Navigating Academic Elitism

Before attending University, the term academic elitism would have meant nothing to me. Today, this term represents the boundaries and challenges that strung together the years of my academic career. Academic elitism, ever-present in my life for the past five years, changed the way that I experienced and interacted with my own education and identity. An academic culture built on elitism, exclusivity, and privilege permeates our prestigious academic institutions. Most students are not only well versed in the secret standards and norms that uphold this culture but actively assume its superiority. Others are unaware of this secret code and thus become trapped in a lose-lose situation. Reject academic elitist norms and risk losing out on experiences of academic and professional growth, being excluded by peers and professor, and feeling isolated and ostracized. Assimilate to these norms and separate yourself from the values, behaviors, and strengths that make up your way of knowing and being. Bound in this trap, many minority and low-income students must navigate these choices in the everyday life of their academic experience. 

My first contact with academic elitism occurred the summer before my freshman year at Cornell University. The beginning of my journey at Cornell was a time of excitement and disbelief. My young heart expanded at the prospects that lay before me and I couldn’t wait to begin PSP, the Pre-Freshman summer program that Cornell required me to assist before starting my freshman year. I had never been on a college campus for more than a visit, and I was ready to soak up all of the resources and opportunities that this summer program could offer. 

My excitement took a hit a couple of days into the summer when I realized all 200 hundred participants consisted of racial and economic minorities. The program convinced us that we were there to take advantage of some of the resources that we had never had before, yet underneath the bonding and fun summer activities, it felt like something else. There we were… 200 black, brown, and poor bodies being allowed to experience Cornell’s grandeur. We were supposed to feel proud and grateful. But as the summer went on, those feelings were replaced with an increasing sense of otherness. I was suddenly brought back to how I felt as an immigrant getting off the plane from Uruguay and taking in the suburbs of my new home, my new country. It was pretty, but I felt I didn’t belong to it and it didn’t belong to me. This same sensation filled me that summer as I became increasingly uncomfortable in the immense lecture halls, immaculate glass buildings, and all-seeing towers of my new not-home. 

These feelings strengthened as the summer program came to an end and the rest of the student-body rushed in. Suddenly, I became aware that PSP was not just high-minority, it was the only minority. All of our complex and rich identities became diluted within a sea of wealth and whiteness. My self-esteem plummeted as I struggled to hold conversations with peers whose speech sounded like an ongoing master’s thesis constructed of words, references, and names of people that did not exist in my world. I had never been self-conscious, but day by day I started feeling like my identity, my way of expressing, and of speaking were out of place:  I cursed too much, spoke too loudly, sat too casually, and laughed at the wrong things. There was an unspoken culture all around me creating and re-creating spaces for the academic elite. 

Elitism cannot exist without an imposed sense of inferiority and superiority. I was constantly challenged to assimilate to it while being reminded day and day again that I would never belong. I felt as though assimilating to this elitist way of being involved admitting that my own ways were subpar. Throughout my first year of Cornell, struggling with this elitism taught me a valuable lesson; inclusion doesn’t mean anything if it isn’t followed by a dismantling of the structures of power that keep phenomena like academic elitism alive. It isn’t enough to open the doors of an institution to minority communities while keeping everything within that institution structured in the same ways that attributed to keeping them out for so long. This surface-level inclusion only benefits the institution, as it now gives them a diverse student body to report on while paying little attention to how these students are rapidly falling to the bottom of the existing power hierarchy that constructs most if not every interaction. It is nearly impossible to blossom in an environment that reproduces the same hierarchies it claims to disentangle.

Academic elitism is affirmed by students, professors, employers, and academic journals every time someone is asked to change the way they speak, their intonation, their body language, the way they dress, their desires, priorities, and passions. Through inclusion efforts, many high-level academic institutions have opened their halls to an increasing number of minority and low-income students. However, the elitism that holds these institutions together requires these students to leave their identities at the door and emulate their more privileged peers. Academic elitism isn’t just a harmless set of norms that keep academic culture consistent. It is not an inherent part of knowledge, academic integrity, scientific methods, and research. Its presence requires breaking down and stripping away various valuable ways of knowing, being, and experiencing that underprivileged students offer academia.  Inclusion efforts in academic institutions will remain superficial unless the culture within these spaces is molded to value the voices that all individuals bring. We need classrooms filled with words, phrases, and ideas from every corner of experience and knowledge. To do this we must hold humility, empathy, connection, and a willingness to grow. For my privileged peers; listen, validate, and be humble supporters to the ideas and brilliance of minority students. For my fellow immigrant, black, brown, queer, differently-abled, low-income minority students; know your worth, resist that which makes you feel less, and build on that which makes you feel unstoppable. 

Photos by Marilu Lopez Fretts