Recognized smarts, unrecognized privilege
Oftentimes, people mention we are smart because we are at Wash. U.; we attend a university that has the privilege of selecting its students from a large group of applicants. But while admissions does a great job of deciding which applicants to admit from the pool that applies, it often goes unrecognized that for each applicant, there are many equally smart people who did not apply to Wash. U.—or any other college, for that matter.
The American dream is that you can come into this country with nothing, get an education, start a business and a family, and live in comfort all by the sweat of your brow. Those who make it in life do so by their hard work and determination, and, conversely, those who do not make it in life fail by their laziness and lack of ambition.
This American dream is just that: a dream. There are people who live it out, but they always have a story about a break they got: the loan they received that paid for their night school, or the job that they got because of sitting next to a manager on the subway. All of our lives are ruled by chance and circumstance, and we ought to admit it: Many of us are here because we were born into the right families.
In Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, “Nickel and Dimed,” she tries to live out the American dream. She moves to a city where she knows no one and tries to make a life without using her college education, repeating this upheaval several times. The problems she encounters cannot be overcome through working harder, and she must always catch a break in order to be financially solvent. In some cities, she does not even catch a break, and ends up unable to break even despite her hard work.
As Wash. U. students, we worked hard to get here, but we need to stop looking down our noses at people who are not here or did not go to college. Many intelligent people are kept out of college because they need to care for their families or because they cannot afford to pay the tuition—or for any number of other reasons besides a lack of hard work and determination.
Thinking that we are here simply because we worked hard and others are not simply because they didn’t is naïve and should be avoided. We must keep in mind that we have been able to take many things for granted on our road to college: a stable family, enough money to pay bills, good health, and so on. Some of us have not enjoyed one or any of these things, but all of us have had some form of advantage that enables us to be here.
All of this privilege that we have engenders an obligation to give back to the community. Community service is one way to give back. More importantly, once we have graduated and have made a life, we must make sure that we help others to do the same—others who are less fortunate, in the most literal sense, than us. With our intellect and privilege, we will be able to offer them the breaks they need to achieve the American dream.