The Ivory Tower Pressure to Abandon Working Class Values

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.


A Ticket Out? Being Working Class in the Ivory Tower

My introduction to class occurred when I transferred as a fulltime, residential student to an elite women’s liberal arts college. A mere three weeks after completing my course requirements at my urban community college, I moved into my dorm room at Wellesley.  In the years after leaving high school, I’d eked out a meager existence by working a variety of dead-end, low-paying jobs—handing out donuts at the Dunkin’ Donuts drive-thru, hawking t-shirts at a mall cart, checking-in guests at a hotel front desk, taking personal ads for the Boston Phoenix, among others.

When I received my hard-won acceptance from Wellesley after a four-year slog through community college, I thought “finally – here’s my ticket out.” A ticket out of the hand to mouth existence that I’d been enduring for so long. A degree from Wellesley, so I thought, would be my golden ticket— automatic entry into the upper echelons of career and society and into a high-paying, prestigious white-collar job. I fantasized that earning a degree from Wellesley would be like flying over the rainbow and finding the proverbial pot of gold—health insurance! Sick days! Paid vacation! Weekends off! No night shifts! Leading up to move-in day, I reveled in my daydreams of the inevitable riches that would befall me as a Wellesley grad.

But it wasn’t just the monetary compensation—I was certain that I’d befriend a circle of free-thinking, intellectually-engaged women. Some of the most accomplished and successful women in the world went to Wellesley and, after years of toil, to be counted among them, and to avail myself to the countless opportunities that would no doubt be presented to me as a Wellesley woman—well, it felt like destiny.

And so it was with high hopes that I flung my belongings into the back of my car and sped to Wellesley, visions of collegiate late-night chats with housemates dancing in my head. With my coming induction into the elite club that was Wellesley, I believed the struggle was behind me. Little did I know, the struggle was really just beginning.

Welcome to Working Class Experience

This is a space for Working Class people to write about Working Class life. I created this site because I couldn’t find anywhere to contribute personal stories about my own working class existence. I’ve been wanting to write about growing up in a blue-collar, working class family, attending an elite college as a working class student, and now, somehow acclimating to a middle class profession while still maintaining working class sensibilities. But I couldn’t find an outlet–nowhere seemed to feature personal, first-hand accounts of regular, day-to-day working class experiences from a non-academic perspective.

I decided to fill this void by taking a from-the-bottom-up approach. Rather than trying to conform to an already-established group where my personal anecdotes might not fit, I decided to carve out my own space. Then-inspiration!-I realized that in addition to creating a platform for my own stories, I could invite other working class writers to contribute their own raw stories, thoughts, essays, memoirs–anything!–about their working class experience or struggles.

I’m still making sense of how my working class upbringing and experience informs and enriches my daily existence and the way I look at the world. And, I’d like to explore how my stories might even fit into a larger narrative. My hope is that this blog will, by amplifying the voices of many talented working class writers, manage to capture the complexity, strength, pain, toughness, and humor inherent in working class existence.