On privilege

October 4, 2019

I immigrated with my mom from Bangladesh when I was four to join my dad who was then a photograph specialist at a shop in Cambridge, MA. I realize that while my parents may not be college educated, growing up in Cambridge has given me enormous privileges. I think it’s still hard for people to understand that being privileged is not black and white. It is not that you are or you are not. We fall on a radar graph, but I like to think of it more that we all are fortunate somehow. Perhaps it’s that we come from loving families, our family owns a car or we went to a really great high school. We all have different types of social, economic and institution capital that we can leverage.

I have had friends tell me that they feel guilty about being fortunate because they do not have to worry about money or home. I love my friends, so I tell them that it is important to realize that if they want to do something about their privilege, feeling pity is not it. Giving back to the community, taking a friend out to lunch or dinner or leveraging your privilege to make sure others are heard is the way to go.

For example, when I was at the student fair, my club: Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS), which was founded to help Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans gain leadership experience, careers and degrees in the science, was between two other clubs: Brandeis Encourages Women in Science and Engineering  (BeWise, for which I am also an E-board member) and Society of Asian American Scientists and Engineers (SASE). Both clubs had many more people sign up for their email list than SACNAS. 

I told the freshmen gathering around that SACNAS is a national organization which aims to increase the diversity of the science workforce and about our upcoming events, but many simply smiled and moved on. Sitting there and having people pass by as I advertised our club upset me. I’m trying to figure out how we can teach others to care about issues that are not directly affecting them. How can I still voice my thoughts without generalizing so people care? 

Despite this, I think the sciences at Brandeis really bonds people from different backgrounds because the classes are rigorous. However, as a first-generation student, I quickly realized that everyone has some other method of support. I once had a TA tell me that she aced her classes because she had gathered practice exams from up to five years back. There are other people who take Adderall, have hired personal tutors or have a Chegg account. There are also others who I heard have simply cheated using their phones during the test or in the bathroom. Many even have parents who can talk to them about what they’re learning. 

It’s a little amazing to me to think about all the ways I have to level the playing field for myself, but it is also really great for my ever-present imposter syndrome. First generation students can perhaps have similar resources too, through the institution, but it’s usually costly in time and/or money.  I can’t go to office hours in the evening when I’m doing my homework; I have to plan to see a TA or a professor. I can’t afford to drop a class and take it over the summer. Simply put, time is money and money is time.

So I hope, dear science students, that as you are studying for exams in the coming weeks, you study with someone you’ve never studied with before and go get lunch at Sherman with someone new, someone you know you immediately crossed off as your potential friend because of how they look or because of other implicit biases. More than once I have had someone ignore me as their partner, although I was sitting right next to them, for someone behind them. It’s unwelcoming and you can do better, especially if your future goal is to enter the medical community.

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