Op-Ed: Whitman’s Commitment to the Community

Ethan Graham '17

The disparity in demographics between students at Whitman College and those living in Walla Walla is striking. Whitman’s most recent Fall 2017 Class is comprised of just 9 percent self-identifying Hispanic/Latinos and 64 percent self-identifying White/Caucasian students. Meanwhile, 38 percent of Walla Walla Public School students identify as Hispanic or Latino. According to the “New York Times,” the median income of students’ families attending Whitman is $156,200, and 66 percent of Whitman’s enrolled students come from the top 20 percent of income percentile in the United States. 56 percent of students enrolled in Walla Walla Public Schools, meanwhile, receive Free and Reduced Lunch. Whitman is much more white and much more affluent than its community, and continues to keep its surrounding community at arm’s length in different ways. Its interactions with AVID illustrate this.

This year, no Walla Walla High School students involved with AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) were admitted to Whitman College. AVID is a program that gives first generation and students underrepresented in higher education the support and resources needed to make attending college a reality. Working at Wa-Hi with AVID has been an incredible privilege. However, observing Whitman’s interactions with the program has also made me increasingly disillusioned with Whitman’s relationship with its surrounding community. I’m proud of my Whitman degree and I care deeply about its standing in the community, but the college has been unwilling to confront the socioeconomic and racial gap between itself and its surrounding community.

Two years ago, Mr. Whitman raised money for Walla Walla’s AVID program. While I know that these funds have been instrumental to AVID’s continued success in Walla Walla Public Schools, the rhetoric in this fundraiser also exemplified the attitudes and behaviors that perpetuate the divide between Walla Walla and Whitman. I was in a Wa-Hi classroom when an AVID teacher read to the class an advertisement for the event: “AVID is a program that helps disadvantaged students.” There was an audible murmur in the room after this teacher read ‘disadvantaged students’ and I still remember the dejected, defensive and confused looks on the students’ faces after being labeled as such.

The students I work with are athletes, they’re in Wa-Hi’s ASB and in theatre productions, they’re brothers, sisters, friends, Homecoming royalty and have GPAs ranging from 1.5 to 4.0. They are so many things before they are ‘disadvantaged.’ Throughout the rest of the fundraising campaign, there was minimal interaction between AVID students and the Whitman students advocating on their behalf. The drive from Whitman’s campus to Wa-Hi’s takes about as long as two The Head and the Heart songs, but meaningful communication is only required when you view your interactions with the community as more than charity.

This year, four of the AVID students I work with applied to Whitman. Estela Gonzalez and Ritu Patel have GPAs of 3.65 and 3.71, respectively, and are both participating in Whitman’s High School Enrichment Program, which allows local high school students to enroll in one class per semester at Whitman. Estela got an A in a 300-level course at Whitman last semester – out-performing current Whitman students – but was not granted admission. Another student who applied currently works as an Intern for Borders as Methods, a club at Whitman that focuses on educating the community on immigration issues. The fourth student’s dad works as a Bon App chef at Whitman. Whitman claims to value Walla Walla, diversity and inclusion, but it declined an opportunity to bridge the gap in race and socioeconomic status with its surrounding community. All four of these students still have promising futures and different aspirations, but Whitman should have been an option for them.

On Whitman’s website, there is a page dedicated to describing Walla Walla. It focuses on Walla Walla’s growing wine industry and other opportunities for leisure and sport that the town offers. It does not highlight the high level of poverty in Walla Walla, the demographics of the town, or the labor that produces the wine that it so prominently features. This description reveals Whitman’s ideal student. Whitman is looking for students that are white and affluent, who will view Walla Walla as fertile ground for extracting volunteer experiences. A student from Walla Walla may see their understanding of their town excluded from this description, which ultimately leads to their exclusion from Whitman’s campus and an exacerbation of the divide between Whitman and Walla Walla. It is clear that Whitman’s ideal student is from a family of wealth, of wine consumers, and not from families that labor in the fields to produce that wine. And it is clear that, while Whitman values Walla Walla for its ample opportunities for philanthropy and as a testing grounds for future organizers and activists, it does not prioritize looking like or being like the community it lives in.