It’s easy to forget that the rest of the world isn’t like Foggy Bottom, where college students and well-dressed federal employees roam the streets. But often times, students don’t realize just how different – economically and racially – the rest of the world can be.
This semester, I decided to take a sociology course titled “Class and Inequality in American Society” for my sociology minor. For our first homework assignment, we looked up the poverty rates of different states and demographic groups, and discussed our findings in class. One of my classmates said he was shocked to find out that D.C. had such a high poverty rate since so many upper class federal employees work here. Another classmate was surprised to see the poverty rate for Asians and Asian Americans was not lower, since he believed they were a high-achieving group.
In that moment, I realized just how important it is for students to take a sociology course like this. All students should be required to take a sociology course at some point in their college careers, regardless of whether they are majoring or minoring in the field.
After hearing these comments, I sat in my seat dumbfounded that any college student could be surprised by these figures. I wondered how students could go to school here and not know of the whooping 17.3 percent poverty rate in the District, or not realize that a large proportion of Asian families consist of parents who immigrated to the U.S. with little to nothing.
Although we are often told to go outside of the Foggy Bottom bubble to explore other neighborhoods, we are rarely encouraged to think critically about how and why the rest of the world and society is different, from the ideology of its population to its varying economic and racial make up. Throughout the semester, I’ve learned about the inequalities in different facets of American society, from education to the job market, as well as the contributing sociological factors.
While I was originally annoyed at some of my classmates’ lack of awareness, I quickly realized there were many topics I wasn’t fully aware of either. In the class, I read Jennifer Silva’s “Coming Up Short,” which featured narratives of young adults who wanted to go to college but because of their complex circumstances, from not being able to give up full-time work to a lack of familial support, could never attend or were forced to drop out. I also learned that one-third of students end up dropping out of college, and as a result are 71 percent more likely to be unemployed, and four times more likely to default on their student loans. I had general awareness of these statistics, but the college dropout rate was never a topic I had thought deeply about. As someone at an institution as elite and expensive as GW, learning about the struggles these young adults face was sobering and a reminder of the privilege my classmates and I have.
Some say that the most valuable learning occurs outside the classroom. But for the people that grew up in well-off families and communities, sociology classes can make the classroom one of few opportunities to be exposed to the realities of society while also understanding why these inequalities exist and persist. This can prevent common misconceptions that some people are poor or cannot go to college simply because they don’t have the money, or because they haven’t worked hard enough. Sociology teaches us that most situations are never that simple. A myriad of institutions and factors contribute to complex issues like poverty and unemployment, including suburbanization, automation and redlining.
I’m a psychology major, but my experience inside and outside the classroom at GW, realizing how drastically this campus contrasts from the rest of D.C. and where I grew up in northern Virginia, has sparked my interest in the study of societies.
Since declaring my sociology minor and taking upper level courses, I’ve been challenged to think about life outside my surroundings, put myself in other people’s shoes and really ponder the reasons why some people are in certain circumstances, beyond just “bad luck.” This has made me a critical thinker, as well as a more empathetic person. I have found myself increasingly taking a step back before making snap judgments about people I meet.
Every student, whether you’re a psychology or an engineering major, should take a sociology course before graduation. Undergraduate students in every school from the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences to the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences are already required to take at least two social science courses, and introductory sociology courses can be used to fulfill this. Taking an introductory course will provide a better understanding of the world and possibly pique students’ interests in exploring more specialized topics like class inequality or education.
Regardless of what profession students ultimately choose after graduation, there’s no getting around the need to interact and get along with other people. Students may find themselves living in a very different community than the one they grew up or went to school in. By better understanding people and the sociological reasons behind prominent social issues, students will find themselves better able to communicate and empathize with others.
Irene Ly, a junior majoring in psychology, is The Hatchet’s opinions editor.
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