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Over Indian food, students discuss the important issue of elitism at Penn in Civic House's Open Forum. Credit: Morgan Rees

Students gathered at Civic House on Tuesday night to discuss elitism at Penn in an open forum, bringing up issues of privilege and class on Penn’s campus and in the surrounding area. The discussion touched on areas such as the use of language, financial and racial privilege, Penn’s social hierarchies and a culture of exclusion.

College junior and Civic House Program Assistant Tahir Bell hoped the forum would allow for students to learn from others that they wouldn’t normally talk to in order to facilitate a conversation about financial disparities at Penn.

“I think it’s really healthy for us to talk about the different kinds of struggles students have to go through and the absence of struggles sometimes,” he said at the forum.

The discussion began with a viewing of the video “3 Ways to Speak English,” a TED Talk by Jamila Lyiscott, a spoken word artist, which led to a conversation about the hierarchy of language and how it contributes to a culture of elitism.

“I’ve always had to talk in a certain way to certain people or else they won’t take me seriously,” College freshman Aiden Castellanos said.

Then began a discussion about the meaning of “elitism” and the barriers it causes, both socially and academically. Students noted that much of the elitism they experience is unconscious — those considered “elite” do not necessarily recognize that they set themselves apart from everyone else.

“There’s this idea that ... we’re coming from the same backgrounds,” College freshman and Civic House Program Assistant Ayah El-Fahmawi said. “People tend to project their identities onto other people.”

The conversation also touched on social divisions at Penn. Students discussed a perceived culture of exclusion on campus, with complaints about the exclusivity of parties during New Student Orientation and the feeling that cliques had begun forming immediately upon arriving to Penn. Some attendees said they felt the social hierarchy was already apparent in the first week of school, due to some students’ propensity to live with, and consequently socialize with, people from similar backgrounds.

“The elite groups hang out with each other,” Bell said.

The discussion of elitism was not limited to the types found on Penn’s campus, however. The conversation also broached the topic of attending Penn: how Penn students see themselves and how they are seen, as Ivy League students compared to students at other universities.

“People make offhand comments about Drexel kids,” College freshman Veronica Kowalski said.

Students further discussed Penn’s community service culture, and how insincere it can seem. Some pointed out that community service projects at Penn constitute just “resume padding” and reinforce Penn’s “saviorist attitude” toward the Philadelphia community.

“Once you’re there it’s all about padding your resume,” one student said regarding community service projects at Penn. She also touched on how students’ elitism extends into their efforts to improve their community. “You can’t just throw money on things,” she added.

As the forum came to a close, Bell urged everyone in the room to continue the discussion of elitism and privilege with their peers.

“This shouldn’t be a space where this is the only place we’re having this discussion,” he said. “The next step is to ... spread these thoughts.”

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