Compared to my old school, Grinnell really is something else.

Transferring to a new college is stressful as hell, regardless of the reputation of the institutions involved. But, before I arrived on campus in Spring ’14, I faced a whirlwind of anxieties related to the rigor, prestige, and general environment of Grinnell compared to my original school, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. As some of you might suspect, Grinnell is a radically different institution than SIUE. Examining the endowment sizes alone makes a powerful statement: Grinnell’s 1.554 billion for 1,700 students compared to SIUE’s 18 million for 11,000 students. From the beginning of the application process until my arrival, I was worried that I was not Grinnell material.

I applied to Grinnell as a transfer student twice: I was rejected for the Fall ’13 semester and then admitted for Spring ’14. When I was initially rejected, I naively felt like I wasn’t good enough for such an acclaimed college, like I would always be intellectually less than those who attend a “Top 20 Liberal Arts College.” My mom didn’t go to college, my dad went to SIUE, and they both work relatively standard middle class jobs. I (once again naively) thought that my background was radically different than the average Grinnell student, I had dreamed of jumping from a Midwestern, middle class lifestyle to something different. With the Fall rejection, my aspirations felt invalid. I did not belong at Grinnell College, and consequently I did not belong to the wider community of social progress that it somehow represents.

Grinnell looking down on a less "collegiate" institution

Grinnell looking down on a less “collegiate” institution

Over the past year or so, I’ve learned that the “intellect” of a person has nothing to do with where that person’s background or college, and that my school’s reputation does not wholly determine my identity. But before these revelations, my transition here was plagued with fears of not being good enough, viewing myself as an outsider to the bourgeois atmosphere that I perceived Grinnell to be. For me, these insecurities stem from how my personal identity relates to modern higher education.

I was fully aware that Grinnell is unique in its tendency to enroll students from underrepresented backgrounds, and this is why I was bent on coming here: I thought, “if there is a school that my family can financially handle that also aligns with my ideals, it’s Grinnell.” In recent media, Grinnell College has been pinned as leader in enrolling an economically diverse student body. Behind only Vassar in a New York Times ranking, Grinnell’s student body apparently represents a wide range of economic backgrounds compared to peer schools. SIUE is diverse, but in a profoundly different way than Grinnell.

The differences between Grinnell and SIUE are complex, but a brief history of the schools illustrates the ideological, cultural, and economic difference between the two schools. In 1846, Grinnell was founded by a notoriously progressive group of abolitionist ministers. SIUE, founded 111 years later in 1957, was created in response to social pressures regarding the growing need for higher education in the developing St. Louis Metro-East area.

Southern Illinois’s need for higher education relates to a history that my parents lived through, a history with which my family and I identify. In the late 1950s, East St. Louis, which was the largest Southern Illinois town with 83,000 people, was considered a healthy semi-urban area suitable for family living. A sharp economic decline coupled with racial tensions caused a rapid mass migration, a “white flight,” from East St. Louis to surrounding towns like Belleville (where I grew up), Fairview Heights (where my mom and dad’s families white-flew to in the 60s), and other small cities or towns.

East St. Louis’s economic devolution influenced most of the area, as families like my parents’ relocated to cities all throughout Southern Illinois. SIUE was created partly in response to this demographic shift. Based on my observations of SIUE’s student body, many students are from the same background as me, but many others come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds as well. The State of Illinois provides at least some financial aid to students with high need, and SIUE enrolls a significant population of these students. However, many upper class Illinois families send their kids to SIUE, receiving little to no financial aid. Overall, then, SIUE’s student body represents a diverse range of economic backgrounds. SIUE and Grinnell both display some diversity, but the differences between the two schools far outweigh the similarities.

The primary divergence is the general motive behind a student’s decision to attend each school, a decision tied to the institutional goals of each school.

From what I understand, both Grinnell and SIUE have succeeded in their respective goals. Grinnell (although some would reasonably disagree) values free thought, enrolls students from a diverse range of backgrounds, and intellectually prepares students for a wide range of academic and professional endeavors. SIUE values an education more practical to the economic needs of the surrounding communities, enrolls mostly students from the local area, and prepares students to enter into more specialized job markets like engineering, nursing, and computer information systems management. Grinnell students typically pursue intellectual interests, while SIUE students typically study a particular field that will ensure them a certain employment opportunity.

However, this is not to say that these schools narrowly educate their students; I know several SIUE grads who are pursuing academic endeavors, and I know Grinnell students who plan on entering employment-particular programs after Grinnell. But, in general, Grinnell’s curriculum is geared towards academic post-graduate ventures, while SIUE’s is focused on pre-professional training.

Having studied at both schools, I’ve seen how these differences are manifested on a visible, personal level. A concise way to exemplify this difference in student attitudes is the average reaction to my major, philosophy. At SIUE, the answer was usually something like: “What can you do with that?” or simply “Why?” At Grinnell, that sentiment is barely present in people’s reactions. Instead, students ask something like: “What kind of philosophy are you most interested in?” or “What do you WANT to do after Grinnell?” These responses certainly represent the missions of the schools: SIUE students are in school to qualify themselves for future work experiences, and a philosophy degree has no apparent value to the current job market. Grinnell students, on the other hand, seeking the “honorable discharge of the duties of life” and “free inquiry,” are also studying areas that have no immediate or apparent relationship to the labor market. Liberal arts majors make up 43% of SIUE’s student body, while Grinnell’s is 100% liberal arts majors by definition.

The opportunity to study what I want to, rather than what I need to or should study improves the intellectual aspect of college learning. SIUE provided me with a valuable education in different liberal arts subjects, but the student atmosphere did not challenge me to go beyond the immediate course syllabus requirements. An undergraduate culture is undoubtedly related to an institution’s purpose. Grinnell’s emphasizing of on-campus residency, school-wide events, and self-governance contributes to an intensely unique collegiate experience. The Grinnell experience aligns with my personal identity (or my ideal personal identity) more closely than the SIUE experience does.

Here, my understanding of course material is enhanced by discussions at every DHall meal, every weekend party, and almost every peer interaction in general. I consider Grinnell to promote a more interactive, engaging, and social type of learning than SIUE, and I consider this type of learning an enormous privilege.

Some of you may have not considered the privilege that we are afforded as Grinnellian, liberal arts students. Most SIUE students chose SIUE in consideration of two factors: cost and post-grad employment. SIUE is the cheapest undergraduate state school in Illinois, and it offers programs that promise stable employment opportunities to its graduates. Many SIUE students come to SIUE with a particular program in mind, like nursing, civil engineering, or pharmacy. Essentially, the average SIUE student’s choice to attend is based on the school’s affordability and its ability to offer them job security after graduation.

Grinnell is unique to its peer colleges, as many students admitted are given enough aid to be able to afford enrollment. But, most SIUE students are not aware of schools with aid like Grinnell, nevertheless the complex admissions process that Grinnell requires (in comparison to SIUE). Aspects of admissions like the dreaded Common App, the insane standardized testing preparations, and the rigorous AP classes that Grinnellians are accustomed to speaking of are not familiar processes to the average Southern Illinois pre-college student.

The many liberal arts courses that I took at SIUE were taught by well-qualified professors. In fact, I maintain that the faculty at SIUE is generally comparable in quality to the faculty at Grinnell; most professional academics will tell you that academia is saturated with capable teachers and researchers. Moreover, most liberal arts class sizes were not much larger at SIUE than at Grinnell. The difference in rigorousness and quality of liberal arts courses between SIUE and Grinnell, then, is mainly characterized by the difference in the undergraduate environment. Class conversation at Grinnell facilitates an intellectually engaging learning experience, and SIUE does not offer the same kind of engagement. But what is the source of this discrepancy?

SIUE and Grinnell greatly differ in the socio-economic standings of their students. Many SIUE students work 20-30 hours per week while taking a full or part-time course load. Grinnell students could not conceivably work a job with these kinds of hours. Grinnellians use the term “work” to describe a research paper, a reading, or another academic project. At SIUE, academic projects are referred to as “homework,” and “work” typically indicates wage employment. Grinnellians ask each other: “How much work do you have tonight?” Contrastively, SIUE students ask each other: “What time do you work today?” or “How many hours do you work per week?”

If you were going to school full time to get a degree in nursing while working part-time to pay your tuition/bills/family living expenses, how concerned would you be about Descartes’s mind-body problem? Even most Grinnell philosophy students are annoyed by this problem, but if you’re putting yourself through 4 years of SIUE to secure a certain job, thinking about such an abstract, disconnected, and life-detached contemplation seems like a waste of time.

I have always loved thinking about these problems, and I think all kinds of people, regardless of demographic background, can enjoy entertaining these problems too. But not all people are able to center their college decisions on the question, “Where will I explore interesting ideas the most?” In fact, I would argue that most Americans today premise their college choice on the question, “Where will I be able to afford and earn a degree that qualifies me for a job?”

I consider myself incredibly privileged to be able to explore the ideas that I want. Many of my friends at SIUE have the intellectual desires and capabilities to explore such issues, yet lack the socio-economic background to do so. SIUE students have the resources to pursue the academic lifestyle, due to passionate professors that strive for student participation. Unfortunately, many students cannot use these academic opportunities because they’re too busy outside of the classroom with jobs and families. Grinnell is by no means the only place where intellect can be exercised, but it is a rare place that this intellectual exercise is prioritized. By placing students in an environment where everyone is able to focus on school and campus community, Grinnell provides a powerful education.

But are we actually privileged? Are these educational opportunities necessarily better than those prevalent at SIUE and similar schools? This is an important question, one that requires a thorough understanding of the relationship between the higher education system and the modern political economy. Nevertheless, we shouldn’t feel guilty about this possible privilege, but I do think we should feel responsible to give more people opportunities to learn in the “liberal” sense: to learn for the sake of learning.  And if we do consider Grinnell to display a better educational model, the question then becomes: how do we change political and economic forces in such a way that allows for the average American to have these educational opportunities?

We don’t have to worry about paying bills or feeding our families, at least in the same way that many SIUE students do. Our educational experience is supported by excellent financial aid that allows us to focus on school and not employment. Simply stated, more money needs to be put into higher education, whether private or public, if the Grinnellian educational model is to be available to the general population.

When I arrived at Grinnell in January 2014, I was worried that I wasn’t prepared for, smart enough for, or comfortable enough with the Grinnell culture. Throughout my time here, I’ve realized that this environment is nothing more than a different culture: a way of life that Southern Illinois did not introduce me to. Participating in spontaneous critical discussions, attending lectures with friends, and excitedly planning out class schedules are a few components of this culture. Southern Illinois has its own culture too, one that is not fixated on intellectual activities.

I left SIUE because I craved an environment that would house my social and educational wants. Before my time here, I felt foreign to, and even rejected from, the identity that I wanted to embody. Luckily, Grinnell has taught me that I am not alone in pursuing an identity that does not parallel my background. Many students here come from more disadvantaged backgrounds than I do, and many of them perform better in school than me. Levels of intellectual capabilities are not inherent to class or race, but class and race certainly condition people’s opportunities to develop and appreciate what they want. The full time SIUE student who works 20 hours a week simply does not have the time and energy to take up rigorous academic “work.” At Grinnell, our goal is to take up this work as our full time job, and I thoroughly enjoy this full time position.