This article is a response to a Facebook post titled, “The Privilege Talk: ASM Addition” posted by Victoria Gomes (M’2020) in a private group of Minerva students on January 23. As a leaving member of the ASM and M’2021 student who relates wholeheartedly to the sentiments expressed in the post (and subsequent comments both online and offline), here’s what I have to say: Minerva is an institution of privilege. It attracts privilege, it nurtures privilege, and in many ways, it seeks to maintain privilege.
We may jet-set across the world and find ourselves in slick workspaces and bougie cafes, but it’s a sobering reminder that at the end of the day, most Minerva students are penniless college kids trying to make ends meet between today’s Americano and tomorrow’s lunch. When privilege is pervasive, how do you “fit in”?
I will begin by quoting directly from Gomes’ post: “If you come from Brazil, for example, knowing enough English to fill out the Minerva application already puts you in a privileged 2.67% (2018) of the total population. (For the sake of simplicity, I won’t get started on why we don’t have African Brazilians – or Americans – at Minerva, but I assure you that it all goes back to privilege.)”
Where I come from, the “P” word is a minefield. I grew up in a tiny town in South Africa – a dusty, chaotic dot on the map whose claim to fame is that its borders now burgeon on the surrounding villages that include Nelson Mandela’s birthplace. I come from a biracial family. I survived, and excelled, in South Africa’s public education system. My years in primary school were surrounded by people of colour. Since then, my world has steadily paled and pulled me further and further away from home. When I attended Ascent, (Minerva’s weekend orientation program which includes flying in about 40 international students to San Francisco for three days), the first thing I noticed was the absence of certain groups. Twenty percent of our class was from the US, but why were almost all of them white? Why were the other South Africans such a seemingly homogenous handful, too – all alumni of the prestigious private schools that face the same privilege-debate back home? Half the Pakistanis were old schoolmates from the best institutions and came from military family backgrounds. The UWC (United World Colleges) crowd almost filled half the room.
What does it mean when certain groups cannot engage as expected because every decision must be a financial one?
Different. That’s the first thing you feel when you come to Minerva and do not belong to one of the predefined groups that move through this space like it’s already theirs. I, and many others, made it here through immense sacrifice and strife – Minerva represents to us the only gateway into our unknown futures. But it became quickly apparent that for others, this experience was an option they could discard at any time. There were those who complained from day one. Every conversation revolved around how Minerva was “too intentional.” Foundation Week was “too packed,” staff were “too patronizing,” classes were “too structured.” They were on the brink of dropping out every other day, sticking around for the experience and toying with the idea of packing their bags and heading home at the end of the semester if things got too hard for their liking. Some really did head home after just a few days, concluding that Minerva was a “cult”.
Well, the rest of us stuck it out, and here we are – all 600 of us. We find ourselves part of a complex, decentralized, growing institution that will never satisfy our aspirations because the moment they are realized, we will most likely be on our way out or long gone. We’ve heard the talk of diverse communities, cultural dexterity, critical engagement, actualizing initiative and all the other mouthfuls put together that label what is really a messy, confusing, exciting, and at times painful process. What we seldom talk about are the unspoken things that I think so many of us are now ready to share. One of them is socio-economic disparity in our community.
I won’t go into the woes of financial aid or the crushing burden of student loans. (Minerva’s “fraction-of-the-cost” marketing tactic is rather illusory when you consider that many non-US citizens, even on financial aid, still pay annually what is the equivalent of two or three years of education back home.) What has become apparent is that while we’ve tried to address the most obvious points of this disparity (the ASM – student government – was involved in issues of financial aid, work study, taxes, and student loans throughout 2018), what we’ve completely failed to address is how socio-economic disparity shapes our community in more subtle ways. What does it mean when certain groups cannot engage as expected because every decision must be a financial one? What does it tell us about how much we understand and trust one another? How do financial difficulties back home impact the student experience at Minerva?
These are questions that very few of us think about, let alone openly ask. It’s so much easier to hold up Minerva as the “level playing field.” It is, most of the time. Where Minerva falls short, however, is lived reality. It’s evident when we complain about the students who never leave the residence hall, without realizing that this may be a financially-motivated choice. It’s the students whose academic group partners suffer because they’re struggling to prioritize multiple commitments, including part-time jobs. It’s the students who are choosing not to run for student government because they simply don’t have the time or energy for non-compensated work. One need only look at gross inequality on a macro scale to realize that it is not an issue that affects individuals on the lower end only – we all inevitably suffer.
The fact that we still ask “Want to grab dinner tonight?” says something about the assumptions we make towards the people around us and how easily we reference our own current financial, mental and emotional condition as a reference for all.
The “Minerva lifestyle” is one of built-in privilege. With global travel, it’s unavoidable. But we’re not all buying $7 coffees in Gangnam, are we? So why, when we have these conversations, is this unattainable ideal held up as the standard from which most of us fall short? The fact that we still ask “Want to grab dinner tonight?” says something about the assumptions we make towards the people around us and how easily we reference our own current financial, mental and emotional condition as a reference for all. I, too, have often turned down a dinner not because I didn’t want to go, but because I knew that money ought to be spent elsewhere.
So how do we avoid a privileged mentality when all of us are almost conditioned into it? As Gomes wrote, “We don’t get enough cross-economic-status exposure. We live in 7 countries, but we constantly experience the same lifestyle, which is often not representative of real life in these places. The problem then becomes that we get so used to not seeing an underprivileged reality, we silence the voices that are like that in our own community.”
For African students, there is the constant sore point around the lack of an African city in the global rotation. If we can live in Hyderabad, India, what is stopping us from living in Cape Town, South Africa, or Lagos, Nigeria? Arguments on safety and wifi are beginning to sound dry in the face of realities that say otherwise. The sad fact is that even if we did live in these cities, it is likely that we would be accommodated in relative luxury.
Gomes laments that part of the problem might be that our community does not exist “at all.” I disagree. The issue here is that we have formed a community as best we can, but the nature of our collective circumstances in contrast to our individual circumstances have resulted in a “jugaad” community of sorts. Our network is a patched conglomeration of contrasting worldviews and barely relatable childhood backgrounds, stitched and taped in odd areas where we find common ground (“What classes do you have?” or “Are you doing a civic project this semester?). We sometimes secretly feel appalled at the flimsy state of the ties that bind us, and can’t figure out how to fill the gaping holes in the areas where community, in the real sense, is needed most: finances, trust, safety, belonging.
I think we all got swept up in the wave of the privileged Minerva lifestyle until we realized that it is simply neither sustainable nor desirable.
And so it is no wonder that the community we think we “see” – the community that ends up “representing” Minerva – often is the white community from more developed countries, who have the free time to zip across the city and mingle with innovative people, because they don’t have to juggle multiple priorities to make ends meet.
Let’s be honest here – we all know it – Minerva’s “community building model” is broken. (As a freshman, I also just found it really, really weird.) My criticism is less on Minerva as an institution, and more on us students. We are the community. How did it take us this long to have a public dialogue on the fact that some of us are – relatively speaking – poor?
I am especially criticizing students who, like myself, struggle with these concerns and never address them directly to the audiences that need to hear them the most – friends and staff. The recent debacle over graduation fees is perhaps indicative that the institution has very little understanding of the day-to-day financial context in which most people find themselves. In the beginning, I think we all got swept up in the wave of the privileged Minerva lifestyle until we realized that it simply is neither sustainable nor desirable. We go home and suddenly feel uncomfortable about our spending habits throughout the semester; we begin to worry who will pay for the flight to the next location, and we are seriously concerned with how we will handle monthly expenses as our student loans go up annually.
But beyond finding solace in a collective struggle (a comfortable, yet non-constructive position to wallow in), we must ask, “Well, what now?” Reiterating what I saw in online comments, this has to be a participatory dialogue. Yes, it does feel good to get this out in the open. But it must lead to some kind of action. We already know that work-study hours are being adjusted for next year (a positive response from administration in light of our concerns). This is a good step toward structural change, but it will do little to address the issue of community.
What happens when privilege meets the realities of those who cannot break into its mold, no matter how well-intentioned? It must change.
Our next hurdle, and collective challenge, is navigating the socio-economic landscape immediately around us. If we don’t like the consumer-driven approach that seems to underlie much of student experience, let’s change that. Let’s start showing more financial empathy. Instead of “Want to grab dinner?”, how about, “Want to cook together?” or at least have the option of alternatives. If we want more representative Residence Assistants, let those “more representative people” step up to the plate and do the representing! If we want a more inclusive student government, take part; form a working group and show initiative.
Yes, privilege is built into Minerva’s model. But what happens when privilege meets the realities of those who cannot fit into its mold, no matter how well-intentioned? It must change. Remember, “Minerva” is not the institution that manifests in the ads we see online. Minerva is these issues that anger us, bring us together, and force us to build together. So much of what is being said right now has to do with lack of empathy and voices not being heard. Well, we have been heard. So where do we go from here?