who don’t care about the extra charges they incur when they routinely break “couches and doors” and leave messes for the custodians to pick up, and then there are the students who wake up early to try and clean up the mess so they don’t get charged just because they also live on that floor.
Birnbaum talked about how Middlebury strives to maintain socioeconomic equalizers such as a comprehensive fee that includes room and board, but those equalizers can be problematic when they “disable the conversation” about a “culture beyond Middlebury’s bubble” that is far from socioeconomically equal.
When the questions were opened up to the audience, one student questioned the panel about how to even begin the conversation when no one—not students, faculty, or the administration—is willing to take the first step. “Middlebury does a good job instilling the concept of diversity,” she said, “but not at bringing it out into everyday discourse.”
Another audience member, Roman Graf, professor of German, added to the student’s concern, saying, “The anonymity of interactions at Middlebury can be frustrating. No one wants to stick their neck out.”
Collado chimed in and challenged people to “open their eyes and greet each other. Pay attention to the people around you.” The economic disparities are “not that invisible,” she said. But it is up to individuals to reach out to one another and ask about it.
Later on in the progressively animated conversation, another student expressed her discomfort with the idea that Middlebury may indeed be educating the next leaders of our society and world, and yet the students are learning those skills in a community that is not like the real world, where inequalities and blatant differences challenge people’s lives every day. “How can we be true leaders if we’re not fully aware of these socioeconomic realities?” In effect, someone else added, “If we don’t talk about it then we’re just reinforcing that missing discourse at the leadership level.”
“And it needs to go both ways,” called out another student from across the room. “We all need to leave our assumptions at the door. Just because you come from the upper class doesn’t mean you don’t have struggles. And all those from lower classes are not ashamed. The more we can talk about ourselves, honestly and truly, the more similarities we might find than differences.”
While it was largely agreed among the gathered group that there are plenty more people in the campus community who could have benefitted from the afternoon’s discussion, most everyone also agreed that the conversation is far from over.