Op-Ed: A Different Starting Point

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Op-Ed Submitted by Katy Montoya ’15

In the midst of our privileged surroundings, the perpetual dissatisfaction of fellow students blazons an uncurbed sense of entitlement. Yet I, too, have my earnest critique of Swarthmore.

If you can excuse the hyperbole that sometimes bubbles up and forgive my tendency to see privilege and elitism as two strains of the same phenomenon, I’d like to present this op-ed as an expression of my frustration with the elitist assumptions I see ingrained in this institution.

Most of us can admit to feeling like a dumbass as often as we’ve begun a complex explanation with “So, um.” I doubt anyone has avoided feeling under-cultured in social settings when hesitant to ask about a reference to a social philosophy or a British comedian.

On one hand, I find the level of comprehension tacitly assumed by professors in lecture and seminar encouraging. Yet moments I’ve experienced in conversations with professors have solidified my perception of certain institutionalized assumptions that contradict Swarthmore’s claimed dedication to diversity. Talking about socioeconomic class, race and culture till the sun goes down still overlooks variations in intellectual development and educational background on campus. And because I dread the next time I might  face the assumption that I was raised a well-bred intellectual, I’d like to talk about broadening our conceptualization of the prototypical Swarthmore student.

Not all of us attended challenging private or even quality public schools. We just as certainly did not all come from intellectual homes. Admissions certainly prides itself in scoping out those who faced frequent challenges to their academic formations, those who struggled against the current of home and daily life to guzzle books and write poetry- those for whom academic success wasn’t a familial expectation to fill but rather an anomaly. I applaud and admire the few examples of this on campus. They are the desired poster children for Swarthmore-donor relations. If only they were many, they could easily subvert the concept of the Swarthmore prototype that comes from an elite school and intellectual family.

One good reason to refrain from “categorizing” myself as one of them is that I cannot totally relate to this experience. I wasn’t as successful overcoming what I’d call the counter-intellectual forces in my life- the apathy, clouded in dank smoke, that pervaded my home and school and social circle. I can’t claim that falling in love with an academic subject transformed me into a determined individual. Instead, I was transformed by the intense hope I felt that something far away from Kingwood would finally stimulate and inspire me, even if my low morale kept me from trying to create this for myself right then and there. Intellectualism, in the abstract, was an appealing way out.

I’ve had to rationalize to myself how it is that I could get into a place like Swarthmore without the rich history of academic pursuits that I know others here possess. So I contributed to the applicant pool’s ostensible diversity, yet I wonder if thorough look into the development of my intellect would have convinced my interviewer that I fit the perfect Swattie applicant paradigm.

But I was well-spoken and presented myself with confidence. And when it was up to me to decide to go to a school that I knew would be a bit over my head, I accepted these truths: I would play the catch-up-game, hard and fast, upon arriving, and the stark contrast between school and home would (quite accurately) be the hardest challenge to navigate.

Becoming acclimated with intellectualism has meant discovering the merits of having a wide breadth of knowledge and multiple points of reference for understanding my world. It’s involved breaking down the barrier of access to difficult subjects by learning the art of asking questions. So many here have presented areas of study to me in a manner that I had not yet encountered, making evident their important place in a network of concepts. This process would have been wholly agreeable had it not been for the the unreasonable pressure, the compulsion to prove my intellect and knowledge, even my place, at this school.

As though this wasn’t already intimidating, exposing how much I don’t know to professors has been much less comfortable. During office hours, I watched one drop the book she was referring to on her desk while asking, “How have you not heard of this?” Her incredulity left me feeling not just under-read, but out of place. Another professor followed up a similar scenario with, “What kind of high school did you go to?” before I confirmed his hunch. And when I asked for help with an application fee from a department, another professor was genuinely perplexed: “I’ve never dealt with a situation like this. How do you survive on campus?” he asked me.

These responses reveal different assumptions, yet are all reactions to a break from the expected. They manifest a narrow conception of academic merit, implying a specific, expected and accepted path to this crème de la crème school, and otherwise, the role of wealth in gaining entrance here. I would be more likely to see my first professors’ reactions as critiques of the general education system, if only I encountered them less often. Instead, it seems quite obvious after two years here that professors and students alike haven’t encountered many personal stories that contradict their assumptions. Merit is a sensitive aspect to explore, but I have to wonder, if individuals who get a late start to their intellectual journeys were truly considered and treated as deserving of an elite education, too, maybe the discourse on diversity would extend to individuals like myself. The willingness to dedicate four years here to cultivating one’s intellect could itself be the basis for being a valued member of our intellectual community.

The status quo is a culture that values progress from one starting point. If a certain background or level of intellect is the assumed point of departure, the many rates and paths of individual development are never celebrated. Anyone who’s walked a moon similar to mine is encouraged to bullet point obscure references and next time, nod a head at their mention, internalizing their importance only so far as this will keep them from looking ignorant. Professors might avoid promoting this kind of insincere intellectual curiosity by meeting students’ different needs with acceptance and individualized support. Swarthmore wouldn’t lose its rigor or its elite status, but it would encourage its entire population to truly engage in its intellectual ideals.


  1. WOW. Well said, Katy. This is such a strong indictment of the sorts of elitist cultural barriers that even institutions dedicated to social justice like us can enact. The fact that we are so devoted to ethical living and the social good makes it harder to speak up, in a way, because we think, “Maybe the cost of doing good in the world is just to learn this academic dialect,” which rationalizes elitism in this perverse way. These tradeoffs really do exist though, and it takes tremendous daring (and insight and damn good writing) to expose them for what they are. At least from my point of view, this is the sort of thing I’ve always wished to write if I just had a little more guts.

    This reminds me of the Intro to College Writing class, which from what I’ve heard also unpacks these sorts of boundaries (that surround “academic discourse communities”). If you haven’t already, perhaps speaking with the professor who teaches it could be fruitful.

  2. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this article, nor the extent to which a message like this needs to be sent to all in the community. What’s more you’ve presented it without the bitterness and cynicism that often accompanies such critiques – hopefully, as our school spends the next several years attempting to address issues of ableism, problems with sexual assault, racial insensitivity, etc. I hope this gets tackled as well.

  3. It was really brave of you to share your story like this. I know the extreme vulnerability involved in doing so when it can feel like few people around you are going to understand. I think the reason students haven’t encountered many personal stories that contradict their assumptions is that people are too scared to share, myself included. I hate when people ask me what my parents do because it brings back with full force the feeling that I might not be well-bred enough – the few instances in which I’ve told people have shown that the baseline assumption is high. I think you definitely deserve to be here because your piece shows that you’re a really thoughtful person, you can write well, and you’re not afraid to stand up for your ideas. Is it just in my head, or were you referencing my speech at the donor-scholar celebration? Because I don’t understand your “one of them” category; I don’t think anyone can fully escape the counter-intellectual forces in their lives during college.

    • Wondering why I generally felt shame or secretive about my parents’ professions, I challenged myself to share with fellow Swatties what they do for a living. After all, the fought and worked hard to get there despite not having the opportunity to attend college and growing up in the environments that they did.

      It didn’t take long (the second time it came up and I shared it with someone) for someone to scoff at me when I mentioned what my dad did–I guess it’s not as prestigious as being a big-time hot shot wall street investor… “Really? That’s what your dad does?” was the response with a face mixed with surprise and derisive expression.

      I remembered why I felt more comfortable behind every bit of anonymity that I could manage–just short of wearing a paper bag over my head.

      Since I’ve managed to craft a vague title for my parents’ professions that usually go unquestioned, sounding impressive enough to be passed over without much thought in conversation.

      I hate that I feel like I’m lying about my identity and I hate the thought of what my parents would think–of my peers for their belittling responses and of me for my shame, lack of pride, and ability to stand strong and challenge people’s perceptions and understandings.

      Thank you for sharing your stories. I can’t help but feel a little more empowered after every testimony.

  4. Well stated. And full recognition that an intellectual journey can begin from different starting points is desirable everywhere, including Swathmore.

    But who is the real culprit in this story? K-12 schools should be an oasis of intellectual sustenance and opportunity. Instead, these schools often tend to reflect the anti-intellectual miasma that pervades most aspects of society.

    A real remedy exists, as shown by the successful Harlem Kid’s Zone Program. Unfortunately, entrenched interests, combined with a pervasive focus on “good intentions” rather than results, thwarts the transformation of schools into the oasis of education and intellectual growth which they should be.

    (As one example, instead of focusing on education, the Dept of Education is using “education” dollars to offer various on-site social services at K-12 schools. Not coincidentally, funding for these new social services ends up in the pocket of NGOs with close ties to local politicians. And, not coincidentally, during the election season the staff associated with these NGOs disappear from their normal work site to show up as “unpaid” volunteers for various political campaigns.)

    It is sad that so many well-intentioned souls feel monies should be spent just to prove their good intention to “do something” – even if they admit a program is not working and even when another year of education is lost for children across the country. (A cynic might even compare this practice to buying indulgences to insure one’s place in heaven.) It is even sadder that others are willing to trade favors and ignore the plight of children in K-12 schools, all while proclaiming their “good intentions”. Studies indicate that later efforts at the college level to give opportunities to students who did not enjoy an early intellectual environment often have mixed results, with a much greater than normal dropout rate.

    The loss of early K-12 intellectual opportunities can often be not just uncomfortable, but irredeemable.

  5. Thanks, Sam, for bringing up the fact that Swarthmore has made some strides in addressing variations in students’ educational backgrounds. Before I had to narrow the focus of my article and crop out the extended argument, I wanted to make sure I didn’t totally breeze over the considerations that some students have offered me. A shining example is the Educational Studies department, whose classes seem to really celebrate differences in educational background. As far as introductory courses, though, I still unsure about how well they integrate students into higher-level courses– or if they lend to creating a culture that values differences cultivated intellect on campus.

    I really appreciate the support in all of these comments. I had little idea about how my story would rub against people’s own perspectives or how it would be perceived by DG readers. It’s funny, though, how I sensed that coming from the “disadvantaged” perspective, my argument was less likely to be ripped apart on a Swarthmore forum.

    In all honesty, the importance I give to offering this perspective on intellectual norms at Swarthmore leaves little room for feelings of vulnerability. I am not writing this piece in hopes of proving my place here, but because I’m ready and excited to see raw points of view, what manifests when shows of political correctness and social courtesies aren’t present, change.
    What I’ve written is personal, but it shouldn’t be perceived as a topic that’s too sensitive to really explore. I, too, have had to form assumptions and conclusions about my experiences here, which may have revealed something different about education, academia, who knows what, to someone else.

  6. This is wonderful, Katy, thank you for writing this. I very much appreciated this: “The willingness to dedicate four years here to cultivating one’s intellect could itself be the basis for being a valued member of our intellectual community.” I fully agree with this statement, as I think the concepts of merit and intellectualism are so hard to measure. Just the process of being here, and being ready to take on Swat, should be in and of itself something to be really celebrated.

  7. By the tone, you can actually tell that this is a real experience and an actual lived encounter with a disadvantaged upbringing. Katy, yours is one of the few opinions worth engaging with on this campus because it’s such a rare miracle of legitimacy. Thank you, I’m so glad we were put together freshman year. You’re the best match the housing committee could have made and the most clear-sighted analysis of the type of situation people like us come from. Again, thanks for writing this. <3

  8. Thank you so much for sharing this. These issues of class assumptions have been part of my relationship with Swat since freshmen year and should really be addressed along with all other community issues. In fact, I can’t even look back at freshmen fall and orientation as good memories because of the culture shock that was entering the Swarthmore bubble.

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