Op-Ed: My conflicted relationship with class

Wednesday, April 6, 2016 - 6:32pm

Whenever my sister and I visit my uncle, we can always be sure to hear him say, “So how is Snobby-ville?” By “Snobby-ville,” my uncle is referring to Ann Arbor, and, more specifically, the University of Michigan campus.

My sister and I, being the first people in my family to attend this institution, are often subjected to this kind of anti-University of Michigan talk. For the most part, it's because of sports — my cousins who went to Michigan State University will tease us whenever Michigan loses a game. It's not anything any student with family members from opposing universities hasn’t gone through, but for some reason, I can’t help but to see some depth to my uncle’s “Snobby-ville” jokes. Of course, it's not the most sophisticated of quips (my uncle is not a comedian), but it highlights some of the underlying opinions that many people hold toward the University — mainly, that the students here are mostly conceited and annoyingly privileged.

I grew up in a town where attending this university is a big deal. To the average citizen of a rural town in northern Michigan, where the biggest industries are agriculture and tourism, somehow managing to go to the same institution that a former president attended is monumental. Out of my graduating class of about 90 students, a whole five students attend this university — a number to celebrate in my hometown. Suddenly, it's like we were a part of this elite, privileged class made up of the people who were lucky enough to attend the University of Michigan.

My experience on this campus has been quite different. The feelings of exclusivity and specialness ended almost immediately after arriving on campus. It's not that anyone explicitly tried to make me feel left out, but hearing my classmates talk about the connections their family had and the experiences and opportunities they had been afforded made me realize that, for the first time in my life, I was part of a lower, less wealthy class. I started to see myself as some redneck from a hick town who only managed to get here on a fluke.

Incidents like the taping of University student Jake Croman yelling at an Uber driver and the destruction of the Treetops Resort last winter have only further increased my feeling of loneliness. As someone who has worked in the service industry, I could easily identify with the Uber driver or the workers at the resort, but to the rest of the world I was a part of the elites who often harassed the working staff. The fact that I was here partly on a scholarship and partly on my dad’s life insurance exacerbated this feeling of loneliness and unworthiness.

I’m not the only one who feels this way. Other students I’ve met from lower socioeconomic backgrounds have spoken about feeling like an outsider here. Part of it might be that students from similar backgrounds like mine are so few and far between here on campus that I get excited whenever I meet one. I don’t see this necessarily changing, as the 2010 University of Michigan Student Profile reported that around half of freshmen come from families that earn more than $150,000 per year. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing if it weren’t paired with the fact that university tuition is skyrocketing. Attending high-profile, major universities is becoming more and more inaccessible to students from poorer backgrounds.

Getting a good education is key to social mobility, but without access to this education, social mobility stops. I firmly believe that universities should be affordable in order for a society to function. Making the University of Michigan more affordable wouldn’t make it any less snobby — we’re the leaders and the best, after all. But making education at this university more affordable might help this campus lose its overly respected reputation as a place for the elite and gain the reputation as a place where voices from all backgrounds are heard and respected.

Elena Hubbell is an LSA sophomore.