Sunday morning, after two days of getting to know each other, the Classes of 2013 took some time to talk about how they first encountered each other and what those first impressions may have been based on. “Social Class at HWS,” a new addition to the Orientation schedule, is designed to start conversations around social class with incoming students and to introduce first-years and new students to the Colleges’ mission of Inclusive Excellence.
“The program will help students understand what ‘Inclusive Excellence’ is,” says Orientation Coordinator Francesca Antonucci ’10. “It’s more than just a statement on paper; it’s about understanding what our community is and what it stands for. We hope that it will get new students talking about issues which they’ve identified as significant.”
Dean of William Smith College Cerri Banks HON’09 says that participants will come to understand the importance of establishing open communication. “I want to give them skills they can use to have these discussions, which will be ongoing throughout their first and subsequent years.”
Through the program, based on materials developed by students in Banks’ “Social Foundations of Multiculturalism” course and created by Banks and E.W. Quimbaya-Winship, director of peer education in human relations, the first-years watched a film made by HWS students and were presented with several definitions of social class and the significance of open dialogue concerning class and diversity issues.
The program was opened with several welcoming addresses, including one from President Mark D. Gearan, who told first-years: “As people who will live and work in the 21st century, you are part of a very inclusive community and you will only lead lives of consequence if you have some understanding of these issues,” issues, he noted, that are part of the curriculum they’ll study at HWS and the history of the Colleges themselves.
“Differences as well as similarities are what we appreciate here at HWS. Everyone comes from different and valuable backgrounds, and we recognize that,” said Akilah Browne ’11. She went on to challenge the Classes of 2013 to “…step outside your comfort zone. Talk to people you wouldn’t normally talk to. Do things that you wouldn’t normally do and don’t be afraid to have conversations surrounding issues of social class or subtle racism, gender inequality, sexuality or whatever might be on your mind.”
Michael Barlow ’11 said HWS offers, “a huge array of doors just waiting to be opened and opportunities waiting to be taken advantage of. The activities students choose to participate in bring us closer together and eliminate some of the boundaries that initially divide us.”
Broken into smaller groups, the Classes of 2013 worked one-on-one and with staff and faculty mentors to tackle a large variety of issues tied to social class from several angles, and from the local, national and even international perspective.
Timothy Kamanga ’13, from Malawai, Africa, grew up in an orphanage. For him, social class was a matter of life and death. In his village, he said, when he wished to play basketball, he would have to walk to a rural court, which presented the possibility of encountering lions on the way home.
“It’s stressful playing basketball when you have to worry about lions,” he said. “But people from the cities didn’t have to walk; they could just get in their cars and drive home.”
Collectively, the first-year classes covered materialism; the media’s portrayal of stereotypes; employment and educational opportunities; capitalism; social mobility and how bias is part of human nature and whether or not it can be changed.
One group created their own definition of social class: “Social class occurs when opportunities are made available to all but information as to how to get them are not communicated to all,” said Ethan O’Connor ’13. The members of his group discussed whether or not all classes had equal access to education, jobs and opportunities that would help people move up in society.
“This content is difficult to articulate, and I was impressed with our first-years’ ability to be conscientious and thoughtful with their contributions,” says Katie Flowers, associate director of the Center for Community Engagement and Service-Learning, who was among the faculty, staff and students who facilitated the groups.
Another group focused on how social classes make people feel. While individuals in upper classes may feel good when they buy products, they may also feel guilt at the effort of the citizens in the lower classes in producing them or doing without.
“Upper-class guilt and the lower-class fear because of powerlessness create a wall that impedes conversation,” explained group members Christian Berk ’13 and Courtney Brodie ’13. “We need to break down these walls to continue the conversations.”
“By the end of the discussion we were able to see that social class is more diverse and multifaceted than we initially believed and therefore highly instructive,” said Christopher Shanley ’13.
Banks addressed the students at the end of the discussions and congratulated them for “…engaging in a conversation that many people find difficult. Take this energy and enthusiasm with you over the next four years as we help you become critical thinkers.”