The Birth of a Union
Before 25-year-old Chynna Haas of Beloit, Wisconsin began college, she planned on attending UW-Whitewater to become a high school teacher. However, a visit to the UW-Madison campus changed her mind.
“I fell in love with the campus,” Haas said. “I fell in love with the atmosphere, and I had this whole idea in my head that maybe being a teacher wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life, maybe there was something different than that for me.”
However, as a first generation college student, Haas knew very little about the application or financial aid processes.
A few weeks into her first semester, she received a letter stating that she didn’t owe the university any money and that her tuition had been paid in full via financial aid. A few days later, she received a second letter stating that she owed $1,000, which was to be paid immediately or she would be kicked out of the university.
Haas set up a meeting with a financial aid officer to find out why she had been sent the letter and how she could remedy it. Instead of offering support and helpful advice, the officer told Haas that she had simply filled out the FAFSA wrong, and instead of owing $1,000, she now owed $1,300.
Distraught, Haas called her parents. They were able to dip into a savings account and loan her the money so that she could remain in school.
“Later, when I was more educated about financial aid, I realized that what had happened was somewhere in the FAFSA I didn’t list all of the scholarship money that had ended up coming in because I received more scholarship money after we already completed the FAFSA,” Haas said. “The university then penalizes you for receiving scholarship money after you complete FAFSA by taking away some of your loans.”
Another financial aid officer proved to be just as unhelpful. After receiving grant money the following semester, Haas made another appointment to learn more about how grant money worked. During this appointment, Haas asked the officer if he knew of any good scholarships she could apply for, if he knew of a good place where she could look for some, or if he knew of any more loans she could apply for that weren’t private.
“That’s when he jokingly suggested that I get pregnant because then I would qualify for more financial aid,” said Haas.
“Every time I left financial aid I would cry because I felt so disempowered, and I was so angry… I left both times crying and knowing that I couldn’t trust financial aid and that I had to just figure it out on my own because they weren’t a resource for me.”
However, the financial aid office was not the only place where Haas experienced difficulty.
“I had a bunch of experiences during my first year that I couldn’t explain because no one had ever given me that language…to explain that it was classism,” Haas said.
One large example Haas uses is an experience she had in a sociology class during her freshman year:
“One of the last discussions we had, we started talking about what if affirmative action was class based instead of race based,” Haas said. “[The class] started talking about how it wouldn’t be a good idea because low income people shouldn’t be on the campus since ‘they’ wouldn’t know how to use the library, ‘they’ wouldn’t know how to use the buses…that was something I was really uncomfortable with. …Also part of the issue too is, they started assuming that there were no low-income or working class people in the room.”
She became the most frustrated after she began processing this.
“In all of these instances, [others] just assumed that people like me weren’t there, and if we were at that university that in a way, we should have to change ourselves to conform. Colleges want you to change your behavior to fit into a middle class type. That’s part of graduating- that’s what you’re learning- how to behave as a middle class person. They look at it as arming you with cultural capital to be successful in society. A lot of people look at it as them telling you that your entire existence is wrong and you need to change who you are to fit in.”
Thus, the National Working Class Student Union was born.
Haas first founded the Working Class Student Union after a struggle about whether or not to withdraw from UW-Madison. She had all of her paperwork filled out and ready to go, but, according to Haas, her stubbornness got the best of her.
“…I was like, maybe there are other students going through what I’m going through, and maybe I should try to find them before I just start giving up and leaving because I’m always going to wonder if I could’ve made it,” said Haas.
So, she asked some friends of hers who were also a part of the working class to sign a paper so she could start a student organization. Afterward, she began advertising for a “working class forum,” where, with the help of other working class students and allies, a list of over 50 problems students had encountered on the campus due to class was generated.
She then used this list to determine what the services and programs offered by the Working Class Student Union would be. Soon after, Haas realized that in order to facilitate the necessary programs on a federal level, her organization would need to be founded nationally. And, because the Working Class Student Union was the first of its kind in the United States, Haas was able to upgrade to the National Working Class Student Union.
Classism is differential treatment based on social class or perceived social class. Classism is the systematic oppression of subordinated class groups to advantage and strengthen the dominant class groups. It’s the systematic assignment of characteristics of worth and ability based on social class.
Each and every day, people pass judgment on each other. We judge hairstyles, skin color, the way others dress and act, attractiveness (“pretty” or “cute” versus “ugly”), the kind of cars others drive, and a wide array of other things.
It’s also no surprise that racism is, has been, and probably will continue to be an issue for our country. In an attempt to correct those wrongs, there have been movements, protests, changed laws, and even violence by those impassioned by the cause. And as with all things in life, it isn’t just white and black. There is a large gray area- filled with basically every other race in the world. Unfortunately, the mindset of some people seems to stay the same regardless of the changing world around them- “they” don’t belong here, and somehow the existence of others who differ from me is wrong.
Sexism is another big issue in the US and around the world. Women are very often treated as second-class citizens- property, with little to no rights.
With all of the other “isms” in the world, Chynna Haas introduced me to a new one- classism.
Classism is an issue that isn’t widely, if at all, discussed in the realm I’m from. I, like many others in the Southeastern Wisconsin area, grew up in a small suburb filled with working class families. Despite my sheltered life, I’ve grown in a very short period of time to realize that classism surrounds all of us.
“I had a roommate for my first year who told me that the fact that I shopped at Wal-Mart, and that I shopped at Target, was dirty,” Haas said. “She thought they were gross stores and that I was basically a gross person for shopping there.”
Haas also once had a professor who said that “poor people are the downfall of democracy.”
“I overheard some people the other day discussing the [Salvation Army] bell ringers,” said a student at UW-Whitewater. “They were [talking] about how it isn’t their fault that people don’t have money, and they shouldn’t have to give their money to help poor people. They basically said that it was their life decisions that put them in the class they were in, and it was their fault for not getting out of it.”
While many people believe a person’s class is something easy to “break out” of by going to school, that isn’t necessarily true. According to Haas, most people in our society are not upwardly mobile. Statistically, children of parents who are working class will die at a lower economic status than their parents were born into- the United States is actually a downwardly mobile society.
Furthermore, Haas (along with many others) believes that class is actually an important part of a person’s identity, and class itself is a culture.
“The things I enjoy eating, the music I like listening to, what I do with my free time, family traditions…all of those things are culture that you don’t necessarily have to let go of as your economics change,” said Haas.
Many of the problems regarding living in a downwardly mobile society, people being treated differently due to class, and not being able to “move up” in society while keeping class as a culture actually stem from a system called “tracking” used in schools.
From the time children start school, they are divided academically. According to the National Education Association (nea.org), students are divided into “Redbirds” and “Bluebirds” based on demonstrated academic ability, the traits students demonstrate, and which class the students’ families hold. In secondary school, students are more heavily divided into the system, and their label follows them through each grade level. Certain students are steadily placed in classrooms with lower expectations. These students are not given as many chances to sign up for advanced placement classes. They are not talked to by guidance counselors about college. They are not told when to apply, how to apply, or which schools would be a good fit for them. Other students who are placed higher in the tracking system consistently end up in more difficult courses, are given more opportunities to earn college credits while in high school, and receive more help from teachers and counselors in deciding which schools to go to.
Another hindrance on lower or working-class students is the fact that study materials are so expensive. Remember taking the ACTs or SATs? The tests themselves can sometimes be costly to families, and then on top of it, certain study materials can be out of the question financially. Therefore, if students are even able to afford these tests, they oftentimes can’t afford to study for them. This often results in lower test grades, which reduces student choices to community colleges, technical schools, or no schooling at all.
There are, of course, people who beat the system. But even then- when people are able to defy the tracking systems, achieve good grades on required tests, and are admitted to four year universities- they still are, oftentimes, not given the guidance they need.
Take Haas, for example. She filled out her FAFSA wrong. She had no prior experience with this form, her parents couldn’t help her, and when she asked for help at her university, she was basically turned away. She asked for assistance finding more scholarships or loans, and was told to get pregnant so she would qualify for more.
So, what are working and lower class students supposed to do? Accept that there is no place for “people like them” in the professional world? Accept that retail job as a sealed fate? Should they just pretend to be something they aren’t, change the way they dress, the way they speak, the things they enjoy, and force themselves to assimilate into the middle class so they fit in?
Haas, along with those working with the National Working Class Student Union, have other ideas.
The National Working Class Student Union gives students (working class, lower class, first generation, non-traditional, or whoever else feels that they may need help) an opportunity to hold workshops in their universities. These students are provided with materials from the National WCSU which help educate them (as well as teach them how to educate others) on what class is and how it plays out in higher education.
Students can learn to be advocates or have an advocate accompany them to meetings as a third party. This helps reduce “he said, she said” situations and equalizes the power dynamic between staff members and students- this means that financial aid officers are less likely to say inappropriate things (like “go get pregnant”). Advocates are also provided with materials to help students with any other situations they may encounter: classist roommates, how to properly fill out financial aid packages so that errors don’t occur in the first place, how to deal with professors who make inappropriate and classist comments, even which medical providers around campus use a sliding scale or discounted prices for students.
How to start a chapter
Since the National WCSU is still in the process of filing with the federal government as a non-profit, they aren’t actively working on building chapters. However, this does not mean that chapters can’t be started- simply, the National WCSU is not visiting campuses and trying to start chapters yet.
If you or someone you know is interested in starting a chapter of the National WCSU at a local university, or if you simply want more information, feel free to visit their website and contact Chynna Haas via email. She will follow up with you and discuss possible issues that are occurring on your campus, as well as how to get started.
If you would like Haas to visit your school to speak about classism and the National WCSU, you may email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Have you ever been discriminated against because of your class? Have you seen someone treated differently because of theirs? Share your stories in the comments below.