Submitted on Sunday, 10/14/2012, at 10:00 PM

With a student body that’s close to 50 percent non-white, and with more than 60 percent of its students receiving financial aid, Amherst College is an ideal environment to explore whether  people of different races and economic backgrounds—who live, study and socialize together—will learn about each other and therefore become less prejudiced over time.

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For the last seven years, Amherst College Professor of Psychology Elizabeth Aries has been doing just that, meticulously identifying and interviewing a cohort of Amherst students of different races and income backgrounds.

Her mission? To better understand how Amherst students have been shaped by their backgrounds and how Amherst College, with its groundbreaking commitment to diversity, has shaped them.

Aries’ first book, Race and Class Matters at An Elite College, focused on what a group of 58 white and black students, half of them affluent, half of them lower-income, experienced during their first year at Amherst. Her forthcoming book, Speaking of Race and Class: The Student Experience at an Elite College, written with Richard Berman, reconnects with 55 of these students during their senior year, as Aries assesses whether prejudices were reduced, insights were gained and learning occurred. Both books also explored the challenges that lower-income and affluent whites and blacks face at Amherst, from financial pressures to bridging the worlds of college and home.

Aries recently sat down with Public Affairs Director Peter Rooney to discuss her books, what she’s learned about race and class at Amherst, and the next steps for colleges like Amherst who have successfully diversified their student bodies.

Amherst is an ideal environment to test the premise that prejudice stems from lack of knowledge about and exposure to members of different groups. With the college's commitment to diversity, there are ample opportunities for a reduction in prejudice to take place. Does that actually happen?

Absolutely. I think there’s definitely a reduction in prejudice that occurs, simply because people are getting to know a diverse group of people and they realize that the stereotype they had for a group does not apply for the individual. For example, many white students assumed black students were poor. And then they would meet affluent black students and think, "Wow. Your background is just like mine. I have more in common with you than I do with low-income white students."

Or white students will go to class and meet smart black students who got in here because they merited it and not because of affirmative action. Or blacks are learning that some whites are on financial aid and would say to me, "I didn’t know there were poor whites. At my private school I never met a white who was poor. I thought they were all wealthy." Not here they’re not.

Photo by Rob Mattson
Professor of Psychology Elizabeth Aries
Photo by Rob Mattson

The educational benefits of exposing college students to racial diversity have been well documented. Are there educational benefits to socioeconomic diversity as well?

A lot of the case for diversifying the college based on racial identity is that it has educational benefits. The case for bringing in lower-income students has been made more based on equity, social justice and social mobility. There hasn’t been that much data [showing] that it has educational benefits too. The fact is, my data suggests it has really strong educational benefits. For example, as affluent students make friends with people of different classes, some of them become aware of how privileged they were.

If you compare this book to the first one, what did you learn from the follow-up interviews with the students as seniors?

By the end of their freshman year in 2006, a third of the students said they learned something about race; at the end of senior year in 2009, that had gone up to just over half. On the one hand, you say, “That’s great; that’s pretty powerful. You bring people into this diverse community and they interact with each other, go to class with each other, and look at the learning that occurs.”

On the other hand, you could say, “This is the end of four years, and half of them went through Amherst and they couldn’t articulate anything they had learned about race, having lived in this diverse community?” And the results are similar for learning that occurs about class.

I think what you learn at the end is that bringing these diverse students here is great, and a certain amount of good things will follow from that. But, without more specific programming and practices put into place, there’s a major opportunity lost.

On the other hand, the culture of Amherst is such that it tries not to force-feed learning.

That’s right—“open curriculum.” We don’t have general education requirements, and there are many good reasons for the curriculum we have.

In a section called Black Tables at the Dining Hall, you find that students’ discussions of where they decide to sit for their meals at Valentine are quite nuanced and not necessarily related to race or class. What would you say to someone who observes this self-segregation at the dining hall here or at other colleges? Is it bad? Is it good?

I asked the black students in my study, “Do you sit at the ‘black tables’ in the dining hall?” The perception is that many black students do. A lot of them said things like, “I’ve never sat there,” “I wouldn’t be comfortable there” or “Those aren’t the people who are my friends.” Then there were others who said, “Some days I do, and some days I don’t.”

I think it’s a misperception. Yes, there are black people who eat together. They’re friends, so they eat together. But look around that dining hall. A lot of people who belong to the same sports team also eat together, but you can’t say that all the athletes eat together. But some of them do—they go to practice together; they eat together; they’re friends.

I was struck by the pressures lower-income students feel, compared to those of affluent students. A number of lower-income students were helping support their families financially, sending money back home to help pay for gas and groceries.

It’s not all the students, but it is some of the students. One of the students I interviewed was working 20 hours a week to send money to her younger sister. The college doesn’t have the expectation that students have to work those kinds of hours and tries to provide enough aid so students don’t have to. But some [students] choose to. She chose to. I can totally understand; the pull from home is great.

What prompted your interest in race and class issues at Amherst?

I think my interest in race and class came from two things: One was that I started teaching a First-Year Seminar called “Growing up In America” with [Professor of the History of Art and American Studies] Carol Clark that had a heavy focus on race, class and gender, and I got very interested in how social class shapes your identity.

Another factor was my interactions with students over the years. In this department, for an honors thesis, you have to turn in three copies in separate black binders. One of my students mentioned that these binders are really expensive, and I asked how she paid for them. She said, “I had to bounce a  check at Hastings [the bookstore].” Those kind of comments from students, and an increasing number of incidents, [made me] realize we were assuming that our students had money.

The chapter Bridging Two Worlds features example after example of students who have a harder time relating to their families and hometowns after being exposed to Amherst. Can these differences be bridged?

I think some of them will go home and work in their communities, but I think some of them can never do this. They are too changed by this experience.

A lot of these students don’t feel they can talk about the learning and experiences that go on here. Students would say if they go home and start talking about the exciting opportunities they have and wonderful people they’ve met here, the people at home are thinking, “What, we’re not wonderful people?” It doesn’t go over well. What happens is they have to wall a lot of this off.

They can’t bring their black friends home, their Jewish friends home, their gay friends home when people at home are bigoted toward these groups. [The students become] less tolerant of people making fun of these groups.

On the other hand, there was also an appreciation of some of these communities, that what’s special about them is that they’re small and tightknit and the people help one another out.

What do you think Amherst has done right in its efforts to diversify the student body, and what do think it still needs to work on?

We are a real leader, and we have utterly changed the student body here. I would give full credit to our admission office for having done an extraordinary job identifying, recruiting and bringing to this campus a fabulous group of diverse students. My classrooms have been greatly enriched by all this diversity. I think we’ve been slower and are in a bit of catch-up mode in taking care of these students once they’re on campus, so now we’re working on enabling all these students to succeed once they’re here.