The annual Wearn Lecture is one of three major endowed talks at Davidson College

By: Julia Knoerr ‘21 (she/her), co-Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

“I was the doubly disadvantaged student at Davidson,” Esther Lherisson ‘19 said, reflecting on Dr. Anthony Jack’s recent book, The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges are Failing Disadvantaged Students.

Now the college’s Fostering Inclusivity and Respect in Science Together (FIRST) Program Analyst, Lherisson learned about Davidson through the multicultural education program and the STRIDE program. She enrolled as a Bonner Scholar and soon encountered a campus distinct from the advertisements —in a room where roughly 65% of students were white, by her estimate, all of the students of color were gathered in a corner. 

“I came from a school that had people of color, but they were in the same position as me,” she said. 

To her surprise, Lherisson now interacted with upper income students at Davidson who were Black and expected that she could afford regular shopping trips. 

After being disowned at 19, Lherisson had to figure out financial aid on her own and didn’t have a home to return to during breaks. Feeling the hidden costs of Davidson — from textbooks to mandatory health insurance — she began to see barriers arise.

“I noticed there was a line between myself and the privileged poor,” Lherisson said, referencing a key term from Dr. Jack’s book. 

The lines translated to socially isolating experiences that she had to figure out how to navigate — a white student called Lherisson the N-word within the first month of school, and people repeatedly asked to touch her hair during Parents’ Weekend when she worked as an usher at Duke Family Performance Hall. 

Dr. Jack, a sociologist and Assistant Professor of Education at Harvard University, expanded on trends in poverty and higher education during his 2021 Wearn Lecture on Thursday, March 11th. Along with the Reynolds Lecture and the Smith Lecture, the Wearn Lecture represents one of the college’s three major endowed talks each year that is free and open to the public. The event normally occurs in person but shifted to Zoom this year in order to accommodate COVID-19 restrictions. 

Though a new format, Dr. Jack’s lecture stems from a long history at Davidson. The late Dr. Joseph T. Wearn ’13 (1893–1984) established the lecture fund “as a memorial to his father Joseph, a former Davidson trustee, and his brother John, who died in France in World War I.” Dr. Wearn provided the guidelines that the “lecturer should be chosen by faculty for outstanding accomplishments in the sciences or for exceptional statesmanship.” 

According to Dr. Marija Jankovic, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the Wearn Lecture Committee, the planning committee now rotates between interdisciplinary departments. Recent speakers have included science writer Ed Yong and climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe.

Normally, the committee solicits nominations from faculty and staff, but FIRST suggested bringing Dr. Jack as the Wearn Lecturer this year because they couldn’t afford to themselves. While Dr. Jack’s talk was unusual because of the pandemic, Dr. Jankovic estimates that the Wearn budget is usually around $15,000, enabling them to bring high profile speakers. March 11th’s event culminated over a year of planning, she said. 

Dr. Chris Marsicano, Assistant Professor of the Practice of Higher Education, moderated Thursday’s hour-long lecture. The event began with a talk by Dr. Jack, followed with a Q&A with Dr. Marsicano, and concluded with questions from previously selected students Cheyenne Morris ‘23, Erin Mansell ‘22, Brandon Harris ‘22, and Hana Kamran ‘23. Lherisson also organized a post-lecture Q&A with roughly 25 students.

From Dr. Marsicano’s perspective, Dr. Jack’s scholarship is particularly innovative because it focuses on “meaningful differences” between the experiences of underrepresented minority students and low income students. These differences “have real implications for policy, and for how colleges and universities operate,” he said. 

Specifically, Dr. Jack’s research centers two terms: the “doubly disadvantaged,” or “those who enter college from local, typically distressed public high schools,” and the “privileged poor,” or “those who do so from boarding, day, and preparatory high schools.”

These terms are loaded, Dr. Jack acknowledged, but purposefully so.

“When social scientists wrote about lower income students,” he said, “they wrote of a single experience chronicling culture shock and social isolation.” 

Dr. Jack’s work diversifies monolithic narratives of undergraduate students who “have lived shared beginnings, but live ever more divergent lives before college.” In doing so, he challenges a “dangerous downplay about prolonged exposure to savage inequities in our neighborhoods and schools that affect how students navigate college.” 

During his prepared talk, Dr. Jack discussed how structural inequalities, such as segregation, poverty, and disinvestment in K-12 education, impact campus life. Faculty often expect students to work proactively from the moment they arrive, he said, exacerbating culture shock for first generation students, while nepotism and meritocracy inform who receives awards or honors. 

Furthermore, many students become food-insecure during winter and spring breaks. Campuses often close their dining facilities, and Dr. Jack’s research found that at one of the world’s wealthiest universities, “these closures result in one out of every seven students not knowing where their next meal is coming from during this time.” 

The unequal challenges that low-income students face during breaks put the COVID-19 pandemic into perspective, Dr. Jack emphasized. 

“What about students who don’t have a home to go back to, or what about those students who know home and harm are synonymous?” he asked. “If people are struggling to do it for a week, how are they supposed to do it for an entire year?”

During his Q&A, Dr. Marsicano pushed the conversation even further into macro-level issues. Dr. Jack’s talk differed greatly from the book, so he said he had to think of questions on the fly. 

“You mentioned in your talk that there are structural and systemic issues that lead us to where we are today,” Dr. Marsicano began. “Help me understand, what are those issues, those structures, and those systems?” 

Dr. Jack pointed to ingrained systems of inequality in the U.S., emphasizing the limited accessibility of government programs that bolstered the middle class and disparate funding between public and private schools. 

“I wish more people understood the lasting legacy of redlining, blockbusting, the discrimination in the GI Bill, the discrimination in FHA [Federal Housing Administration] loans,” he said. 

Moreover, the college admissions process tends to favor students with legacy ties and the financial means to pay full tuition. In Dr. Jack’s words, “privilege eases the way in.”  When meritocracy manifests in this way, he asked, “Are you really trying to fight for equality, equity, justice for all? Or are you just trying to protect the advantage that you have?” 

Finally, Dr. Jack contended that college presidents ought to stop hiding behind statements of neutrality and protection for endowments. Silence directly contradicts their colleges’ images of diversity in information pamphlets and supposed commitments to equity and justice, he observed.

“I think we need to demand of our presidents and our university officials to take a stand,” he said. 

Overall, Dr. Jack stated, “We must move from access to inclusion. We must ensure that social class does not keep lower income students in secondary positions at first rate institutions to embark upon the crucial task of making colleges look more like the world, and not just the top one percent. We must question what we take for granted.” 

To Dr. Marsciano, these reflections made Dr. Jack a particularly effective speaker to challenge the Davidson community. 

With greater awareness, Dr. Marsicano said, “We can then take actionable steps to make sure that nobody fails at Davidson, or nobody has a bad experience at Davidson, simply because they don’t have money.” 

Hanaa Al-Dasouqui ‘21, a QuestBridge scholar who identifies as a first generation and low income student, seconded Dr. Marsicano’s sentiments. She found Dr. Jack’s talk “eye opening” because it pushed her to reflect on “how Davidson shapes the ‘privilege poor’ students that attend.” 

Al-Dasouqui also volunteers at Lula Bell’s and is grateful for how much the resource center has expanded to become more accessible to students who need it. When she asked Dr. Jack for advice on how to prepare for the world after graduation, she said over e-mail, “His response made me realize how much the intangible resources, like networking and feeling comfortable talking to my professors, have done for me as a Davidson student.” 

Moving forward, Al-Dasouqui wants to see action-oriented steps continue — building allyship with professors, making changes to orientation, and lobbying for improved K-12 education are just a few of the ideas Dr. Jack mentioned. 

“I really hope these mentorship opportunities and conversations (leading to action) about making college more equitable and preparing students for the ‘real world’ continue after COVID-19 ends,” she said.