Pearls and Cashmere, The Value of Education, and Why I’m Donating to DePauw Today

Those who regularly read my blog know that I generally keep it light and fun. I don’t like to tackle serious or controversial topics or get really political. But today I’m going to step outside that safety box and write about something I feel very passionate about: education.

A 1984 Smith College alum recently wrote a letter to the editor of the student newspaper complaining about the admission standards her college now had, mainly admitting minorities, lesbians, low-income students and Ivy League rejects. You can read the full text of the rants here, but my favorite part was the gem she used to conclude her letter:

I can tell you that the days of white, wealthy, upper-class students from prep schools in cashmere coats and pearls who marry Amherst men are over. This is unfortunate because it is this demographic that puts their name on buildings, donates great art and subsidizes scholarships.

Smith students and alumnae have responded to Ms. Spurzem’s letter with a blog appropriately called Pearls and Cashmere. I’ve been obsessed with this blog over the past day, reading the many stories alums and current students–Smithies, as they call themselves–have shared of why they chose Smith and what their Smith education has done from them. Many are from the very backgrounds Spurzem attacks in her letter. Some are of the same upper-middle class background Spurzem occupies. Others fit into a mix of her narrowly-defined student classifications. It’s a really amazing blog with a beautiful testament to the power of education.

I didn’t attend Smith College but I have a great deal of respect for it and its fellow Seven Sisters schools, a group of women’s colleges that provided a top tier education when the Ivy Leagues were still too sexist to believe that women could attend their institutions. These are colleges that have turned out Gloria Steinem, Barbara Bush, Margaret Mitchell, and Julia Child (Smith); Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright (Wellesley); Emily Dickinson (Mount Holyoke); Twyla Tharp and Anna Quindlen (Barnard); Benazir Bhutto and Stockard Channing (Radcliffe); Katharine Hepburn (Bryn Mawr); Meryl Streep (Vasaar). Smith still exists today as an all-women’s college, alongside fellow sister institutions Wellesley, Mount Holyoke, Bryn Mawr, and Barnard. Vassar is now co-educational while Radcliffe is part of Harvard.

While my diploma doesn’t bear the Smith name, I couldn’t help but want to stand in solidarity with the women Ms. Spurzem attacked, mainly because I know if she had been an alum of my school I would have been the type of person she was disappointed had gotten through the admissions process.

I was a first generation college student from a middle class family. I grew up knowing that college was the only option. My parents both attended college but didn’t finish. They grew up in families where higher education was a foreign concept. My grandparents were sign painters, bank tellers, GM workers. One of them didn’t finish high school. But they did okay and my parents did okay.

I started looking at colleges online when I was in 8th grade. I had my first college tour at Ole Miss as a high school freshman. I liked school. I worked HARD. Good grades were the only options I set for myself. I barely had a social life. And despite moving my junior year of high school, missing over a month of classes in the process and transferring somewhere that was twice the size of my first high school, I graduated in the top 3% of my class of 504. I had a public school education all the way and I don’t for a second think that was a bad thing.

When I applied to colleges, money was an issue. When I toured Emory, there was concern I wouldn’t fit in with the wealthy student body. When I visited DePauw with my mom and we returned telling my dad how wonderful the school was, there was fear of the $40,000 a year price tag.

But DePauw believed in me. They bent over backwards to show me I deserved to be there with emails and post cards and all kinds of materials in the mail. They rewarded my hard work and my parents’ job instilling the value of education with a full scholarship, making it more affordable than Ole Miss and Indiana University, both schools that overall did little to show they cared whether I went there or not. I didn’t choose DePauw entirely because they gave me the most money, and had I really, truly, absolutely wanted to go to IU or Ole Miss my parents would have gone with it. I went to DePauw because I knew that I would have an opportunity to be somebody there. I knew that I would get to know my professors. I knew I would go to school with brilliant peers. I knew I would be challenged to think. I knew that I would be asked to do my part to change the world and be given the tools to do so.

My DePauw experience changed me in more ways than I will probably ever be able to clearly recognize, and when I walked to class each fall under the changing leaves I always thought that I could not have been more blessed to have attended such a prestigious school. And the thing is, DePauw has a history of believing in students of all walks of life. Just a few weeks ago I sat in the oldest building on campus and listened to Vernon Jordan speak, a black man who grew up poor in Atlanta and graduated from DePauw in the deeply race-divided 1950s. He went on to be a brilliant man in law and the civil rights movements and stood at a podium over fifty years later with great pride in his DePauw education and experience.

Just as so many of those wonderful Smith alumnae and collegians are proud of their institution and their backgrounds, I’m proud of mine, and I am deeply saddened and angered to see that such blatant racism and classism still threatens the educational livelihoods of deserving students. And of course, this letter comes into discussion around the same time a presidential candidate calls President Obama a snob for thinking people deserve access to a college education.

To Ms. Spurzem: No, I’m not upper-middle class, I don’t own cashmere, and my pearls are fake. I’m not married to an Amherst man or anyone for that matter, though anything is possible. I believe in my education, I’m proud of my background, and I’m proud of DePauw and Smith and all of the other liberal arts institutions who are reaching out to students who might not get a chance elsewhere. Today I may not be able to put my name on a building or donate priceless works of art or subsidize a scholarship, but the wonderful thing is there is a chance that I will be able to one day thanks to my degree and the opportunities my school gave me.

Less than a year out I’m pretty broke right now, but today, Leap Day and the day of the Meeker Challenge–in which Lis Meeker, a 1978 alum, is willing to match all donations graduates of the last decade make dollar for dollar up to $20,000–I’m going to give the few dollars I can. Because one day those dollars might help a student like me.


4 thoughts on “Pearls and Cashmere, The Value of Education, and Why I’m Donating to DePauw Today

  1. Sarah, what a wonderful, heart-felt commentary! Thank you for sharing your story. I’m a Smith alumna, class of ’86, and while I didn’t know Ms Spurzem (I also transferred to Smith after two years at a local community college), I do remember what Smith was like in the early-mid 1980’s. Sure, there were plenty of very wealthy, white, aristocratic women there, and there were students like me, first-generation college, poor, working nearly full time and commuting (and started at a community college to save money). I didn’t own any pearls until a couple of years ago, and don’t own any cashmere (though I love how it feels). I always preferred to think that Smith admitted me not because they thought I would marry a wealthy Amherst man and give billions of dollars to Smith but because they thought I had the brains and ability to succeed at Smith. What I do with my Smith education (or any education) is up to me. I had a scholarship, had to take out loans, worked 30 hours per week, and commuted to school. It wasn’t easy, but I appreciate what Smith did for me–expose me to people (faculty, students, staff) who were different from me, expose me to different ways of thinking, got me to dig down, do research, think and write critically. I do not regret going to Smith, and sometimes I wish that I had spent all four years there (and had a chance to live on campus) because I would have had more opportunities to take different courses, to explore ideas and career possibilities, to get to know more people and learn more about others and the world. If it had not been for the scholarship, there is no way I could have afforded to go to Smith. In the 1980’s, as today, the world is much more than wealthy white women from Fairfield County, CT, and the more different kinds of people you are exposed to, the better off you will be both at work and in life. And that goes for those of us who had never experienced anything other than our own working class or poor backgrounds too. I know that there were others at Smith during Ms Spurzem’s time there who did not fit into the narrow background she described; it seems she did not meet any of them, not in her classes, nor in her house, nor in any of the clubs or other activities in which she may have participated, and that is a shame.

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