September 12, 2021

WISE-ROJAS | Diversifying the Ivy Student Experience

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When I realized I was Cornell-bound, I didn’t know what to expect regarding diversity and how to fit in. I know now that the Cornell student body needs to learn to own their privilege and actively listen to others’ stories and histories, both on-campus and online. Failing to do so hinders the success of students who need the most support. It also makes campus more hostile towards those the University claims to protect. Members of the Cornell community should make a conscious effort to check their privileges while teaching others to do the same. 

My first perception of Cornell was through the Prefreshman Summer Program. It’s a program for roughly 200 students, many of whom come from disadvantaged backgrounds.  I won’t lie, I found that comforting. If I ever felt excluded, it wasn’t because of things I can’t change, like my socioeconomic status or identities. It was because I didn’t get along with everyone. That’s how it should be. 

Nevertheless, coming back for the fall semester hit me like a wall of bricks. I found myself clinging to the friends I made over the summer (and they did the same). My queerness made me feel ostracized and alone; I had to find my community . I didn’t understand why hearing people’s answers to, “Why did you choose Cornell?” would internally infuriate me; hearing, “One of my parents went here” or “I love the campus” or “My older sibling went here. I almost didn’t go because I didn’t want to be too similar to my sibling, but I’m glad I did,” during small talk and brief class discussions made me roll my eyes. 

I’m not a passive-aggressive person, and I know that many people don’t identify as a neurodivergent biracial first-gen somewhat gender-nonconforming yet female-identifying Latina interested in law, politics and the press (as I do). If anything, this makes me more empathetic and open to different perspectives and identities. 

However, the tone and context matter. For instance, most of these students sounded almost exhausted, failing to understand that there are students who can’t go to Ivy League schools because they don’t have the money to apply, they need to stay close to their families or a less-prestigious school offered better aid at a time when money is tight. Many students in specific areas can’t apply to college, period, or graduate from high school for various reasons. 

Sometimes it’s exhausting being left out of mainstream narratives, especially at a place where you are supposed to explore and challenge yourself academically and socially without fear of rejection. Cornell provided a small number of students with support through PSP, but there are plenty more struggling students who haven’t been given this opportunity. The newfound freedom of being in college is euphoric on its own, which I was prepared for.

I was not prepared to trailblaze alone. Trailblazing is fun and something to be proud of, but there’s a reason why most people who are trailblazers can’t provide us with a how-to guide. I think it’s because it involves teaching others to admit their privileges while going against one or more social norms. I consider this to be an incredibly lofty goal. There’s no way to educate people without sharing stories. 

I have peers whose schools barely offered any AP classes and had to travel to a different school for science labs. Most PSP students were part of New York State’s Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP); to qualify, a student must have the grades, be a NY state resident, and a family with two household dependents must make $31,894 or less for the 2021-2022 year (see the total income eligibility criteria here). 

On the other hand, some students are part of the “privileged poor,” such as in the book by the same name by Anthony Abraham Jack. Jack, in a Vox interview, described this group as “lower-income students who were lucky enough to attend boarding schools or preparatory high schools before coming to college.” These students, although minorities, are not only academically prepared but according to the book have been socially prepared for how to survive in elite crowds. They have experience with small class sizes and counselor-to-student ratios. They’ve been taught how to network and find themselves/people they trust in a primarily white community. 

I admit, I have some privilege. I fall somewhere above and below “the privileged poor” but not precisely in that box. My skin is tan. I was prepared academically; not all people are. I was able to go to college out of state. My family is middle class, and I come from an area that is anything but poor. Although my public high school, which was unofficially known as a University of California feeder school,  was very crowded  it had no shortage of extracurricular activities, funding and resources. Although I was still a minority at that school, I spent time with plenty of other minorities, even if it wasn’t my ethnic group. After all, it was the Bay Area. 

Socially, I don’t think I was ready. Even if my culture wasn’t represented at my school, I was always around someone else’s culture without trying. Now, I have to seek that out. Otherwise, I feel isolated and lonely. Outside of any minority groups, I still have to prove my worth and intelligence in social circles. Telling people “I go to Cornell” helps, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that society should not prioritize minorities with Ivy degrees over those who weren’t able to get there and achieve the “American Dream.”

As much as I want to argue “society should just stop the cycles that give people more privilege just because of wealth and class,” it’s not that simple; Annika Neklason explained how “by design, the system favored the same kind of wealthy white students who almost exclusively populated elite colleges for hundreds of years; they benefited from legacy status, athletic recruiting, family donations, and many other advantages.” 

University of Pennsylvania student Agatha Advinicula published an opinion piece in “The Daily Pennsylvanian,” arguing that people saying she “made it into Penn the easy way” is an unfair argument and how legacy admissions are needed because “like it or not, colleges are run like businesses: The goal is to be the most prestigious, a title bestowed on those with the best students, the largest endowment, and the highest rankings.” 

Yes, everyone is entitled to their own opinions based on their experiences. However, saying legacy admissions are needed to keep elite schools running as a business is the opposite of owning privilege. It’s a way to use privilege as an advantage to keep non-legacy admits beneath you regardless of their other identities. Such is a form of oppression, not a form of “school pride,” as the article claims. 

Given such, one may ask, how can one own and admit their privilege  in a way that doesn’t oppress those who are already being oppressed everywhere? One of Cornell’s eCourses within the School of Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR), Countering Bias in the Workplace for HR, details how to check your privilege daily. This checklist is specific to the workplace but can generally apply anywhere else. Just swap out the work-related terms to your school name, your city, you name it. Answer “yes” or “no” to each statement. If “yes,” think about which of your identities affords you this privilege. If “no,” think about what type of people enjoy that privilege. 

In my case, to answer “yes” to at least some of the statements, I would need to find a place where I feel respected because society’s default does not include me. I’ve been lucky enough to find people and places where I can answer “yes” to some of these questions, but I had to look for those spaces. This shows how  much society ignores someone with my identities and experiences. 

Society doesn’t distinguish between the “privileged poor” . If you are part of any majority, it is your job to check your privilege while helping to educate others. This way, people who cannot voice their struggles finally have room to breathe, no matter where they fall on the scale of wealth and connections. 

Daniela Wise-Rojas ’25 is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. Anything But MunDANIties runs every other Monday this semester.