Vassar is a happy place for squirrels. The campus is designed for pedestrians, not cars. There are a lot of trees. And free trash. But not everybody would say that Vassar is a happy place for students.
If I took a New England squirrel and parachuted it into the Gobi Desert from a passing freight plane, the squirrel would not find the Gobi a happy place either. There were eight of us in my first-year fellow group. I came from Maryland. My roommate was from Arizona. Two of the others were international students from China. One of them transferred to college in Germany because financial aid was not as good for international students and she had to go to a less expensive school. Some people don’t make it. On graduation day, she will be one of the forgotten members of the Class of 2018.
The fellow group meeting was difficult. We had an identity wheel that asked us to reflect as a group on our ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic class and several other categories. My student fellow was a relaxed sophomore from Brooklyn who was known by his friends for breezing past in sports shorts and basketball pumps. But even he found it awkward.
He started by saying that he was a black male from a not-so-wealthy family. Somebody in my fellow group raised her hand and asked if we had to share. He said the identity wheel was voluntary and we lapsed into silence. Then I put down my identity wheel and said that my primary identity is to be an older brother. My student fellow said that he hadn’t thought that could be an identity, and a few of us laughed. Those of us who had siblings started talking about our brothers and sisters. The single children described their best friends.
When I became a student fellow, I knew that I was committing to the care of eight first-year
students with very little institutional support. For me, privilege meant that I could spend the student fellow stipend, the student fellow activities allowance, and part of my work-study earnings on buying birthday cakes for my fellowees without worrying about the price of my textbooks.
But who questions the privilege of institutions? Institutions care first about the survival of institutions. Vassar will survive on the interest income of its endowment. The individual is secondary. A food service worker in on-campus dining will be carried away in an ambulance from overwork before Vassar takes on a remote risk of financial insolvency. We assume this is how things should be.
I am enough of a Platonist to believe that Vassar’s mission would still exist without Vassar. I do not choose to ignore that attending Vassar calls on the individual to give more to the institution than the institution can ever give to the individual. This is just as true for the faculty who dedicate all of themselves to teaching, for the administrators who work continuously to make the campus function, as it is for the student who attends Vassar. Effective change comes with seeing that Vassar is not only bigger than any one individual or group that is easy to villainize, but also the malleable shadow of the liberal arts ideal that it represents.
It has been many decades since one could say without irony that college is this side of paradise. Vassar has been a place where I have met close friends, fallen in love, and developed my intellectual curiosity. If I am honest with myself, these things did not happen because of Vassar, but from paying attention to life for four years. The things that happen at Vassar are the outgrowth of the people who live here. And it is the people who give a place its life, a life its place.