I wasn’t overly excited or astonished when I got an email saying I had been accepted into Wellesley College. If anything, I was relieved. Wellesley had become my first choice after visiting multiple college campuses, and I had kind of expected to get in. At that point, I hadn’t quite grasped the prestige of the school.
My mom was ecstatic when she heard the news — like, eyes-shining-with-pride, so happy, so proud of me. My English teacher cried tears of joy. My principal was excited to add Wellesley College to the list of colleges students at my high school had been accepted to. As for me? I could finally breathe.
For a while, my greatest achievement in life was coming to this college, moving across the country, sometimes just barely surviving, but simultaneously thriving. Coming here and living this far from home has definitely been one of the most challenging things I have done in my life. It’s also one of the things that has made me proudest of myself. There were days I would question how I even got here, what great power granted me the privilege to be here, who even allowed me to study among some of the greatest minds in the world. That being said, I know I am capable, and I am worthy — and I think that’s something to be proud of.
Two years into my time at Wellesley, a single discussion in my sociology class shook the entire foundation of pride I stood upon.
In a group discussion, I found myself more outspoken than usual. At one point, my professor even leaned in to listen to what I was saying. That’s when I started to listen to myself too: I sounded eloquent and articulate, and I was talking about things I truly care about. I was speaking of the social inequality involved in current grading systems, throwing around terms and phrases like implicit and explicit bias, systematic oppression, disparities in the access to and allocation of resources and the inherent dangers of maintaining a meritocratic mindset. In that moment, I thought I sounded intelligent, educated and well-versed in sociological ideologies.
Soon after, I realized I sounded as if a liberal arts college took me in, chewed me up and spit me back out. It wasn’t as if I was saying anything special, anything different from what anyone else was saying. Everyone in that classroom was perfectly capable of articulating their points and getting them across. Suddenly, I wasn’t so proud of my elite education anymore. I just felt obnoxiously privileged.
I realized Wellesley is the perfect breeding ground for the meritocracy we were deriding in class. The whole “meritocratic mindset” is constantly perpetuated: we’re a bunch of elite students fearing failure, craving success. An internship at Goldman Sachs is just another gold star to add to our resumes. You get bonus points if you put forth policy recommendations while working at a congressperson’s office over the summer. If you take a class way out of your comfort zone, you might as well take it credit/non so it doesn’t negatively affect your GPA.
Wellesley is an environment in which students feel they must push themselves to put their absolute best foot forward — even to the detriment of our own physical and mental health. We become enraptured with this idea of prosperity stemming from talent and hardwork, of being successful and obtaining a high status, a high income. That’s all owed to the meritocratic culture maintained at Wellesley.
I had another realization after my sociology class discussion, too. All of our points in the discussion were different. They may have been similar in their makeup, but at their cores, the answers all sprung forth from different backgrounds, different life experiences. I realized that that was what made each of our points special — our own backgrounds, our own life experiences.
As for me, I grew up in a good family. I went to a decent primary and middle school and an all-girls private Catholic college preparatory high school. I now attend Wellesley College: a prestigious college in a wealthy New England town with an entire cohort of extremely accomplished alumni. I am taught by Pulitzer Prize winners, knighted professors and Nobel prize candidates. Merit-wise, my life definitely isn’t too shabby.
While I now understand the prestige of Wellesley College, I also understand the prevalence of meritocracy that goes hand in hand with the prestige. Students’ self worth is not, and should never be, derived from all of the gold stars. Our worth is derived from just being us, and existing and living — that’s amazing enough.