Thursday, June 01, 2006

Navigating the System of Class Privilege in Higher Education: An Interview with the Smith College Association of Class Activists

By Matt Dineen

In the United States, access to a college education is still a privilege not available to everyone. As the tuition rates continue to climb through the roof and competition for financial aid increases, more and more people are shut out of this system. What about those who do make it in? How does their class background affect the quality of education that they receive from local community colleges to the most elite university?

Recently I spoke with Cara Sharpes and Katie Zanetta, Smith College students active in a campus organization that addresses issues around class and privilege, about their experiences as low income students at an elite educational institution.


Katie: I’m Katie Zanetta and I’m about to start my senior year at Smith College as a non-traditionally-aged student.

Cara: My name’s Cara Sharpes and I’m also a non-traditional age student at Smith. I’m also the leader of the Smith Association of Class Activists (SACA). We started off last Spring with a small group of seniors who basically wanted to make sure that something was started since they had such a hard road at Smith as low income students and first generation students. They wanted to just bring a group of students together. This Fall, myself and another student formed officially through the SGA (Student Government Association) and started having events and meetings. So we’re pretty new.

What was the initial inspiration for forming this organization?

C: I think we realized what a powerful experience it was to get together and just talk about our similar experiences as people who are navigating the system with no one coming before us in most cases. And just trying to figure out where we belong and being the minority certainly as low income students. From there realizing that there just really needed to be a dialogue on campus about class and how there was such a blindness to that. How every other socially conscious issue had been spoken about at length except for class and just showing the campus how it had to come to the forefront.

So the group was started by low income students. Has it broadened its base since then?

C: Yeah, we started off being defined primarily as a low income, first generation alliance and then from there quickly broadened to allow allies because we realized that we weren’t just interested in having a support group. We were really interested in bringing people together over issues of class and making a difference on campus. And there were so many allies that wanted to come and help us on class issues. So many activists who were willing to get involved and we didn’t want to narrowly define our group that way.

Katie, do you want to talk about how you got involved in the group?

K: Yeah. I was brand-spanking new at Smith in the Fall and I was walking around campus one day and I saw a flier, one of these great, wonderful, snarky little fliers that they put up that said something to effect of: “Have you heard? Why don’t you just ask your parents for the money? We have.” And I thought, I don’t know who those people are but they are clearly my people. So I sought the group out and I was really happy I did because I think that class ends up being very invisible at Smith. I wasn’t used to that. I had come from a state school—actually UMass-Boston was where I transferred from. It’s not only a state institution but an urban-focused institution where class is not invisible because we were all of a similar class background at UMass-Boston. So it was really hard for me to go into an environment where I felt out of sorts but there was no way to articulate that within the institution.

In what other ways did it differ when you started at Smith?

K: A lot of things are wonderful. Just the resources that are available are…

C: Mind-boggling.

K: Mind-boggling, yeah. It’s incredible what you have available to you but if you’re not used to that I also think that you don’t really know how to go about accessing them or to understand that you’re entitled to them. This is something that a lot of students don’t have a problem with—of course they’re entitled to the resources there. Even now, just learning how that process works and learning that they are actually there for me to take advantage of is still something that I can’t totally integrate with my past or my perspective on the world.

Or even knowing to ask. I think a lot of students come in just struggling by themselves and not knowing that they are so many people that they can ask and that it’s an institution that set up to help their students once they’re there. It’s a really hard thing to learn coming from most places where you’re just left to sink or swim.

Can you talk about how you both came to arrive at Smith College given your class backgrounds? How did that happen and what goals to you have now that you have entered into this more elite institution?

K: I had sort of a long winding path. I’ve done everything from factory work to just really low-level, pink collar, ghetto administrative work. And that’s what I was doing before I decided to go back to school. I was actually an ‘executive administrative assistant,’ which was great because it was the best paying job I had ever had but it couldn’t take me any further than that. I was 24 and I had maxed out. I knew that I had to go back to school, not only for the learning potential but because I needed to have that degree. It was a matter of validation and it was something that had always eluded me because of my financial circumstances. I couldn’t go right out of high school because there was no money for that and so I spent years just trying to work and become an independent student. So I ended up quitting my job and going back to school at UMass fulltime and then came to Smith actually sort of on a dare. A friend of mine was applying and said, “You have to apply. We’ll go together.” And in the end I decided that I wouldn’t be able to tell her that I hadn’t applied and I was actually going to lie to her and say that I didn’t get accepted and I realized that I couldn’t do that. So I did apply and I got in and she didn’t. Even that process was difficult—I had to call the admissions office at one point and ask them to pull my application because it occurred to me that if they processed my application check I would bounce. And so even to that point I almost didn’t get there because I was like, “No you can’t! I’m not gonna have enough money to cover that.” But who knows. I really don’t want to continue to work. That’s my impetus for being at a great school. (Laughs)

What do you mean by work?

K: I know what a real job is like and it’s not very fun. I don’t want to do that anymore. I think it’s great but it’s not what I want to do right now.

So where do you see yourself after Smith?

K: Grad school. And then hopefully academia.

How about you Cara?

C: I think I had a somewhat similar experience as Katie. My path to school took a long time. When I was in high school I had this image of school that was very much like Smith. I was really gunning for little, private, quiet colleges that I had really glossy, pretty brochures not realizing that that was highly unattainable. And my mom let me know at some point that this just wasn’t realistic for us, which is ironic now knowing they probably could’ve offered me a lot more financial aid than a lot of the places she was pushing me to apply. But we didn’t know that, we had not navigated the system before. So I ended up going to the local community college and dropping out and going back and dropping out because I was working fulltime and I was really burnt and it really wasn’t where I wanted to be. So it took me a while to just plod through that and get the half way point, the Associate’s Degree, and all the time working a string of fairly demeaning jobs: factory work, selling vacuums at some point, mainly restaurant work and getting really, really burnt on that. And from there, after I got my Associate’s and I felt free to figure out what my options were I took my time and really tried to figure out what school fit me best and Smith just kept coming up. And I didn’t even realize the weight of Smith’s name at the time, but I just went for it anyway and it worked out more than state schools that couldn’t offer me as much money. So that’s why I ended up here.

So where do you see yourself after Smith?

C: Ugh…That’s a really good question. I don’t feel like I have a vision yet. When I think about my family, my grandmother’s best vision for my mom was to be a secretary and to not have to work in the plant, and for my mom it was for us to go to college and I don’t know what it looks like after college. Just getting here was hard enough, I have no idea what is on the other side.

Let’s get back to SACA. Can you talk about the work that you have done on campus?
C: Sure. We’ve done a couple of forums where we’ve tried to kind of break the ice about class. Some of them have been a little disappointing. We’ve done them in conjunction with the SGA and have been a little bit out of our control as far as programming goes and we weren’t sure how we felt about the results. We started off being called Association of Class Awareness, but after these discussions we realized that maybe awareness isn’t exactly where it’s at. Maybe we need to get beyond awareness and get to action because there’s a lot of awareness of class privilege and there was just a lot of discussion about guilt. One of our buttons for fundraising now is: “Guilt is not an Action.” We aren’t interested in guilt. You have to push past that. We’re trying to get a little further into that. We’ve also been working on some other projects. We wanted to create a resource guide for students to teach them to navigate the system in a way that most of the seniors had once they had gotten to the end and learned the hard way. We’re working on a documentary on class experiences at Smith. There’s so much. We’re working on a zine right now. We’re working with the administration and the Dean’s office trying to make resources more readily available. There are just pockets of funding all over campus that you can apply to but it’s a really bureaucratic, red tape-laden system so you really have to jump through hoops for it. We’re trying to teach students that they’re there and how to access them and make it easier for everybody.

K: And a lot of important work around helping the administration be aware of the way in which the language they use to talk about low income and working class or first generation students is really tokenizing and difficult for a lot of the students to deal with. They’ll sort of throw around statistics about financial aid or about first generation or low income students and it’s almost like someone talking to you as if you aren’t there. And in a way to bolster a certain aspect of the college’s reputation but there’s a big problem about how those students are supported once they get there. And I think that that’s been really helpful, just pointing things out that I don’t think that many people who we’ve talked to about it before would’ve considered about how the language is really difficult.
You can contact the Smith Association of Class Activists at To read this interview in its entirety check out Toward Freedom.

Matt Dineen is a writer and activist living Northampton, MA. His Passions and Survival project explores the collective dilemma of following our passions while surviving in a capitalist society. This interview was conducted on his radio program of the same name and theme on Valley Free Radio . You can contact him at


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