Navigating the System of Class Privilege in Higher Education

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

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

Cara Sharpes: 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. 

Matt Dineen: 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.  

MD: 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.  

MD: 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.  

MD: 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.  

C: 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.  

MD: 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)    

MD: 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. 

MD: So where do you see yourself after Smith? 

K: Grad school. And then hopefully academia. 

MD: 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. 

MD: 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. 

MD: 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. 

MD: Do you want to go into your experiences as non-traditional age, older than most of the students at Smith, and how that also plays in to these issues around class? 

K: I love these moments. I was in a class very recently where a professor was talking about women moving into the workforce and said, "And then in the ’60s women starting working in the workforce." And I said, you mean middle class white women because by definition…And just these ways that a middle class experience or a traditionally-aged experience become the norm that really feel alienating. Also recently, and in that same class, the professor said, "Well, one of the essay questions that we have to deal with is to imagine that we are a mother and how we would like mothering work to be treated in policy." And I’m sitting next to another young woman who is also a non-traditionally aged student who is a mother. So here we are in this class and there were at least 8 women in this one section who are all young single mothers or young married mothers and just this idea of, "Ooh, picture a time…" And they also asked us to imagine when we’re 30. And I thought, what’s with the time limit? That really cuts down on my options. So all of these ways in which a certain experience is just repeatedly normalized, which I had never had when I was at UMass-Boston because the average age is, I think, 26. So it’s never assumed that everyone is an 18 year-old who’s straight out of high school and has no experience with the real world or outside obligations.  

MD: So it seems like at Smith there’s a much more homogenous idea, and reality, of both class and age. 

C: Definitely.  

MD: Do you want to share your experiences around this? 

C: I don’t know if I can think of a specific instance but there is just this general idea that the student is young and privileged and hasn’t been out in the real world. And then there’s also a different way of communicating at Smith, that I’ve just started to pay more and more attention to, that just has a lot to do around privilege and age. Just this way of being really watering down what you say or not coming across as too aggressive or speaking your point too plainly. And I think that that’s always been my role of being the outspoken one or the really snarky one and I can’t really find my place there yet or to figure out how to communicate with people the right way in order to get the needed response. That’s been kind of a difficult navigation. 

MD: Let’s get more into this issue of privilege. How has this shaped your experience at Smith given your backgrounds? What kind of effect has this privileged environment had on your outlook on life in general? 

K: I think for me, it’s been a real challenge. A challenge, in a way I suppose, that will make me a better person in the end. One of my things is that I’m angry about not having socioeconomic privilege, but there’s not a lot of space for being angry and particularly at Smith or any place where you interact with so much privilege. All it does is elicit guilt and guilt is not helpful, and yet I feel very entitled to my anger and I don’t want other people to be entitled to their guilt. (Laughs) I just want them to honor my anger. So it’s tough. I consider myself fortunate because I know more privileged people now than I had ever known before. And it’s really forced me to take people as individuals in a way that I don’t think that I would’ve been able to do had I not been in this environment. And I don’t think that that’s a great personality trait of mine but I know that it’s there. But it’s still difficult. I mean, there are people who have horses. I can’t wrap my head around it. Or just what they can do and I feel like I will never be able to do, or the choices that they have and the choices that I feel like I don’t have. It’s very frustrating to me, and just very frustrating to be around people who can’t even just acknowledge that that exists. But given the privilege at Smith, it happens on a daily basis that I interact with someone who says something that just blows my mind. Like how they had ‘help‘ in their home and I’m just shocked because not only have I been a housecleaner, but my stepmother is from South America and…So when they’re talking about ‘the help’ they’re talking about me and my family. They’re not talking about some distant concept to me. There’s no way to be indifferent in the face of that and I find that to be really difficult. 

C: I feel like I entered the environment with a lot of biases myself about privilege and that’s been a really, really difficult road to navigate. Because as much as I need to honor my anger I need to find a middle road to approach people on so that we can have a productive dialogue, so that they can learn from it and maybe walk away understanding what they need to do with that privilege. But it’s really hard to get to a place where I can reach that neutrally with people and be fair because there is a lot of anger to deal with, and there is no place to deal with that anger. Even among our own group, it’s not hard to talk about it, but hard to dwell on it or work your way through it because there are people with privilege there and they’re really doing something with their privilege and it’s hard to drive it home in a setting like that. And I feel like when I came to Smith it was a learning experience in power. I really felt powerless coming to Smith. It was a stripping of all of my ways of understanding how to survive. None of those ways worked anymore. And I totally just broke down, not knowing what to do with myself. I couldn’t approach people on the same level, my ways of communicating no longer worked. It was a complete cultural assimilation that had to happen and that was a really difficult process for me. And I think that I’ve navigated that somewhat well by now, but it’s still a struggle to know that if I speak in the way that I feel comfortable most people really don’t know how to receive it. So I still struggle with that. 

MD: Have there been any positive aspects of being exposed to this privilege on a personal level? 

C: I think understanding that anybody’s entitled to this stuff and you can get at it. I think that’s a really good lesson-that you can navigate the system if you just hang around people who feel entitled and know how to ask for it. I think that’s really valuable because it’s like a small scale system for the outer society. Everything’s bureaucratic, everything has red tape. If you understand how to navigate one difficult system I think you can figure out how to do the rest and knowing that there’s a way around if you just ask the right people. It’s a really valuable lesson. 

K: I do feel really fortunate to have some of the friends I have who are privileged people or even middle class people who I would’ve never known and never allowed myself to create relationships with those people had I not been forced into this environment where I didn’t really have much of a choice. And I’m really glad that I could challenge my own assumptions and prejudices about privileged people so it’s been really good for me in that way. But I don’t know, I think I’m still very much in that space where I’m not sure what the end result will be. I still feel out of sorts and in that place where I am moving from one to another but I have very little context for what that other is. So I still feel really shaky about it all.  

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