Fish out of Water: A Working Class Student in an Elite Institution
To the young people from working class backgrounds who are celebrating A-Level results, be proud, because you’ve won the fight against an education system that has been engineered to make you fail. Even though you haven’t had the same opportunities as others, you have succeeded. Unfortunately this isn’t the end of your fight; my experience shows that you’ve just jumped the first hurdle on a journey where the odds are stacked against you.
Three years ago, I was accepted by the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) to study a BSc in Sociology on my A Level Results Day. I was the first in my family and my school to be accepted into LSE, and I was proud of my working class background. To me, class isn’t just economic: it is social, political and cultural, and it forms your outlook on life. This affected my journey through university.
As the first person in my family to go to university, I didn’t know what to expect. Filled with a sense of adventure, my first term was not what I anticipated. Within the first weeks, a student told me I needed elocution lessons, and an academic declared in a lecture that ‘poor people don’t come to this university’. When you tell someone that or make them feel as though they do not belong in a particular space, you are perpetuating a politics of space that says there are some places that exclusively belong to some people, whilst other places belong to others. Being in an unfamiliar space, I felt alienated; had it not been for the friends I had made, I would have left the university I worked so hard towards attending.
I was told early on that it is a sign of a healthy learning environment to have a lot of debate, and come across different ideas. However, I found that there was a fine line between defending the working class and the way I grew up, and having a healthy academic debate. Fighting to have your own narrative when your voice is not deemed valuable is a lot of work – work that most of my fellow students didn’t have to do. When the subject of class, benefits or housing came up, I often readied myself to have my background insulted and questioned, and I felt separate from my identity. I grew up on the world’s biggest council estate, and my family relied on benefits; I was not prepared to be made to feel ashamed of that by someone who had been given everything by their parents or their connections.
The reality is that in a broken education system, university doesn’t level the playing field or eradicate your disadvantage. We do not live in a meritocratic society where if you work hard you can achieve what you want to achieve. Instead, you are met with persistent barriers that you have to overcome, and must work twice as hard as your privileged peers. Now that I’ve left university I face a new battle: finding a good job. With no connections and no funding available for further study or living costs, time for job hunting is limited. My more privileged peers seem to be so much more relaxed, after all, they have the networks and wealth that provide a stepping stone into graduate jobs.
Of course, it wasn’t all bad. I met academics and students who nurtured my anger and resentment into something useful: getting class on the agenda, and debating inequality. Thus, in my final year at university, class once again became central to my university experience. Here I was able to form some networks of solidarity with academics and other working class students, often comparing our experiences. One friend was even advised to leave the university when having family issues, and I quickly found that this wasn’t uncommon. This made me realise that it’s not just the snobbery or elitist values of individuals that’s the problem, but the education system itself and how it is geared to benefit the already privileged whilst disadvantaging the rest of us.
My advice to the young people who’ve won the golden ticket to the world of elite universities is to prepare to work harder, and look out for the people that will give you the added support you may need to fight class prejudice – your teachers, family, and friends. It won’t be easy, but pushing social boundaries never is.