Guest Post: Doing Greek Right

Hello and apologies for the unintentional blogging hiatus. A good friend has sent me this guest post about her experience with Northwestern’s Greek system. My own opinions on the Greek system are probably familiar to everyone who reads this, but I enjoy discovering other perspectives and sharing them, too. Enjoy!

During my stint at Northwestern a million and a half years ago, the most popular cliché, along with “Wait, is this Swift or Annie May Swift?” and “Good lord, do those Theater kids on the ground floor of Norris ever stop talking?” was “I NEVER thought I’d join a sorority/fraternity.” In fact, statistically speaking, about one out of every three Northwestern students you met probably said, or at least felt, this sentiment at some point. They never thought they’d be one of “those” Greeks who carried around cute little tote bags, or had a house mom with a 1950s housewife name like PeggyAnn or Sue, or hung up a paddle (that came engraved with the warning “FOR DECORATIVE PURPOSES ONLY”) on the wall.

I am a cliché. To be fair, I’m an extreme version of the cliché- I’m a feminist and my hair looks like a yield sign and I once literally flew to Boston to be as far away from Dillo Day as possible, three characteristics that are the antithesis of the Greek stereotype. But I am a typical Northwestern student who came into school with a very negative picture of what Greek life could be. Nobody wants to be associated with alcohol poisoning or rape culture or Lifetime original movies–or at least, nobody that I’d ever want to be friends with. When Northwestern students join a sorority or fraternity, they join with the understanding that there are negative stigmas attached to it that didn’t just appear out of nowhere (see: here, here and here). I am also a typical Northwestern student who discovered the dichotomy within the Greek system: Greek life done wrong and Greek life done right.

First, we must travel back to 1896, when four collegiate women at State Female Normal School named Lenora, Julia, Sara and Mary banded together to form a ladies club. Three of these students ended up transferring, probably to schools whose names would make a snappier bumper sticker, but somehow, this friendship ended up growing into the monstrosity that is Kappa Delta. This nonprofit organization still operates under the object that my turn-of-the-century sisters created:

The object of Kappa Delta Sorority is the formation and perpetuation of good fellowship, friendship and sisterly love among its members; the encouragement of literature and education; the promotion of social interest; and the furtherance of charitable and benevolent purposes.

Nothing controversial there, right? We all like a good friendship, and although I haven’t really heard the term “fellowship” outside of Middle Earth, nothing wrong with that, either. In fact, browse through the websites of any Greek organization, and you’ll find the same sort of benevolent mission statement. Pi Kappa Alpha is devoted to “developing men of integrity, intellect, and high moral character and to fostering a truly lifelong fraternal experience.” Kappa Alpha Theta lists its values as scholarship, service, leadership, personal excellence and friendship/sisterhood. While some Greek organizations add their own unique twist–Phi Mu Alpha, for example, promotes “the advancement of music in America”–all Greek organizations were generally organized around the same principles of friendship, philanthropy and academics. What could possibly be wrong about an organization that promotes excellence in these ideals?

Fast forward to 2012. Every month, a new atrocity pops up on Jezebel related to Greek life. A hazing-related death of a “pledge”. Men chanting “No means yes! Yes means anal!” Even at my beloved alma mater, filled with students whose ACT scores are higher than speed limits, two fraternities were kicked off campus in recent memory for hazing charges. I like to think of good old Lenora, Julia, Sara and Mary, along with the rest of the founding fraternity/sorority members, descending from Heaven soon and yelling “What the hell are you doing under the guise of our organization?!”

Greek organizations’ visions and mission statements tend to be pretty vague. This ambiguity is necessary for the perpetuation and universality of these systems- for instance, “personal excellence” looks much different in 1920s Alabama than it does in 2012 New York- but often results is various interpretations of a group’s core values. This is why some sororities feel completely justified in achieving its philanthropic mission through raising a few hundred dollars a year for AIDS research, while other mandate hours of community service per member. This is why some chapters are seen as conservative and backwards thinking, while others are seen as hippie communes. Academics interpret the Constitution in different ways, and Kappa Deltas interpret Kappa Delta’s mission statement in different ways.

The problem, of course, arises when Greek organizations grossly, GROSSLY misinterpret the original intent of a fraternity or a sorority. When “fraternal integrity” somehow becomes “smuggle in seven kegs and make the pledges drink them all.” When “social success” is twisted to become “exclude members of a certain race or sexuality.” When Greek organizations stop existing to develop a member’s character and potential and start existing to fulfill the “Animal House” stereotype. Where is this line drawn? It’s not easy, and it changes over time. For instance, behavior that was once tolerated and even revered by Greeks at Northwestern, like paddling new members, is now considered outright hazing. Old Kappa Delta yearbooks feature photos of sisters in white, full-length ballgowns at formals, a creepy purity tradition that thankfully died long before I joined. Of course, there is behavior that has never, and will never, be indicative of a group’s purpose. Consider the case of George Desdunes, who was tied up by his “brothers,” forced to take shot after shot of vodka, and later died from alcohol poisoning. Tragic, disgusting, and certainly not what the founding fathers of Sigma Alpha Epsilon had in mind when they promised to “promote the highest standards of friendship, scholarship, and service for our members”

Sigma Alpha Epsilon at Cornell has nothing to do with me and my Greek experience. Nothing. The countless examples of Greek-related atrocities are examples of chapters who have gone off in the deep end. Chapters who have strayed so far from their national organization’s original vision that they probably should have been shut down decades ago. Quite simply, chapters who have “done” Greek life wrong.

Here’s the magical thing- Greek life, when “done” right, is simply marvelous. When I say “right,” I mean adhering closely to a fraternity or sorority’s original purposes that timelessly echo through a rapidly changing world. Sticking closely to those pillars of integrity, scholarship and friendship that my four homegirls at State Female Normal School had in mind, and making them play out in modern society.

I wear my letters with the understanding that my chapter has done Greek life the right way. Welcoming new members with coffee dates and Facebook friend requests, not with kegs and blood rituals. Bonding through organized trips to “Les Miserables” and watching the classic Lifetime movie “Dying to Belong,” not through actually pulling a Hilary Swank circa-1985 and climbing up a fifteen story building to impress older sisters. Creating a sisterhood where, sure, sisters can go out and drink together, but it’s friendship first and drinking second.

All around me at Northwestern, I saw friends and campus leaders wearing letters for the exact same reason- they were proud of their organization expressing those time-honored principles of friendship and benevolence in very modern ways. Sigma Chi brothers, recognizing the perpetuation of rape culture in certain fraternities, spearheaded the “Men Against Rape and Sexual Assault” (MARS) student group. Alpha Epsilon Pi raised thousands of dollars for cancer research through selling kosher hot dogs around campus (full disclosure: I love kosher hot dogs). Students from every single Greek organization on campus rose to leadership positions on campus in every single niche possible, from biomedical engineering research to Associated Student Government to aerial arts.  When Greek life is done “right,” people aren’t excluded from joining fraternities or sororities because they’re not “cool” enough- they’re excluded because they demonstrate an interest in leading the chapter down a very bad path.

I see Greek organizations much like I see Christians, albeit as a Jewish outsider. At the heart of Christianity exists genuinely honorable values of love, devotion and forgiveness. One doesn’t have to be Christian to adhere to these values, just like someone doesn’t have to go Greek to honor friendship, scholarship and philanthropy; it’s just another method of developing them.  Of course, the popularity and accessibility of this religion has allowed millions of people to twist Jesus’ name for their own selfish purposes, whether it’s blind proselytizing, denouncing gay marriage or killing their children. Do these grotesque perversions of Christian morals make the essence of Christianity a terrible idea? No. Do Christians who live by the principles of loving their neighbor and all those wonderful Biblical lessons align themselves with the Westboro Baptist Church in the slightest? Absolutely not. Should we end Christianity because of some of its more questionable followers? No, sir.

I started this manifesto with a cliché, and now I’m going to finish with one. We must not throw out the baby with the bathwater. The original purpose of Greek organizations was most certainly not to engage in the atrocities we see today among certain chapters. The national organizations must find the Greek chapters who are “doing Greek right,” immediately shut down the Greek chapters who are most certainly “doing Greek wrong,” and find strong, capable leaders who act in a way that would make their founders proud.

Author’s note: Nicole Collins is a 2011 Northwestern alum who enjoys drinking chai tea, stroking James Franco’s face in tabloids, and reading Miriam’s blog. She teaches 7th and 8th grade science on Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, and was once told by a student that she looks like a troll. Contact her at collins.nicole.i@gmail.com, especially if you’re a cute male Jew who supports comprehensive sex education and Buffy the Vampire Slayer marathons.

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Northwestern: Even More Racist than We Thought

Northwestern’s not known for being an oasis of tolerance. (Examples: here, here, and here.)

But a few members of our student body have decided to sink this school to a new low this past weekend by hosting a party/drinking game called the “Beer Olympics.” A student who saw the event described it this way:

[W]hat I saw Saturday afternoon was really just the “Racist Olympics.” In this backyard were at least 50 kids dressed up as some particular ethnic group or nationality. There were 6 teams: Canada, Ireland, Bangladesh, South Africa, Uganda, and Navajo Nation. All teams but Canada and Ireland signified via horribly racist and offensive mock-ups of these cultures. The noise I had heard came from the “Navajo Nation,” although almost every student in this yard participated in the “Indian call.” Moreover, these students are dressed up in headdresses, leather vests and other stereotypical indigenous garb.

Uganda was represented by students wearing tribalized Kony 2012 shirts. Students representing South Africa seemed to take a much simpler approach. In my presence, a passerby asked why the group chose to wear white t-shirts and black jeans. The response: “We’re South Africa! White on top, black on bottom!” Finally, the Bangladesh group simply dressed themselves in beads and painted red dots on their foreheads (the overwhelming majority of the population in Bengaldesh aren’t Hindi, but Muslim). These chants, the minstrelsy aimed at the expense of the dignity of non-Europeans and the sheer ecstasy of the partiers was sickening and traumatizing.

Apparently the group responsible for this has since released a “statement,” which you can read in the letter that I linked to.

Now, first of all. In case there’s any confusion, this is racist. If you don’t know why, here are some resources.

Second, I wish someone could explain to me this: why? Why do this? We all know college students need no excuse to get drunk, and there’s no reason why drinking games would be any less fun without racism involved.

Third, I feel that the Northwestern community needs to know which group was responsible for this. (Several people I’ve been discussing this with on Facebook have an idea of which group it might be, based on the apparent location of the photos and past traditions, but I won’t accidentally libel anybody.) It’s great that they’ve released a statement and have had “meetings” or whatever it is they’ve had, but ultimately, students who would like to avoid groups that hold big racist drinking games should probably be able to do so. (Yup, it’s the ski team.)

Fourth, when people are being drunk and doing shitty things, I often hear the argument that “Yeah well they’re drunk, what do you expect.” Okay, no. Once you’re an adult, you’re responsible for your actions–all of them–regardless of how much you’ve had to drink. This means that you need to either learn how to behave like a decent human being even if you’ve been drinking, or you need to stop drinking.

Finally, before anybody even goes there, yes, this is free speech. All free speech is legal. Not all free speech contributes anything to our society, and some of it actively harms that society. Let’s stop excusing terrible behavior simply because it happens to be legal.

Northwestern’s administration has been holding all sorts of “forums” on racial issues and proposing various “diversity initiatives,” but honestly, I don’t think any of it’s going to help. (Granted, that isn’t an excuse to just do nothing.) No matter how tolerant Northwestern’s environment is, it won’t undo 18 years of living in a society that perpetuates the stereotypes that these students poked fun at, and–even more insidiously–that teaches us that perpetuating these stereotypes is okay.

Unlearning these lessons is much harder than going to a required orientation program about diversity. After the infamous Northwestern blackface incident of 2009, Josh Feigelson, who used to be a rabbi here, wrote this:

I have long imagined a university in which every junior takes a seminar with a handful of others, drawn from diverse backgrounds, and whose common project is to learn to tell their own story and listen to the stories of others. What would it look like for Northwestern, or for other self-proclaimed secular universities, to actually enact the value of diversity–knowledge of oneself and others in a context of community–in not only its approach to student affairs, but into the heart of the curriculum itself?

I don’t know what that would look like. But I’d really like to know. I hope that Northwestern students, staff, and faculty keep talking about it and trying to imagine it. We shouldn’t abandon it just because it’s hard.

Northwestern Sex Week and Conservative Hypocrisy

Northwestern’s annual Sex Week is coming up next week. Sex Week is basically exactly what it sounds like. I quote their website: “our mission is simple: we want people to start talking. Sex Week is meant to provide students with fun, provocative, and informative opportunities to explore the role of sex and sexuality in our lives. There is no religious or ideological affiliation: just an open forum to learn and discuss.”

Sounds pretty good, right?

Well, according to an organization called the Love & Fidelity Network, Northwestern Sex Week has a major problem:

Northwestern University sponsored its own Sex Week last spring, entitled “Rock her World.” Featured tips for men included how to please their female sex partners.

Despite good intentions for fun and informative sexual health education, many university programs and events lack crucial health information on the emotional and physical harms of casual sex. Health Centers readily distribute condoms as the only real safeguard against STIs (sexually transmitted infections), neglecting to encourage abstinence as a realistic and effective option. Students are not getting the health information they need. [emphasis theirs]

That’s right, our intelligent, well-informed college students are not aware that abstinence is an option. Years of Bush-mandated abstinence-only sex education, along with a heavy cultural stigma against teenage sexuality (particularly female teenage sexuality), have somehow failed to inform us of the basic fact that it is, in fact, physically possible not to have sex.

Who would’ve thought?

They continue:

The institution of marriage and the important role of the family are no longer esteemed and defended, but are instead forgotten or criticized. Students learn to question “traditional” marriage, family, and sexual norms, without being given the appropriate resources to honestly and intelligently evaluate those questions. They learn how to critique these institutions and principles, unaware that a defense exists as well.

Marriage and family are “forgotten?” I don’t know, it’s pretty hard to forget about marriage and family. All around me I see LGBTQ activists fighting for their right to get married in the first place, politicians trumpeting “family values,” and fellow students in serious relationships. I also see that Northwestern actually offers a very popular “Marriage 101” class (apparently that’s not enough to offset the debauchery of Sex Week in the eyes of the Concerned Adults over at the Love & Fidelity Network). Northwestern is also affiliated with an institution that provides family and couples’ therapy, for which I’ve helped with research in the past. This institution is named–wait for it–the Family Institute.

But no, clearly, marriage and family are completely “forgotten” at Northwestern.

According to the Love & Fidelity Network, we lack the “appropriate resources to honestly and intelligently evaluate” questions of marriage and family. Instead, all we can do is criticize and condemn them. In order to evaluate these issues “intelligently,” then, we need resources and events from this completely-unbiased-I-promise-you organization.

First of all, on behalf of Northwestern students, I’d like to thank the folks over at the Love & Fidelity Network for their concern trolling. I really don’t know where we’d be without you.

Second, I’d like to propose a radical idea–what if college students are not actually the dumb, easily brainwashed sheep that you imagine them to be, and what if they are actually capable of critical thinking and of choosing whichever path best suits them in life?

I think I hear crickets.

I want somebody to find me an example of a time when a sexually active college student received information from a conservative group like this one and said, “Wow, abstinence? I never thought of that! I’m totally going to try it now!”

Do college students at times make bad decisions about sex? Of course. They neglect to use condoms. They don’t get tested for STIs enough. They pressure someone into having sex with them. They don’t ask for what they want, or they don’t ask their partner what they want. They’re afraid to give consent, or to withhold it. They use stereotypes to try to understand someone else’s sexuality. They use alcohol to fake a feeling of confidence that they haven’t yet developed.

These are all real problems, and organizations like Sex Week are trying to combat them. These are the problems that college health centers try to solve–and I would know, because I work very closely with my own college health center on many of these issues.

These problems don’t have easy solutions, and sometimes we don’t know what the solutions are.

But you know what isn’t a solution? “Hey guys! Try abstinence! It’s super awesome I swear!”

A caveat–abstinence may be the right choice for some people. No serious sex educator would ever deny this. But the thought process that should lead someone to choose abstinence should go something like this: “You know, I don’t think I’m comfortable having sex yet. I’m going to wait until I feel like it’s right for me.” It should not go like this: “I feel like having sex would make me a slut/mean I have no morals/prevent me from finding a serious partner/make me a bad person.” But that second thought process is the one conservative groups want you to have.

How do I know? I’ll continue to quote from the Love & Fidelity Network’s website:

Today’s college students are the next generation of leaders and parents. There is a desperate need for them to be well-informed about the lifestyles and behaviors that best enable them to live responsibly, reasonably, healthily and morally. [emphasis mine]

So, abstinence = moral, sex = immoral. Surprise, surprise.

These organizations love to pretend that their agenda is based on anything other than their own personal moral codes by claiming that casual sex is “dangerous.” It would take me an entire book to dispel this myth. Maybe I’ll write it someday.

For now, let’s just examine several things that are frequently claimed as “risks” of casual sex. One is STI transmission and pregnancy, which can be almost completely prevented through condoms and other forms of contraception. An inconvenient research finding is that abstinence-centered sex education actually increases the likelihood that young adults will not use proper protection when they inevitably do have sex. (There are many sources for this; Google it.)

Another is sexual assault. Conservatives love to trot this one out, insisting that casual sex is to blame for rape on college campuses. False. Sexual assault is caused by individuals making the decision to have sex with someone else without their consent. It is also caused by a culture that lets rapists go free if their victims seemed to have been “asking for it.”

(Incidentally, why is it that sex-positive organizations and groups like Sex Week and our own campus health center are constantly advocating for victims of sexual assault, whereas conservative groups are always silent except to berate them for “dressing like sluts”? Who’s really looking out for college students’ health and safety here?)

Another “risk” is this amorphous conglomeration of emotional issues that people–fine, let’s be honest, women–apparently face if they have casual sex. In her amazing book What You Really Really Want, Jaclyn Friedman writes:

You may have heard about oxytocin. It’s a chemical that is often released during sexual stimulation. Some studies have shown that when we release oxytocin, it can intensify the feelings (both positive and negative) we have about the person we’re having sex with. Unfortunately, this chemical response has been warped into an argument by abstinence-until-marriage advocates and other social conservatives, who claim that because of this bond, women get hurt by casual sex more than men. And the argument goes further, claimed that if women form an oxytocin bond with too many people, the effect will wear off and they’ll find themselves unable to bond properly with anyone.

Please.

Friedman goes on to cite studies that show that, first of all, it’s too little oxytocin that causes problems, not too much. She also cites research showing that oxytocin is also produced in many other situations, such as playing games, petting dogs, singing in groups, yoga, talking with close friends, and even eating certain foods.

As far as I and other sex-positive writers have been able to find, there is no research actually showing that casual sex is intrinsically harmful.

What is harmful, however, is the shame we choose to burden others with when they express their sexuality in ways that we don’t personally like. And while there are definitely problems with hookup culture, hookup culture and casual sex are not the same thing.

I can go on and on showing the hypocrisy of organizations like the Love & Fidelity Network, but this post is already nearly 1,500 words long. I could talk about how this organization links to the National Organization for Marriage on its site–yes, that one. I could talk about how marriage isn’t a panacea, how many members of our society still don’t have the right to get married in the first place.

I could talk about how great sex and marriage aren’t mutually exclusive, and how nothing about Sex Week suggests that people shouldn’t get married. I could talk about how intelligent and thoughtful my peers are, and how hard they’re working to define their lives on their own terms, and how much they struggle with sex and sexuality. I could talk about how they’re doing just fine without the Love & Fidelity Network.

But all of that would take a book, or many books.

So I’ll just say this: if you’re a Northwestern student, go check out Sex Week. And if you’re not, try to appreciate the fact that we’re growing up and finding our own answers, even if they aren’t the answers you would’ve chosen for us.

I’m Not Poor: A Reflection on Class at Northwestern

[TMI Warning]

Before I came to Northwestern, not once in my life did I feel like my family didn’t have enough money.

To be sure, there have been times in my family’s history when we didn’t. Immigration–especially moving between countries and continents four times in seven years like we did–does deplete one’s financial reserves. For the first few years of my life, I shared a bedroom with my brother, who is nine years older than me. I didn’t have a bed until we rented out our first single-family house when I was nine years old. Up until then, I’d slept on a mattress.

Even now, I prefer sleeping close to the floor.

But things got rapidly better after that. We bought our first house. We bought cars. We bought kitchen appliances, leather sofas, an exercise machine, a piano. We bought a futon for my older brother to use when he comes to visit. We bought nice jewelry for my mom and for me. We bought laptops, iPhones, Kindles.

We bought things that we wanted rather than needed, because they made life more comfortable and more fun.

Even through all of this, though, we were thrifty. The afghan rugs on our floors have been it the family for years. We recycle clothes and hand them down, and readily accept hand-me-downs from others. My mom and I shop mostly at T.J. Maxx, that lifesaving discount store that sells everything from perfume to purses to pots and pans. To put me through college, my parents used their own retirement savings rather than taking out new loans. The assumption was that a Northwestern education will one day provide me with enough income to finance my own parents’ retirement, in return for their having financed my education.

~~~

Original Tall Hunter Boot--$125

In our suburb in Ohio, almost everyone is middle-class. Some of my friends had a bit more money and some had a bit less, but there were rarely huge differences. All of us went on family road trips for vacation rather than flying to other countries. None of us wore designer clothes, because even if we could afford it, there aren’t any Prada or Gucci stores in Beavercreek, Ohio. There isn’t even an H&M.

The most my girlfriends or I would ever pay for a pair of jeans was $30.

Then I came to Northwestern. My freshman year roommate unpacked and took out a laundry hamper that looked like an authentic rice bag that one might buy at an Asian market. I asked her about it, assuming she’d brought it from her native Korea.

“Oh, this? It’s only $30 at Urban Outfitters. You should get one!”

I wasn’t getting a $30 hamper for my dirty underwear. I used a $2 mesh one I’d bought at Target. Up until that day, I didn’t realize anybody would do otherwise.

During the fall of my freshman year, there was a tiny protest in which some students help up signs to bring awareness to the plight of lower-income students at Northwestern. “I didn’t get into any of my top 3 sororities,” one said. “I can’t afford a North Face,” said another.

North Face is a brand of outerwear that I’d never even heard of before I came to Northwestern. Its logo is more pervasive on our campus than Northwestern’s own. At North Face, a knee-length down coat–the sort you really need in Chicago–costs $300. My own down coat cost about $70 at T.J. Maxx.

So I couldn’t afford North Face, either.

Was I poor?

Money–and the spending of it–pervade campus culture so thoroughly that nobody notices it. Within weeks of arriving on campus, I was expected to shell out for $20 club t-shirts, $20 restaurant dinners, to say nothing of $200 textbooks. While many students, including me, have a part-time job, many do not. I met many students who had been offered a work-study allowance as part of their financial aid package but chose not to use it.

These days, I usually have two jobs at a time and use the earnings to help pay my rent, which is twice my monthly income. I can’t save very much.

Financial aid doesn’t help much. Every year my dad sends them a personal letter explaining that we have aging grandparents oversees, two small children whose childcare must be paid for, that my mom lost her job last year (she has since found a new one), that we’re still paying off a mortgage, that my family’s retirement savings are being depleted, what have you.

Sometimes they sigh and toss us an extra thousand bucks.

Last year I decided to become an RA (or CA, as they call it at Northwestern). It would be good for my resume, it would be something I’d enjoy doing, and it would help me pay for school.

Or so I thought.

Once I was accepted as a CA and received my new financial aid statement to reflect my free room and board, I noticed something odd–I no longer had a work-study allowance, and my scholarship had decreased substantially. My family would be paying the exact same amount they had been paying before.

I asked the financial aid office what had happened. “Well,” they said, “since you no longer have to pay room and board, we decreased your aid so that your expected family contribution stays the same, because that’s what you’re able to afford according to our calculations.”

“But we can’t really afford that,” I said.

“Well, that’s your expected contribution.”

They told me that they were forced to keep my expected contribution the same due to “federal law.”

I asked my new supervisors in University Residential Life for help. They told me that, as a CA, I was only allowed 10 hours of non-academic time commitments per week, so if I wanted to continue working part-time, that would have to come out of those hours. “We’re willing to work with you to help you find a non-work study job,” they said, since I no longer had a work-study allowance and most campus jobs were work-study only.

I talked to a student who’d been a CA for several years. “Well,” he said, “I guess it doesn’t really make much sense for students on financial aid to become CAs.”

I did it anyway because I didn’t want money to hold me back from a valuable experience. But I always remembered the lesson I’d learned: Northwestern wasn’t going to expend any extra effort for its “students on financial aid,” like me.

~~~

Longchamp "Le Pliage" Tote Bag--$145

I soon learned to dread being asked what I was doing for the upcoming break. Save for one memorable spring break when I’d asked my parents for a roundtrip ticket to New York City as a birthday present, I always do essentially the same thing: I go home to Ohio to babysit my siblings, making some much-needed extra money while making sure that they feel like I’m still part of their lives.

I like going home and babysitting. I miss my home a lot most of the time, and even though I have few people to see there aside from my family, I still feel the need to return regularly.

What I don’t like, though, is being obliged to ask the question in return: “And you?”

And they, usually, have capital-P Plans for their breaks. They go to Florida, California, or Las Vegas. They go to Spain, England, China, Argentina.

I had never felt this wanting before. I had always assumed that traveling to other countries was something people did once they finished their education and got jobs. I felt content with my break plans until I had to hear about those of my classmates.

Aside from traveling abroad on breaks, Northwestern students also love to study abroad. I would’ve loved to do it too, but I chose not to due to various financial and personal concerns. Yet, I often encounter students exhorting self-righteously how “everyone” should experience study abroad because it “changes your life” and “gives you perspective.”

Well, maybe it does. But everyone can’t do study abroad, because everyone can’t afford it. (Don’t talk to me about “financial aid”–I’ve already seen how that works as I attempt to finance my Northwestern education). So the rest of us will just have to get by without that particular life-changing source of perspective.

~~~

Classic Tall Ugg Boot--$200

Although I felt envy and–at times, when confronted with $30 laundry hampers–disdain, what I never felt was shame. It never occurred to me to feel ashamed of something as unchangeable, as circumstantial as how much money I have. I still don’t understand why anybody would ever feel ashamed of a situation that they had no hand in creating.

But others taught me that my shamelessness was wrong. When asked to spend beyond my means, I had no problem telling people why I couldn’t. When asked where I bought an item of clothing, I never hesitated to say that it came from eBay or the local thrift store. But the reactions were inevitably quiet, embarrassed. They’d mumble, “Oh of course, sorry, you don’t have to come,” and walk away. When they found out where I’d gotten my clothes, their eyes would widen. “Oh!” they’d say. “I wouldn’t have even guessed.” As though stylish clothes can only come from Michigan Avenue.

Whenever I get this reaction, I try to analyze it. Are they embarrassed for me, because I don’t have the money? Or are they embarrassed for themselves, because they assumed that I did? Do they drop the conversation because they don’t want me to feel bad, or because they don’t really want to know why I can’t come with them?

There is a “Northwestern Uniform,” of course. Over the seasons, it includes the following: Longchamp bags, Ugg boots, North Face jackets, Hunter rainboots, anything from Urban Outfitters and American Apparel. Sorority and fraternity letters, naturally. I don’t like any of these things, so I wouldn’t buy them even if I could.

~~~

North Face Metropolis Parka--$289

Over time, I learned not to care. I reminded myself that before college I’d never wanted for anything. I realized that the right clothing and spring break plans were never going to help me fit in at Northwestern anyway, because it’s not the sort of place where I can fit in. There might not even be a place in the world where I can fit in because I’m so weird, but since the jury’s still out, I’m still looking.

I found that there are, of course, plenty of students just like me at Northwestern. But they’re hard to see because they aren’t the ones inviting friends to restaurants, joining the Greek system (which students like me could never afford), or walking around looking like a page from Vogue.

Although it’s hard sometimes, I refuse to feel “poor.” I refuse to feel like I’m lacking anything. I refuse to feel that way because I know for a fact that, compared to most Americans, I have everything a young woman could ask for. But sometimes, I hate Northwestern for hiding that truth from us. We don’t have real diversity on this campus. If we did, I would feel rich.

~~~

Urban Outfitters Recycled Rice Bag Hamper--$30

I didn’t write this to get sympathy for not being able to afford restaurant dinners and North Face jackets. I wouldn’t want sympathy for that because, first of all, I don’t feel bad about it myself, and second, because other people can afford much less.

I wrote it because those protesters during my freshman year should’ve known better. They should’ve known that, statistically, not being able to afford North Face is normal. Being able to afford it is not.

I wrote it because I don’t feel ashamed to tell people that I spend my breaks at home with my family, and I hope that nobody else feels ashamed for that, either.

I wrote it because we don’t talk about it, and we should.

Don’t Blame it on the Tech

[Snark Warning]

A modified version of this piece also appeared as my column in the Daily Northwestern.

Technology gets a bad rap.

You wouldn’t think so–obviously, we all love it–but in a way it does.

You can’t really go a day anymore without encountering a book, article, or person spewing some variation of the following: “Oh, these days, everyone’s just so plugged in to their laptops/iPods/iPads/iPhones/Kindles/Blackberrys/etc,” always with a tone that combines whininess with nostalgia.

Sometimes it’s in the context of promoting physical activity, face-to-face interaction, getting out into nature, ink-and-paper books, live music, or any other number of virtuous things. Sometimes–paradoxically, since this usually appears online–it’s in an article about some brave soul who has eschewed Facebook, email, or–gasp!–the Internet altogether. Sometimes it’s embedded in smug pieces with titles like “Why I Don’t Have a Smartphone” or “Why I Don’t Text My Boyfriend.”

For a while, I really couldn’t figure out what it is about these remarks that drives me so far up the wall. I thought perhaps it was the repetition and sheer clicheness of such comments, or just my contrarian nature.

However, I think I’ve finally figured it out. These lamentations annoy me because I read them, accurately or otherwise, as attempts to shift responsibility for running our own lives off of ourselves and onto the technology that we willingly invent, purchase, and use.

In other words, it’s not that I can’t be bothered to spend time with my family. It’s that the evil Apple device prevents me.

Of course, I exaggerate. Most people don’t really feel like they can’t control their technological activities (although there are exceptions). But I do get the sense that gadgets get an unfair amount of blame.

I also think that people often choose to cut themselves off from technology, at least temporarily or partially, rather than learning how to achieve some sort of balance in their use thereof. What else explains the preponderance of browser extensions and desktop software that blocks “time-wasting” websites or programs? If the only thing preventing you from typing http://www.facebook.com in the address bar is a special browser add-on, you’re not actually learning how to control your urges in the moment they arise.

I also know of people who literally deactivate their Facebook accounts or have a friend change the password during critical academic periods. Of course, part of me just wants o say, more power to them. But another part wonders why people can’t just restrain themselves from going to the website.

In other words, Facebook doesn’t waste your time. You waste your time.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot in connection with what I wrote about in my last post. When I observed Shabbat this past weekend, that meant I had to spend 24 hours without using any technological device.

Aside from the fact that my nephew was born that day and I really wanted to check in with my family, I can’t say that the obligatory technology fast affected me much. I didn’t die of boredom without the Internet, but neither did I revel in the feeling of being “free” from all that pesky technology.

Ironically, I think this trend started off as a contrarian one. At some point within the last decade or two, some skeptic probably wrote an article to the tune of, “You know all that technology we think is so awesome? Yeah well it’s not.” (In fact, that person is probably Nicholas Carr.)

But now I’d say that this has become a mainstream opinion–one that I don’t necessarily disagree with, but one that seems completely oversimplified to me. I don’t believe that there’s anything special about today’s technology that causes it to sap all of our attention. As with most social trends and problems, I believe that what’s going on here is actually much more complex.

For instance, everyone loves to bemoan the fact that people now communicate mostly through technology. There’s the old cliche about texting or IMing someone who’s just in the next room–or in the same room, and the preponderance of college students who use Facebook to run their entire social lives.

But what’s really happening here? Could it be that the expectation for young people to go away to college, move frequently, and put off making permanent bonds with others until later is driving the increased emphasis on digital communication? Could it be that most people never learn effective communication skills and thus feel more comfortable talking to others from behind a screen? Or, perhaps, that technology takes away the fear of rejection that people face when they try to, say, invite someone to hang out in person or come up and engage them in conversation?

I’m really just throwing out suggestions here, because I don’t know. But I do have a very strong sense that technology is really just the medium through which already-existing problems in our culture and our psychology are being revealed.

For instance, everyone hates the nasty trolls that seem to inhabit every website with open commenting. However, the Internet and the anonymity it provides do not cause trolling; they simply allow it. What probably does cause it are boredom, frustration, and a general inability to empathize and care for people you cannot see or even imagine. And those are problems that reside within ourselves, and not within the technology we’ve constructed.

Technology makes an easy target. It’s new, it’s hard to understand, and it’s changing our culture faster than we can churn out books and articles that analyze it.

But it bothers me that choosing to disconnect from technology has acquired a moral value, and that we bitch and moan about technology instead of some of the larger, deeper problems with our culture.

Those problems are much harder to tease out and analyze. It’s easier to just write a piece blaming everything on iPhones.

But gadgets come and go. Culture usually does not.