Stanford is a social construct. Well, pretty much everything in our everyday lives is a construct. Careers. Government. Money. School. Gender. So on and so forth.
I first fully grasped what a “social construct” is last quarter, when I took the SOC 4: “The Sociology of Music.” Before then, it was just something Twitter and TikTok memes turned into a buzzword. (Why can’t we just print more money?!) A social construct, though, according to my professor Dr. Forrest Stuart, is “an idea that has been created and accepted by people in society.” Rules and norms do not exist inside a vacuum; they are molded by different contexts, like clay on a turntable. We shape and create our societies, our very hands crafting what we live by and our futures forever imprinted by any swipe.
And this is subconscious — it is a mutual agreement to live by the norms we have laid, to suspend our rebellion, our disbelief and take part in the performance that is life. Everything we live in is fake. Nothing is real. We made it all up.
Nevertheless, fallacy does not exempt us from any sort of consequence, nor does it omit significance. We don’t just print more money, unfortunately, because that would lead to the fall of our (already broken and inevitably doomed anyways) economic system. We don’t wear white dresses to a wedding, even though we are capable of doing so, because that would offend the bride. If you arrived naked to work one day, you would get a lot of weird looks and most likely a call from HR. U.S. presidents are elected through the (broken and doomed) electoral college. The Neighborhood system determines our housing (and depletes our chances of drawing into a Row House) even though it doesn’t make any sense.
These social constructs are also what create privilege and disparity; if you are not at the top of the system, the model of success, you are “othered” by said system. There are reasons people can coast through life without a worry, live in bliss and not have to think about anything deeper than what’s presented to them. They skim the surface of reality; they can judge the book by its cover and get the whole story. It’s freedom. It’s just life. Live, laugh and love.
The other topic that struck me the most in SOC 4 was the Dramaturgical Metaphor, a concept coined by Sociologist Erving Goffman. Essentially, we, as people, as aforementioned, are in a subconscious constant state of performance that can change second by second. There is no such thing as outward authenticity; our every breath, every move, every step, every interaction is crafted and manufactured to match the socially constructed context we live in. We perform different roles on different stages for different audiences, and some performances are acceptable only for some stages and audiences, while others are not. Thus, without realizing it, we’re always in motion, always adapting our persona to be appealing and considered normal. (To English Literature and theater enthusiasts — think “Hamlet.”)
Back to our beloved college, Leland Stanford Junior University: it, like many elite universities, is a product of social constructions. It is a “stage” where students are admitted, the systems in place leading most to come from nice (wealthier) families, expected to have specific accords to their name and high intelligence. (I’d say a 1600 SAT score, but eugenics is not swag.) Beyond that, Stanford has perfectly trimmed grass, lawns and outdoor escapes for lounging in California sun, nice sidewalks, flora and trees suitable for walks and too-quiet nights that make it easy to sleep all the way through. These features are what students are used to given their background. Fancy shopping areas and overpriced restaurants for brunch (and brunch in general) are the norm for many. While everyone has to adjust to college, adapting to Stanford culture for some is getting used to a similar version of what’s back home. It’s familiar.
For the 17% of students who identify as first-generation, low-income (FLI), it’s not familiar. This bliss and ability to saunter through life is a new thing. It’s a culture shock that students experience — and I have experienced — from the very moment we step foot on this campus and every second afterward. It’s there when you realize you don’t have to fall asleep to the rhythm and melody of gunshots and car screeches. It’s there when computer rooms are filled with Apple devices. It’s there when you are no longer the top in the class, and even behind compared to others. It’s there when the food that the school provides is nutritious and edible — and for some, it’s there when the disbelief hits that there’s food on the table. It’s there when walking outside at night with peers is actually possible. That the night sky is beautiful, stars and a moon so bright, extraterrestrial brilliance actually visible rather than blanketed in pollution common in poorer areas.
The shock is not just the result of the difference between home and Stanford, but it poses a question — how do we exist in a space like this, an adaptation so extreme compared to others’ adjustments, knowing what came before college?
Code-switching, traditionally used by Black people to describe interracial interactions, is a result of this culture shock. It’s a conscious effort, whereas most “performances” are subconscious, involving the adjustment of one’s style of speech, appearance, behavior and expression in ways that will optimize the comfort of others. This is in exchange for fair treatment, quality service and employment opportunities. It’s the reason why my language, speech and appearance in Stockton is vastly different at Stanford, not only in the classroom but with peers and some friends as well. (Not even for networking purposes.) That I’m only in bliss, only in a state of relaxation and not having to upkeep an image, when I’m with others like myself, or at least with those who extend their empathy like an open hand.
It’s hard, especially when some people at this institution try to close doors rather than keep them open. When peers close their mind to the possibility of others’ struggles with culture shock. When peers negate and trivialize FLI student’s past struggle with the fact that tuition is paid for, or implications that we’re spoon-fed and receive handouts. When peers diminish FLI and marginalized students’ accomplishments, implications of tokenization, diversity points, being “saved” by affirmative action and the common “your SAT score is below average.” When peers choose who can label themselves as FLI, implications of owning fashionable clothes, luxury items, AirPods or an iPhone can prevent an individual from claiming the FLI identity. And when this University continues to fail and not meet the bare minimum for FLI students time after time again.
There’s an invisible pressure to appeal to hegemonic structures. FLI students live in a pressure cooker. We are constantly and consciously switching between persona, an act that people who are used to this environment don’t recognize. It’s an adaptation that is severe for FLI and marginalized students, where sometimes we can even lose ourselves and ignore our roots in exchange for acceptance from others. This isn’t to say “stay in poverty, don’t go to elite universities, don’t partake in social mobility and never do anything good for yourself,” but it poses another complex question to ask for those entering college, those ready to “perform” at an elite institution and bathe in the benefits of its education — what part of ourselves, of our cultures and our background, are lost in trying to exist in a place like Stanford?