When I arrived at Wellesley College as a working class, first generation, transfer student from an urban community college, I found that I did not fit in at Wellesley. At all. It became painful quickly.
Before going to Wellesley, I didn’t really know class. It didn’t exist as a word in my vocabulary that I could use to describe myself and how I located myself in the world. Certain interactions became early indicators of what my experience at the Ivory Tower would be like.
Along with the other new transfer students in my program, I was assigned a “mentor” upon my arrival—a student who’d been at Wellesley for at least a year and who could show me the ropes. I was paired with a woman named Hesseltine.
The first few days of orientation were dizzying. Our schedules were packed with activities—tours, luncheons, registrations, tea. (Yes, a scheduled tea-time. It’s a Wellesley tradition.) Events were scheduled for every minute of every day, 8am to 5pm, leaving nary a moment for a brief phone call home or a moment of solitary respite. I felt awkward, exhausted, and overwhelmed. My mentor Hesseltine considered it her duty to escort me to each and every event, which for me, added to the pressure.
Too, upon my admission to Wellesley and perusal of my medical records, it had been discovered that my immunization record was deficient. This apparently is what happens when you subsist for over a decade without doctor appointments or health insurance. Therefore, I would need to report to Health Services several times over the next few months to receive vaccines.
It’s hard to overstate how incredibly thankful I felt for the medical attention. To have access to medical care through the college’s health services felt like an inestimable luxury. I was not, however, pleased that Hesseltine had apparently appointed herself my guardian and that simply maintaining my privacy would require weaving byzantine webs of lies in order to get a spare moment away from her.
In addition to shadowing me relentlessly, Hesseltine decried the contact I maintained with my family back home and frowned upon the calls I made to my mother, sister, and boyfriend. She was quick to tell me that she chose to limit calls to family to ten minutes a week, due to the intensity of her workload. She strongly suggested I do the same. It would be impossible, she intoned, to successfully meet the academic demands of Wellesley while still accepting phone calls from my family.
I started to bridle under Hesseltine’s seemingly constant admonishments and comically-unrealistic advice. I started interpreting her constant monitoring of my activities and choices as an attempt to indoctrinate me into the Wellesley Bubble. Evading Hesseltine became a sort of terrible game. Long before the Hunger Games, I would update my family on the score .
“Have you seen Hesseltine today?” my mum would ask during one of my many stolen moments on the telephone.
“Nope, I saw her coming but I jumped behind a tree.”
My family would roar with laughter. Me-1, Hesseltine-zero. Early on, I found myself grateful for the beneficial verdure of the Wellesley campus—the trees made good hiding places.
Unfortunately, Hesseltine’s would prove not to be an isolated attitude in the rarefied air of Wellesley. As I moved forward at Wellesley, I perceived a larger theme that I interpreted as disregard for family ties. Certainly not in every case, but a common-enough thread that weaves throughout the working class experience is the importance of family of origin. My loyalty to my family is probably one of my defining characteristics as an individual. Historically, my whole family—parents, uncles, aunts, grandparents—have lived within a mile or two of each other and we see each other all the time. At least once per week, there are four generations of us under my grandparents’ roof, usually eating Sunday dinner.
I realized that the values on display at Wellesley as demonstrated by Hesseltine conflicted with values that I held as a working class person. The Ivory Tower’s objective was to break me—and my life as I knew it—down in order to re-create me in the image of what a Wellesley woman should be.
The relentless pressure to participate in all of the “fun” (read: mandatory and not at all fun) team-building activities seemed like an intentional attempt to supplant the role of family in my life. Hesseltine’s exhortations to limit contact with my family and any pre-Wellesley personal relationships felt like an attempt to strong-arm me into conformity. Into thinking Wellesley was The Way.
There exists a stubborn streak of independence in working class life that is absent in the ivory tower. A natural instinct toward resistance, even subversiveness. My reaction to Wellesley and its pressure, was not to conform, not to acquiesce, not to join, but to rebel. I put my back into it, I had to—the pressure to conform is very, very strong. It’s designed to be that way.
Of course, my understanding of class is an ongoing process and in no way am I an expert. But it was through my small, personal observations at Wellesley that I started to slowly conceptualize class, what it meant, how it shaped who I was, and the implications of that.