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Social Class Awareness Week prompts discussion of socioeconomic differences

Grinnell College Questbridge addressed the significance of students’ social class at the College with the third annual Social Class Awareness Week at Grinnell (or SCAW, an acronym that its founder Tim Burnette ’19 hoped would catch on).

The events began on Tuesday, Nov. 13 and will continue through Saturday, Nov. 17. On Friday night, Questbridge will host a game of Monopoly with modified rules to facilitate discussion about class differences from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. in the Joe Rosenfield Center (JRC) 227. On Saturday, they will host a roundtable discussion from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. in ARH 318, followed by a game of Jeopardy, with prizes, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. in JRC 209 that evening. Earlier in the week, the group also planned a clothing drive and talk delivered by Burnette about the intersection of social class and belonging at a liberal arts college.

Burnette began SCAW their second year at the College, mainly to raise awareness about the presence and distinct experience of low-income students on campus.

“So many people didn’t realize how many students on campus were low-income, so many people didn’t understand what the experiences were like, people didn’t realize that the faculty could be someone they could look to,” said Burnette.

Burnette also wanted to strengthen solidarity among low-income students on campus and provide a sense of community to those feeling isolated. “[SCAW] was founded on the idea that I could help people realize that there were others around them and they were not alone,” they said.

At the time, they were the president of Questbridge, and the organization still continues to organize SCAW two years later. Its current president, Carina Wilson ’19, hopes to foster more constructive dialogue at SCAW events this year than in years past. Part of this change involves removing the usual panel presentation in favor of the roundtable discussions on Saturday.

“We’ve always done a panel in the past, where basically students share their experiences and then there’s just general questions and answers, but nothing was really resulting from that. It always just felt awkward from both ends, and so it’s different this year. We want to create a space where there can be active engagement from every aspect and every different social class,” Wilson said.

“Questbridge is kind of the only group affiliated somewhat with low-income students. There’s not really a group on campus or an organization that’s specifically helping first-generation or low-income students, so just realizing that there’s not anything there support-wise, like just a student group or like a faculty-sponsored group, I think it just really inhibits people from their full potential and feeling like they have community here,” she said.

In the past week, Wilson aimed for Questbridge to provide that sense of community to both members of campus as well as those outside of it. The group hosted a clothing drive for the Grinnell High School Invisible closet, where low-income students can receive clothing, and a National Quest Day event, where upperclassmen and underclassmen shared their stories with one another. Additionally, Burnette presented their research regarding social class and belonging at Grinnell.

Burnette began this research project during their second year after taking a Sociology Methods course with Professor Sharon Quinsaat. The next year, they pursued a Mentored Advanced Project (MAP) about social class and belonging, which has since been published in the International Journal of Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities. At first, Burnette was surprised to find that, on paper, it is not apparent that economically-disadvantaged students have a harder time at Grinnell than wealthier peers. Retention rates and GPAs at Grinnell are, on average, the same across socioeconomic backgrounds.

“At first I was like, wow, maybe class doesn’t have a big impact on your Grinnell experience,” they said. “But after being here two years I knew it did, and that was just my own lived experience.”

After interviewing various students, they found that there were major differences in the narratives surrounding students’ lives depending on their socioeconomic background: what Burnette calls “narratives of difference.” For example, many interviewees pointed out the difference between being economically disadvantaged and “college poor,” which Burnette wrote a Letter to the Editor about in August.

Some recommendations that Burnette has made in light of their research are requiring all textbooks for all courses to be in the campus library, instituting economic diversity training for faculty and staff, creating food assistance and support for students on campus during breaks and having intersectionally diverse faculty.

SCAW has grown and improved on past iterations since Burnette created it, and its future is ripe with possibility. Wilson is excited about potentially branching out through the Multicultural Leadership Council (MLC) to focus more on different cultural perspectives and how they interact with social class during SCAW.

“We finally became a part of MLC last year and so we’re hoping to maybe in the future collaborate with other groups on campus because there are connections there,” she said. “We’ve been going to the MLC meetings and people have voiced interest in that, so that could be really cool to have the event become something that’s not just Questbridge, but something that a lot of groups can partake in. And it’s hard because it’s like just started and everything, but that’s the goal is to have many groups contribute and be interested in it.”

While SCAW cannot immediately fix the deeply-rooted ignorance surrounding economic diversity on college campuses, the members of Questbridge hope to continue the conversation and provide a network of support to students in the meantime.

Mitch McCloskey ’21, Carina Wilson ’19, and Cinthia Romo ’19 provide information about SCAW events. Photo by Liz Paik
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