It was spring break at Wellesley. Most students had left campus, and those who remained were indoors due to cold weather. Still, I hoped to find opportunities to relax, socialize and make some new friends during the time off from classes (That was idealistic, huh?).
Finally, a warm(er) day came! 58 degrees. By the standards of my hometown, this would still be considered quite chilly. But I welcomed this temperature, since we had been stuck in the gloomy 40s and below for a while. It cheered me up and made me eager to go outside.
I chose to live in Severance Hall for one reason: I wanted a chance to take in the beauty surrounding Wellesley on the older side of campus. I find pleasure and tranquility in seeing Lake Waban on a daily basis. Ironically, though, on days both snowy and sunny, Severance Green is occupied by more off-campus families than Wellesley students.
Over the break, I had several unpleasant encounters with Wellesley town residents. I have gotten the impression that these strangers, who are completely unaffiliated with the college, feel entitled to the space that should belong to students. I know I am not the only student who has felt intensely anxious in the presence of the townspeople. This is one of many factors with a negative impact on the social climate of Wellesley College. I hope we can confront this issue to ensure students have a more fulfilling, holistic college experience.
So on this early spring day, there was nothing I would rather do than sit on one of the lawn chairs by the lake. It was a gorgeous scene to behold, but something crucial was missing. Where was the student presence? Where were all the young people having fun and letting loose?
It became glaringly obvious to me that I was the sole student in this outdoor area. I ached to see at least one fellow sibling nearby.
In my vicinity, I saw a lot of older white people, families with young children and groups of 20-something men unaccompanied by Wellesley students. Presumably, these people were residents of the town of Wellesley or nearby places. It was clear that they were not students, yet their presence dominated the college campus at which they were visitors. I felt out of place and intensely self-conscious among them.
A number of questions ran through my head. Would they judge me for being here and acting like, well, a college student on spring break? How would they react if I made myself more visible and obvious in this space? Should I go somewhere else so they can feel comfortable using our college campus as their Sunday evening retreat?
I decided to say no to the last question. I wanted to make it known that students ARE here over break and we want to embrace our beautiful space for ourselves. So I disconnected my headphones and played a silly, happy song (Brother Sport by Animal Collective) at the loudest possible volume.
I tried to enjoy the song freely, but I braced myself, knowing that the music might make the townspeople unhappy. It took only a couple minutes before I was pierced by disdainful stares. Parents started to wave their children away from me. They backed away from me as if I were a threat for an action as simple and innocuous as playing music outdoors. I was somewhat saddened but unsurprised by this reaction. This was not the first time I have had a negative interaction with a townsperson; most of them pull their dogs away when they try to greet me. I love seeing dogs on campus, though, and take no issue with them; it’s their rude human companions who bother me.
An older man sitting alone next to me asked me to stop playing the music. “Could you turn that down?” I felt the ice in his voice as he spoke to me, looking as if he had never been so annoyed in his life. Had he ever even interacted with a Wellesley student before?
“No. I want to hear music,” I said.
The grimace on his face intensified. “Well, some of us don’t. You have headphones. You’re being inconsiderate.”
He probably thought I would back down, but I had a response ready quickly. “I’m being inconsiderate by taking up space here? Sir, this is a college campus on spring break. There are plenty of places you can go if you don’t want to hear music.”
He left, but I was still unable to relax afterwards. The mood was killed and I had lingering anxiety for the entire day.
I can certainly understand why people want to visit and appreciate our campus so frequently. It is a visual masterpiece in all four seasons. Who better to enjoy it, however, than the students? As long as no one is being truly disruptive, students’ enjoyment, safety, and comfort on our own campus should be prioritized. Students’ chosen recreational activities and social lives should come before the complaints of disgruntled suburbans. Loud and wild parties are incredibly rare here compared to other campuses. We know how to treat our space with respect; we just need to be given space, freedom and independence to have fun here.
I have often thought I stick out like a sore thumb at Wellesley –– I am not sure if this is because of the way I look, the casual way I speak or some other factor. Wellesley was a whole other world for me when I first arrived. I experienced culture shock; the social conventions of elite New Englanders confused me and wore me out. I started to feel like I was an invader in this strange town.
How could a girl like me –– a first-generation student from El Paso, Texas –– end up so far from home, at such a prestigious institution? Why would the town locals think to treat me with basic decency and respect? It was like I was invisible to them. I realized I was expected to move out of their way whenever they wandered onto our campus. I stepped off the paths so that large groups of townspeople could walk by me at their leisurely pace.
It is unfair that I feel forced to shrink myself and simmer down when wealthy townspeople are around. As long as these guests have a stronger presence than students do on campus, I will not be able to enjoy Wellesley to the fullest. I am tired of feeling trapped inside because the town residents do not respect our boundaries. Spending time outside is an important coping mechanism for me, so this situation takes a significant toll on my mental health.
Today, as I write this, it is another relatively warm and pleasant day. A few hours ago, I went outside to cherish the upper 60s temperatures. I faced the exact same problem as I did last weekend. I was the only student walking around, so I felt alienated from the very campus in which I live. I tried to stand my ground and make myself comfortable in the outdoors. I sat cross-legged on the grass at Severance Green ––with headphones in this time, so as not to ruffle any townspeople’s delicate feathers.
Two men in their 40s and 50s approached me and asked if there was food at Lulu. I was brief and relatively polite with them. One of them felt the need to tell me about his past relationship with a Wellesley student. She was too much of a “workaholic” for him, he said. I stopped talking so he took this as an invitation to ask strange questions about my ethnicity.
It was difficult not to roll my eyes at these two random guys. Yes, genius, I am Latina, you figured it out! I know you think I’m exotic and different because I have black hair, dark almond eyes and big lips. I have heard this 20 times and I can easily guess at what your intentions are. I am not obligated to reveal personal information such as my ethnic background to men I do not know. I did nothing to deserve such unpleasant, unsolicited interactions with these townspeople. Still, I find myself feeling so small, vulnerable, afraid and voiceless, as if it was indeed my fault.
The many admissions tours in the past few weeks have only increased non-Wellesley hostility. I can’t go outside or hang out in a living room without a tour group arriving and looking at me like I’m a zoo animal.
When I was a prospective student, I was excited to visit the campus and admissions accommodated me very nicely, so I understand why admissions season is an exciting time and I want to make prospies feel welcomed. But sometimes I am not prepared to be so hospitable, given that I am a current student under intense mid-semester stress. I think it is reasonable for students to be notified when complete strangers are touring our dorms, our common spaces.
I am just one student and I could not determine the best solution to this complicated issue. However, I can propose two concrete ideas for the administration to consider:
1) Instate limited visiting times for off-campus visitors. Exceptions would be visiting prospies and guests who are personally accompanied by a Wellesley student. Perhaps we could choose specific time slots on each day when town residents may enter the campus. How about 4-6 pm, when children have just been released from school and lots of people have more down time? Or 6-10 am, when most students would not want to be outside, anyway? This seems like a reasonable chunk of time for people to have a morning nature walk, and of course, town residents could still come for events that welcome off-campus guests, such as for cultural shows.
2) Inform students of times that there will be tours in our residence halls. We live here, you know. We deserve to be given a heads up if groups of strangers will be entering the building frequently.
Regardless of what happens going forward, I will not allow any townsperson to belittle me in such a manner ever again. I know I am not imagining these rich people’s feelings of disgust toward me, as they are not all that subtle about it. I will not listen to those who would tell me I am selfish for being as upfront as I was. Nor will I let them make me feel self-conscious. Considering my time at Wellesley is limited, I will take what I deserve and enjoy this space while I can. Playing audible music in an outdoor space hurts no one. I was not “too loud” or enjoying myself “too much.”
I am open to input from fellow students on this. If my words resonate with you, it would make my day if you were to reach out and let me know. If you do not like something I have said in this letter, feel free to confront me directly. We do not need anonymous platforms to connect with each other; it feels better just to get things off our chests honestly and directly. I am not trying to come off as combative or rebellious for the sake of it. I merely want to see a Wellesley that is warmer, more fun for students and more welcoming of difference.