These past few days I’ve been thinking a lot about privilege and what it means. Sure, at Cornell we often talk about how privileged we are to be here at this selective institution, to be able to take classes from distinguished professors, to be surrounded by peers of all backgrounds and interests. We hear it so often from guest speakers who speak about their less fortunate college careers or from peer panelists who mention how they were able to get the job offer they wanted because of the Cornell title. The word privilege is used so frequently that it has become a dreaded “oh that again” kind of topic.
I still remember my first day here, a little over a year ago. After signing up at RPCC for the PREPARE international student pre-orientation program, I brought my two pieces of luggage to Balch Hall with a volunteer. I will probably never forget how it felt walking into Balch and into my room. I was initially surprised by how antique everything in the residence hall was — it was the first time I’ve ever seen a manually operated elevator. Having grown up in high-tech modern cities like Seoul and Dubai, I also wasn’t used to antiquated furniture.
Yet for some reason, the musty smell of my triple, the spider webs by the radiator and the fact that there were only two wardrobes for three people didn’t antagonize my feelings for Cornell. In fact, I think that I was simply too glad to be here at this beautiful world-renowned place, excited at the thought of living in the U.S. and of meeting new people. I was indeed shocked that this was what I received after all the money I paid to attend this university. But I was still thankful to be here.
It wasn’t until I heard someone from across the hall complain over the phone about how rusty and old this place is, how they wanted to go back home, that I realized that while we’re all starting as the same first-year Cornell students, we may be living in different worlds. I immediately thought to myself, is it wrong to just be pleased to be here?
From my first day at Balch, I was forced to compare my privilege with that of others. I thought I had been brought up in a pretty privileged environment. Having traveled all over the world and being taught to be thankful for the education, morals and experience that I’ve developed from various sources, I have always considered myself to be privileged. However, my first day at Cornell made me realize that my level of privilege may never match up to that of others. No matter what, we are already at different starting lines.
I have been and always will be proud and thankful for having parents that would risk anything for their children’s futures. Yet, for that girl I overheard on my first day, coming to Cornell and living in a single in Balch may have simply been a given or even below her expectations. As such, all that had been provided to her on that day could have easily been taken for granted based on the degree of privilege that she had been exposed to over the past 17 or so years of her life. Nothing’s wrong with that. We’ve simply been brought up in different circumstances and what’s more important is realizing so. This fact seems to be overlooked by everyone that talks about “how privileged all of us are to be here at Cornell.” Yes, we as students of Cornell share the common privilege of being at this reputable institution. However, you cannot equate your privilege with that of others.
Margaret Lee is a sophomore in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. She can be reached at email@example.com. Here, There and Everywhere appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.