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Student and staff address classism on campus

By Avery Rowlison

Students, staff, and faculty gathered in JRC 101 in response to the bias-motivated incidences in the spring of 2010. It was during this exchange that Chaplain Deanna Shorb and Professor Tammy Nyden, Philosophy, realized that they had similar backgrounds as first-generation college students. They organized a dessert night and invited the campus to join them to discuss issues facing first-generation and low-income students.

In the fall of 2010, David Opong-Wadee ’12, senator for Clangrala, contacted Shorb to address the issues facing first-generation and low-income students at Grinnell. Opong-Wadee discussed his ideas with SGA VPSA Holden Bale ’12, who jumped on board with the idea.

Shorb, Nyden, Bale and Professor Karla Erickson, Sociology, met last week with Elliot Karl ’12 and Nik Jameson ’11 to discuss the problems and brainstorm ideas for solutions.

“Right now, I’d say we’re loosely studying the issues,” Shorb said.

Opong-Wadee came up with the idea for a student-led group to discuss issues of class on campus.

“I called it a group that lacks specific motive or incentive for focusing on central groups on campus,” Opong-Wadee said. “I really wanted to open this firstly to any lower income student who felt like they couldn’t put themselves into one of the groups who meets upstairs in the JRC and second to the entire population.”

Opong-Wadee initially brought this issue up in Joint Board as a senator.

“We had short talks within that Joint Board about what to really call it, how to pitch to the community without offending anybody and being sensitive to who historically has been underrepresented,” said Opong-Wadee.

Bale and Karl feel that the discussion of class issues has not been as prominent as issues of race, gender, and sexuality have been, and that class has not been properly addressed on campus.
“This is a demographic of Grinnell that struggles academically and financially because issues of class aren’t addressed,” Karl said. “There’s a population of students with need at Grinnell who are simply falling through the cracks because there’s not enough institutional support for them.”
Staff and faculty remain a key component of the group.

“I want staff and faculty to be involved in this because I think that will make it broader, something that ties more to the campus,” Bale said.

During the brainstorming meeting last week they considered ideas such as publishing a book of experiences from students, staff and faculty, and requiring the library to keep a copy of every textbook for every class on reserve.

“We want to have a resource guide for first-gen, low-income students … and we’ll be relying on first-gen, low-income students now to help design this resource guide and to decide, ‘should these guides be mailed out to students before they come or should they be available in the mail room so people can self-identify?’” Shorb said.

Another possibility is the creation of a panel during NSO that will deal with the issues facing first-generation and lower-income students. “We just want to start the conversation because … we talk often about social justice but very little about class,” Bale said, “We need to figure out a way to reach out to people who feel alone in their experiences and let them know that they aren’t alone.”
Unfortunately, time constraints can be an issue for first-generation or low-income students, since sometimes they have to pay their own tuition.

“One of the problems is that students in this position are working very hard and don’t have time to go to all of these events, so we want to make sure that we have practical applications as well,” Nyden said.

First-generation and low-income students also typically struggle with paying their own bills, books and other material constraints, on top of a lack of knowledge of how to navigate through higher education, according to Karl.

“The biggest issue is the deficits in cultural and material capital,” he said.
The initial efforts have been successful so far.

“So far we’ve been able to show people that there are a lot of staff, faculty, and students who have had that first generation experience,” Nyden said, “One of the responses I’ve heard is that people found it helpful to identify people they could feel safe going to talk to and ask questions.”

Bale’s next move is to meet with Vice President for Diversity and Achievement Elena Bernal to
figure out how other institutions discuss class issues, and bring the conversation to Grinnell’s campus. He also wants to recruit students who are interested in these issues and meet with them to get input on what problems stand out the most.

“I don’t know where we’re going with this group yet, I just know that something needs to change,” Bale said.

Email [vpsa], [shorb] or [nyden] for further information.

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  • J

    JamesMar 30, 2011 at 8:26 pm

    As an alumnus, I can only offer the thought that class-based differences were sometimes a problem during my time at Grinnell (1971-1975). They were not discussed publicly as I recall, so if these issues were then addressed effectively it was likely at an inter-personal or one-to-one level. I fear it was too-often true that they were not addressed at all.

    I am glad to see this as a matter of concern. Best wishes to those involved in this effort.

  • K

    KenMar 6, 2011 at 7:01 pm


    It’s too bad that a lot of things seem dead-end. I feel like Student Affairs really misses the boat by not taking initiative and using their position as the department that is in charge of maintaining a student life where students from all walks of life feel comfortable. Instead of focusing on initiatives like this study, Student Affairs seems really focused on trivial things like the smoking policy.

  • T

    TravisMar 5, 2011 at 1:06 am

    Didn’t Bernal lead an expansive study, employing expensive external consultants, to investigate these issues? Where did that go — did that dead-end too?