Systemic privilege means that opportunities are rarely equal

The privileges that better off students enjoy give them an edge from early on in their degrees

Summer in San Francisco, with a dash of South American road trip thrown in too. Reading Week in Paris, and a week in the chalet in January. And then, hit the books for second term because that unpaid internship in London is looming. Does this sound familiar? Maybe this is the norm for you, if you are lucky enough. Even if not, you certainly know of the people who live this reality. I’d consider myself in the middle ground, being perpetually broke, but still trying to emulate the cool rich kids with the amazing Instagram stories.

The strange thing about Trinity is how these super-rich lifestyles are now becoming normalised. There are so many people who seem to just do everything, see everything, and still have money left over to do more. It can seem overwhelming at times, as social media pits everyone against one another in what is essentially a glorified boasting competition and popularity contest. This competitive culture is exacerbated by the ultra-rich high achievers that seem to make up a disproportionate amount of the student population. However, it is unreasonable to expect to have the same exciting life as some affluent peers. Sadly, life is just not fair. We are taught that if you worked hard enough, you could achieve anything you want, but that idea is appearing to be increasingly out of reach.

Unfortunately, the social divide that is beginning to appear at this relatively young age is just the early stages of what is to come for many in terms of systemic inequity. Opportunities vary for many Trinity students, in large part based on one’s financial background. Many students have to work full-time and save all summer just to be able to afford the upcoming college year. No San Francisco for them. No Paris and no chalet. No society trips or city getaways either, as often students work weekends and for the entirety of Christmas break. Sadly, some students may spend their entire time in college missing out on many of the fun experiences that are often described as “the best part of growing up”. However, this is not a new concept.

The reality is that today’s “equal opportunities” system is structured in a fashion that still privileges wealthier students to an overwhelming extent. The phrase “you can achieve anything if you work hard enough” is incredibly short-sighted. The privilege already being enjoyed by many in the form of the numerous travel experiences are just the beginning, as these privileges roll on and extend to cover Erasmus years, or internships that are more often than not unpaid. These are opportunities that are not an option for many lesser-off or “normal” students who simply cannot afford to take the time off work, or who lack the financial support from parents or guardians that many enjoy. Even with additional financial aid provided by the SUSI grant and other schemes, these extra-curricular experiences remain inaccessible for many. Erasmus provides a clear example. Although additional funding is provided for students from poorer socio-economic backgrounds, the fact remains that moving to a far-flung and often expensive European city is simply far too costly for many students.

One Junior Sophister student has been quoted as paying “upwards of €1000 per month” for a room in Paris on Erasmus. Unpaid internships can cost thousands, as rent and living costs must be covered for an extended period of time, often in Dublin or another expensive European city. These opportunities are therefore rendered almost entirely exclusive to privileged students.

Extra-curricular experiences may seem unimportant in these early years of education, but as we are all taught, when it comes to employability, someone who has a colourful CV full of such experiences will often stand out over other candidates. They may well find it easier to get a first job or masters, to get promoted faster, and ultimately enter a higher income bracket. Often assisted by having better connections, through Erasmus or internships for example, the result is that the system perpetuates itself as the rich and privileged continually access higher paid jobs with relative ease. This is a vicious cycle that solely benefits the elite and privileged, and serves to restrict opportunities for the majority of average students.

Truly, the phrase “you can achieve anything if you work hard enough” is borderline offensive to those lesser-privileged in Trinity and elsewhere. It is a tool of deflection, that places the blame on the individuals, as if it is somehow their fault for being born into a lower-income household in a grossly unfair system. The system demands ten times the workload from a student who is lesser-off than from a privileged student. Consider the difficulties of getting into Trinity, affording the move to Dublin, finding a job that can be balanced on top of your college timetable. This is followed by years of exhausting hours of work and college, coupled often with entering into debt from a student loan, all the while, the lucky and privileged enjoy copious opportunities with little or no financial difficulty. No matter how hard lesser-privileged students work, they may never receive the same opportunities as their privileged fellow students. To say that people are simply “not working hard enough” neglects recognition of the serious limitations that monetary means can place on individuals. These limitations go further than a lack of funds.

It is important to recognise that this unfairness is a systemic issue. Mitigating the blame from the under-privileged students does not necessarily mean the blame then automatically falls upon the privileged individuals. If you have the means to enjoy the many opportunities life has to offer, it only makes sense to use them. What needs to be recognised however, is that there is a stark difference between “achievements” and privileges. I do not deserve applause for going on Erasmus, I am merely lucky enough that my parents are in a position to help me financially to complete it. The real applause is deserved by the unsung majority, those students who work extremely hard, day in day out, just to get by in university life. The students who struggle not only because of systemic inequity, but because of an accompanying attitude that somehow makes the fault for the inequity their own supposed inadequacy.

It may be a bitter pill to swallow, but it’s important to recognise that your own “achievements” are more often than not a by-product of the privileges you enjoy and consider the norm. The “high achievers” around college are often just those who are highly privileged. Recognising this truth about the structuring of the system is the first step towards enacting true change and systemic reform. Or, you can continue to avert your attention to the inequality, because life’s just not fair, right?

Hugh Whelan

Hugh Whelan is the current Comment Editor of Trinity News. He is a Senior Sophister English Literature and Film Studies student.