Tuesday, April 17, 2012

First-Gen, Working Class and Proud of it

“Well you must be making a lot of money at least.” I don’t think I’ll ever forget that line. Of course, out of context it’s relatively harmless and maybe even a little hopeful, but in reality it simply hammered home the disconnect between middle class and working class.
On one of my 11-hour days I stopped by a Regina’s (names have been changed for privacy reasons) place for dinner during my break and we were discussing why I couldn’t stay longer. I explained that I had to go back to work and listed off my typical Wednesday schedule. She was taken aback to say the least, and positively replied, “Well you must me be making a lot of money at least.”
I wasn’t and I still am not. I’m making rent each month, but I had to take on another side job to have any sort of spending money and I’m unbelievably grateful that my parents offer to pay for groceries each month. The comment truly stung; I held at least one job, usually two, throughout my college experience and she was oblivious to the fact that I would still have a pile of debt when I graduated.
This exchange yet again opened my eyes to the misunderstandings between the middle and working classes. She could afford to cook dinner for friends, and even offer wine, without asking any of us to contribute. She could afford new outfits whenever her heart desired. She could afford to completely refurnish her new apartment. It was never a necessity for Regina to have a job during college, and she never did. Much of her life was relatively unfathomable to me.
While I sometimes longingly wish I were a trust fund kid after moments like these, it can be very empowering to be a first generation and working class student from time to time. I have the strongest work ethic of anyone I know, besides my dad. It was instilled in me through comments from him such as, “Keep studying hard, you don’t want a job like mine,” which were usually said when his hip acted up and he had to limp a bit to comfortably walk.
My work ethic motivated me to quickly gain experience too. While the money was important, building my resume was far more imperative. I knew that if I wanted something, I had to go out and get it, truly show that I longed for it, that I craved it. If you were to compare Regina’s resumes and mine today, you would see the difference, and I’m proud of that.
It can be a challenge to feel pride in being working class, but during a time when many older generations peg my generation as ‘entitled,’ I can proudly say I work for what I earn. Just the other day I explained my previous line-painting job to a recruiter. He was quite surprised that for two summers I shoved around a 300lb. machine from 6 p.m. – 2 a.m. He quickly understood that I didn’t think I was entitled.
It’s uplifting when I interactions like this occur; it reminds me that someday my hard work will pay off. So keep your head high my fellow first-gen and working class students, and never stop reaching for the stars.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

A Little History

In October I visited UW-Madison to speak at events that WCSU hosted for their Working Class Celebration Month. Before traveling to Madison, I web searched information about the class origins of UW undergraduates. Among others, I found Richard Kahlenberg's review of data that led him to conclude that the "University of Wisconsin – Madison [r]anks [p]oorly on SES [d]iversity." He based this claim, in part, on information showing that in 2007 only 13.1% of these students were receiving Pell Grants, placing UW 41st out of 43 of the nation's flagship universities on this measure of social class diversity. Elsewhere, Kahlenberg determined that UW ranked 30th out of 43 of the nation's major campuses on what he called the Low-Income Student Access Ratio at Selected Flagship Public Universities, another measure of equal opportunity in higher learning. Finally, Kahlenberg recommended that UW abandon its practice of favoring alumni children when deciding admissions. According to the title of a book he edited, he deems this practice Affirmative Action for the Rich: Legacy Preferences in College Admissions (2010). UW officials still favor legacies, notwithstanding Kahlenberg's recommendation as well as its stated devotion to: "Equal Opportunity: The UW System is committed to equal opportunity for all. No student may be denied admission to, participation in or the benefits of, or be discriminated against in any service, program, course or facility of the system or its institutions because of the student's race, color, creed, religion, sex, national origin, disability, ancestry, age, sexual orientation, pregnancy, marital status or PARENTAL STATUS" (emphasis added).

After reviewing Kahlenberg's writings, I read an earlier study that concluded:

Over the past decade, the percentage of low-income students on this campus (small to begin with) has fallen sharply. In the class entering in 2002, fewer than 7 percent came from families earning $28,000 or less [the lowest quintile] while more than 34 per cent came from families earning $87,000 or more [the highest quintile] (2005).

In other words, there were five times more instate UW freshmen from families in the top income quintile than students from families in the lowest income quintile. Moreover, the report showed a strong relationship between family income and the percent of students in each quintile. **See quintile graph.

These disparities have likely understated the true extent of socioeconomic inequalities among UW undergraduates, as research shows that students from lower income families are more likely to drop out sometime before graduating compared to their cohorts of wealthier origins.

In Engines of Inequality: Diminishing Equity in the Nation’s Premier Public Universities (2006), Gerald and Haycock gave UW an F grade for both "Low-Income Access" and "Progress in Low-Income Access."
Working Toward the Future

I offer the preceding facts and comments to say the Working Class Student Union (WCSU) is a welcomed addition to the UW campus. I applaud Chynna Haas for founding WCSU in 2007. After spending time with Dena Ohlinger, WCSU's current president, and Lori Randall, its outreach director, I know the organization has strong leadership. Based on my readings about UW and my various interactions while on campus, I offer the following suggestions for further expanding WCSU operations:

First, I urge current and future WCSU members to recruit more UW faculty, administrators, and staff to their cause. These individuals can offer WCSU members invaluable insights about issues ranging from student recruitment, to financial aid, study skills, selecting academic majors and minors, career options, resume and cover letter writing, simulating job and professional school interviews, attending graduate and professional schools via fellowships and assistant-ships and so forth.

Second, WCSU's leadership should press UW officials to include socioeconomic origins among the university's "affirmative action" and "diversity" concerns. Expanding these definitions in this way would give further impetus to many recommendations listed in Restoring Access at UW-Madison: A Report from the 2004-05 Committee on Undergraduate Recruitment, Admissions, and Financial Aid (2005), including specialized outreach programs directed toward bringing more working class students to campus and once enrolled offering them the attention and resources necessary for success.

Third, the WCSU leadership should work with University officials to begin gathering more detailed information about the socioeconomic origins of UW students. The current application form simply asks "Has either of your parents earned a four-year college/university degree? Yes or No." UW should revise its application form to include detailed questions about parental education, occupation, and family income. I would ask all UW applicants to voluntarily provide this socioeconomic information about both parents (stepparents, caretakers, or guardians).

Fourth, university officials should annually provide WCSU with a data set containing this more detailed information about parental occupation, income, and education. WCSU should task one or two of its student members with analyzing these statistics with an eye toward identifying major trends and relevant concerns. After just one year of gathering and studying this quantitative information, WCSU members will appreciate even more the power derived from having and knowing statistics relevant to the organization's objectives.

Fifth, I encourage WCSU members to work with university officials to recruit and hire more faculty and administrators who were first-generation college and of working class origins. As various studies have shown, socioeconomic background strongly predicts who will become a college professor or administrator. Currently, university officials collect and hold various demographic statistics about UW faculty and administrators, but they gather no information about their socioeconomic origins. As part of its diversity efforts, university officials should gather and maintain class background information about these individuals. Each year, the assembled data should be made available to the WCSU members responsible for conducting the statistical studies mentioned in the previous paragraph.

Sixth, I urge the WCSU leadership to direct a special effort toward enrolling members who are studying for the PhD. Most doctoral students have acquired considerable research skills that will allow them to write dissertations on topics relevant to WCSU concerns, such as developing policies meant to bring more working class students to the UM campus. The list of possible research topics is limitless.

Finally, according to Opportunity Adrift: Our Flagship Universities are Straying from Their Public Mission (2010, p. 10), "Several flagship universities have recognized the need to increase the access and success of low-income and minority students and are making concerted efforts to improve." UW is one of the roughly dozen colleges participating in "Access to Success Initiative." Members of this collective are committed to "pursu[ing] aggressive goals aimed at improving student success and cutting in half by 2015 the gaps in college-going and completion that separate low income and minority students from their peers." I urge WCSU members to work closely with UW officials who are part of this Access to Success Initiative in terms of recruiting and admitting more working class students to the Madison campus. WCSU members can provide invaluable insights to the university's leadership in regard to achieving these worthwhile objectives.

As I was driving home from Madison, I kept wondering why most campuses, especially the country's other flagship universities and most of its leading private colleges, do not have their own versions of WCSU. As various published studies show, the time is right for all democratic minded students, faculty and administrators to contact WCSU for advice about establishing a similar organization on their campuses. Lead on WCSU. You are on the right side of history.

Kahlenberg, R. Affirmative Action for the Rich: Legacy preferences in college admissions. 2010. New York: Century Foundation Press.

Restoring Access at UW-Madison: A report from the 2004-05 committee on undergraduate recruitment, admissions and financial aid. 2005.

Gerald & Haycock. Engines of Inequality: Diminishing Equity in the Nation’s Premier Public Universities. 2006.

Written by our Working Class Celebration Month Keynote speaker, Kenneth Oldfield, an emeritus professor of public administration at the University of Illinois-Springfield. He has spent the last decade publishing articles and a book (with co-editor Richard Johnson) about first generation college students of working class origins.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Class Diversity on Campus

What comes to mind when the word diversity comes up? Words that are typically mentioned include race, color, ethnicity, national origin, religion. Many times class is forgotten in the diversity discussion. Why is this? The Working Class Student Union continues to ask the campus community this question.

Class & Diversity

Anyone can see from past events - one as recently as September when Roger Clegg, president and general counsel for the Center for Equal Opportunity, visited the campus and was greeted by protestors - that the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus has a long background in standing up for diversity.* And, while the UW-Madison administrators are constantly working on improving the diversity climate on campus, class is still rarely, if at all, mentioned in the diversity dialogue. Even recently when The Daily Cardinal ran an article titled “Diversity Committee asks Student Groups for Input,” they explained that “the committee sent out a questionnaire to ethnically, religiously and sexually diverse groups on campus to better understand how ASM could improve its diversity efforts” (Duffin, p. 3). Unfortunately there was no mention of class in this article, although ASM did send a questionnaire to WCSU.

This is startling when 65 percent of the U.S. population is classified as working class or below (even if they do not associate themselves specifically with these classes) (U.S. Census Bureau. 2010). That is two thirds of the U.S.! Unfortunately, we do not have statistics currently for how many UW-Madison students are considered working class,* but the census information should still cause one to wonder why class is not a bigger topic of discussion on this campus. Students’ voices from certain classes are not being heard at this university and on top of that, many students and faculty alike are not aware of the issues and culture of the working class. Many well-educated people have never witnessed or experienced a working class culture and do not have the necessary means to understand it. College should be the perfect opportunity to learn about class consciousness, diversity and separations. It should be included in all of the rest of our liberal arts education, right? So why isn’t it and why isn’t it talked about more? There are courses about many different cultures and issues, but few that discuss class, let alone center around class, classism and the many issues that surround both. This needs to change and so does the vocabulary that surrounds class issues.*

WCSU is working to break down these barriers, but it is hard when class is seldom mentioned in campus lingo or policies. The Provost’s Diversity statement states, “We live in a diverse society that is … interconnected with the … economic interests of people in other parts of the world. … At UW-Madison we have made significant progress in our efforts to create a campus that reflects the diversity of our society and the world beyond it” (DeLuca, Provost’s Diversity Statement). While this is a step in the right direction of facing the issues of class, class is not specifically mentioned and the phrasing of these sentences makes it sound as though economics in other parts of the world are more important to learn about than what is happening in our own country. In defense of the statement though, it is overall very vague and neither highlights specific groups nor ignores them, and WCSU acknowledges it is impossible to include every topic of diversity in one statement. UW-Madison has also “increased need-based funding,” (DeLuca) which is fundamental for students from working class backgrounds.

What may add to the confusion is that the Office for Equity and Diversity has different sets of “guidelines” for students (current and applicants), employees (current and applicants) and visitors/guests “wishing to take part in university activities” (www.oed.wisc.edu). The website states that, “The university is committed to providing equal opportunity and equal access” (www.oed.wisc.edu). It goes on to state different “bases for covering” the aforementioned groups (www.oed.wisc.edu). Each group has a different set of “bases” to cover them, but what does that mean? Does it mean that UW-Madison respects its students’ diversity more than its employees’ or guests’? Does it mean that guests should be treated differently than students or employees? Clarification would be helpful.

WCSU does applaud the work that the Division of Diversity and Campus Climate; the UW-Madison Provost, Paul M. DeLuca, Jr.; the Vice Provost for Diversity & Climate, Damon A Williams; and the Office for Equity and Diversity have accomplished. We simply hope that the issue of class will be included as the diversity conversation on this campus continues.

For further reading about diversity and a startling opinion from a UW-Madison professor emeritus, follow this link: http://host.madison.com/ct/news/opinion/column/article_f9ad5d5f-fb61-5950-a0b0-5099390aec15.html

*Read this Channel3000 report about the protests regarding Clegg’s visit:
* Also visit the student Facebook event that was created to spread awareness:
* The use of working class in this article includes working class and all others classified
below working class as well.
* Stay tuned for a blog concerning different phrases and statements we have heard on
campus that can be considered hurtful, discriminatory, prejudiced and ignorant.

Works Cited
Duffin, A. (2011, October 26). Diversity Committee asks student groups for input.
The Daily Cardinal, p. 3.
DeLuca, Paul. M., Jr. (Date unknown). Provost’s Diversity Statement.
(n.d) Office for Equity and Diversity. http://www.oed.wisc.edu/

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

It's Almost Here!

One of the most anticipated events of the 2010-11 school year is almost here, and it’s not the Mifflin Street Block Party.

The opening of the new Union South is on Friday, April 15th. The long awaited project is part of a plan to “Preserve the Past and Build the Future” in improving Memorial Union and create the new Union South.

Union South’s design is committed to sustainability and green design, and holds a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design gold standard. The Environmental Protection Agency defines sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Union South aims for this goal in order to build the future of the Wisconsin Union tradition.

The building project is paid for through student segregated fees, private donations, and other fundraising sources. No tuition or tax money was used in the construction of the Union.

Grand opening events range from art projects to concerts to movies to dance lessons. A full list of events and more information on the project can be found at newunion.wisc.edu.

Take advantage of the beautiful project your segregated fees helped create and visit the new Union South when it opens! Hope to see you there!

Monday, March 28, 2011

It's an Art

In my experience, contemporary art, especially photography, is all about making you think. Seeing something you see every day presented in a new perspective makes it more significant. The artistic spin on a photograph or sculpture can change an object; it becomes art.

The Overture Center for the Arts is currently running an exhibit entitled “Wisconsin Labor: A Contemporary Portrait”, a showcase of photographs depicting the diversity of labor and workers throughout our state. The artists show their respect for their subjects and the labor force of the state through photographs. In light of recent political events, this exhibition is especially pertinent and something that should definitely make us think.

The exhibit runs through April 10th in the James Watrous Gallery of the Overture Center, on the 200 block of State Street. For more information, visit http://www.overturecenter.com/production/wisconsin-labor-a-contemporary-portrait

WCSU is also exploring art this month, with another installment of Cultural Art Night this Thursday at 6:00 PM in SAC #3118. Join us in expressing your creative ideas through various artistic outlets!