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U.S. Colleges: Student Utopias or Microcosms of a Troubled Nation?

By: Felix Thompson

From first-hand experience, I can tell you it’s true, it’s all true. It’s just like in the movies. The American college experience really is all beer pong and kegs (so naturally keg stands), and they refuse to drink out of any cup that’s not red and plastic. It’s a crime to use anything else. At least this was the case in California, in Santa Barbara, a beach side student utopia, where surfers roll through the streets on skateboards, board under arm, and frat bros and sorority chicks wander in their hoards to one another’s parties every weekend. Yet, under the veneer of paradise, several rank truths lie. Reflecting back on my time in the states, I’ve come to realise, particularly with the U.S election and potential Trump-age looming, that perhaps American colleges can serve as a metaphor for America itself, as a bizarre microcosm of the nation, where all the amazing qualities of the American people – their frenetic friendliness, their enterprise (who else would have thought to combine beer and ping pong balls?), their massive confidence in anything they do – are juxtaposed with the worst aspects. “The nation as a whole mirrors a discrepancy between narrative and reality” Take my college UCSB, for instance, which claims the mantle of being a Hispanic Serving Institution. This HSI status is defined by a dedication to a minimum of 25% enrollment for Hispanic students, which seemingly proves a status of racial inclusivity and harmony.

Yet, considering that in the last few years the Hispanic population overtook that of whites in the state of California, a dedication to 25% enrollment should be a given, and not some cause for unwarranted celebration. The nation as a whole mirrors this discrepancy between narrative and reality. Obama’s election in 2008 led to many in America to assert that a “post-racial era” had been ushered in. Now, it was put, that any black man, women, or child could achieve their dreams, if they would only try. Yet the reality, that Black men’s average hourly wages went from being 22.2% lower in 1979 to 31.0% lower in 2015, only serves to prove the fallacy in contemporary attitudes. This is not to mention further evidence rooted in police shootings, life expectancy, housing, education. So with both college and country, there is a gulf in the racial narrative and the reality. Much like with racial disparity, gender inequality has been an ever present issue in the lead up to the debates, with many questioning Trump’s credentials as a proponent of equal rights for both men and women, particularly since the “grab her by the pussy” video was leaked. Many Republicans have dismissed the nauseating gaff as “locker room talk”. Yet, for many, Trump’s sexist joshing is symptomatic of a rape culture which “plagues campuses across America.” Indeed, it is hard to dissociate the rhetoric of certain frats – seen in the chant of one Yale University Frat, “no means yes, yes means anal” – from the horrifying statistic that men who join fraternities are three times more likely to commit rape. In colleges, and all the way up to the race for president, sexist attitudes are not only visible, but celebrated and encouraged.

Ultimately, perhaps, it shouldn’t be all that surprising that colleges serve as microcosms for the nation as a whole, given that college campuses are hardly separate from the outside world. Deemed as safe spaces, they are unavoidably exposed to the hypocrisies and crises of the nation. Yet, worryingly, it seems that universities play an important role in the propagation of many of America’s flaws, encouraging and reinforcing aged attitudes, rather than dispelling them.

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