“My background is beautiful. I should demand as much from my university as it demands from me.”
I’d decided to attend the closing session of the first annual Stanford First Generation and/or Low Income (FLI) Conference with a friend an hour before that morning, figuring I’d stop by for the catered food — now, in Cubberley Auditorium, reciting Diversity and First Gen office director Dereca Blackmon’s words at her urging, my friend and I, empty stomachs forgotten, are so moved we tear up.
My low-income background was beautiful? I’ve heard it described in many ways: shameful, pathetic, surprising, something-that-should-only-be-talked-about-in-an-inside-voice — but never beautiful. At best, it called for a grudging respect that I’ve never really been sure how to take. Once others back home found out that I lived in a run-down one-bedroom apartment, they would often give me a strange look, as if seeing me — and not the studious girl they’d always assumed was well off — for the first time. I think that realization made them uncomfortable.
Hearing being low-income referred to in the context of celebration, and taking ownership of the thought by being asked to repeat it out loud, was nothing short of earth-shattering. I kept asking myself — what if every student at Stanford was here right now, listening to someone unapologetically empower FLI students without pity or condescension lacing their words?
Of course, the conference’s intention wasn’t to reach out to the entire Stanford public. It was to gather FLI students and rally them so they could then uplift other marginalized students on their own campus communities, which is a goal the conference organizers, judging by the passionate standing ovations and lack of dry eyes in Cubberley that day, likely met with flying colors.
Yet it made me mull over how the people on campus who predominantly perpetuate classism, consciously or unconsciously, would have benefitted from the talk and left with a deeper understanding — or at least, an understanding — of the issues low-income students overwhelmingly face. In many cases, attendees of diversity-oriented events self-select into people who know a lot about or experience classism, racism or other often overlapping -isms related to underrepresented groups. That participation divide isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since some functions may focus on building support within that specific group.
But when events intended to serve as community-wide discussions over misrepresentation, income inequality and race have similar turnout, that poses a massive problem.
To look at just income diversity, at Stanford, as of 2013, more students come from households in the top 1 percent of the income scale than the bottom 50 percent. If the former group of students are the ones not showing up, 1) that’s a huge chunk of the student population missing (17 percent of the student body), and 2) if one of the goals of these discussions, for example, is to acknowledge and reduce classism (and, consequently, as a virtue of how classism often operates, racism) on campus, then not having the top 1 percent of the income scale participate in, or even sit in on, discussions about income-related, racial, and social identities renders that goal null. And I’m not even talking about the rest of the top 10 percent, 20 percent, or even 50 percent.
One fast way to combat this phenomenon is to institute certain mandatory discussions about inclusion on campus. Stanford attempts to do just that, with varying degrees of success.
During New Student Orientation, freshmen are required to attend a program called “Faces of Community” that, according to the Stanford website, acts to introduce freshmen to the “diversity of the Stanford community and the unique and varied personal stories and identities of current students.” On stage at Memorial Auditorium, the stories told are usually quite moving. This year, they dealt with themes of loss, sex, mental health and racism, and I heard the event praised as “real” back in my dorm.
Further, sometime during fall quarter, most dorms housing freshmen put on an event called “Crossing the Line,” where the staff tapes a physical line onto the floor of the dorm common space and an outside facilitator invites the (silent) room to cross the taped line if they have done or experienced something specific. The topics vary widely, often starting out light (ex: “I invite you to cross the line if you wear glasses or contacts”) and then gradually becoming heavier (ex: “I invite you to cross the line if you or a friend or family member have experienced mental illness”). After those who would like to cross for a given subject have done so, everyone moves back to the original side without talking, and the facilitator poses another invitation.
In my dorm, Crossing the Line was incredibly enlightening for me and for my peers. The dorm felt tangibly different afterwards, like something monumental had occurred — which it had. I learned more about my dorm-mates then than I had learned from the five weeks I had spent living with them in close quarters, and it informed my conversations with them, at least for a time.
Yet the winter-quarter follow-up event in which you can elaborate on your decision to cross after each topic (which is now more broad-sweeping and less personal), “Beyond the Line,” wasn’t nearly as eye-opening. The problem wasn’t that it wasn’t as well-run, but that the freshmen who participated in Beyond the Line in my dorm were largely — if not mostly — people of color who were already, for example, familiar with low-income issues. Whereas Crossing the Line had huge, diverse dorm turnout due to its marketing as mandatory by my dorm staff, Beyond the Line, as a virtue of it taking place in the middle of winter quarter with little notice, had a much smaller number of participants and was nowhere near that diversity. For many issues, everyone agreed and stood on the same side. Read: a lot of the rich white people didn’t show up. And everyone felt the absence.
It just goes to show that the inconsistencies in the way Crossing the Line progression is implemented across freshman-containing dorms can stifle discussion. According to an email sent out to RAs from Stanford Residential Education, it’s up to the staff of each dorm to hold CTL in the first place, though ResEd highly encourages they do so. That being said, most — if not all — freshman dorms do put it on, but they could decide not to year to year. Showing up is another thing; my dorm called Crossing the Line mandatory (you had to provide an excuse if you couldn’t make it) but merely stressed attendance at Beyond the Line, whereas other dorms simply encouraged participation in both. To streamline participation Stanford should thus make CTL and BTL mandatory for all dorms with freshmen — both regarding the implementation of the event and student participation.
One criticism of that idea is that it’s simply not right to make people divulge their deeply personal experiences to others when they don’t want to. Yet contrary to what this piece by the Stanford Review insinuates, the physical act of crossing the line for both events is not obligatory, and it’s clearly stated in the beginning that you’re only invited to cross. In fact, it would be okay if you didn’t cross the line at any point, if you didn’t want to share. Just attending the event means that students will be exposed to others’ struggles and experiences (something that perhaps wouldn’t have happened otherwise) and, consequently, be able to interact more deeply with their peers afterwards.
As for academics, Stanford also requires every student to complete an Engaging Diversity Ways requirement. However, like many Ways requirements, this one is often taken senior year in a rushed attempt by students to finish up graduation credits — which means that students may go through almost their entire time at Stanford without taking a class like “HISTORY 54N: African American Women’s Lives” or “COMPLIT 110: Introduction to Comparative Queer Literary Studies.” If Stanford implemented the ED Ways requirement with the intention of influencing the way students look at and “engage with diversity” in their campus community, and not just their post-graduation life, it should make taking the ED Ways sometime in the first two years of college required, when it’ll actually be able to inform the rest of students’ time on campus.
Certainly, Stanford tries. But as a place of immense privilege, it could certainly, certainly try harder. Because, remember, we of the non-white, non-top-1-percent background — and, boy, is that background beautiful — demand as much from our university as it demands from us.
Contact Yanichka Ariunbold at yanichka ‘at’ stanford.edu.