Classing up the joint

May 16, 2012, 4:28 pm

Since I began the new administrative position this past summer, I have had reason to be in the company of several wealthy donors to my university. Whether these interactions are based upon stilted introductions from the Development Office staff, conversations at university receptions, or friendly dinners in town, they make me nervous. I try to put on a good show, being friendly, asking questions, and telling them about my program, but I always feel like I am a little out of step somehow.

As a first generation college student who grew up in a working class neighborhood, it is not a situation for which my life experience prepared me. The only rich person I knew growing up was my dad’s boss. They had a huge house where they hosted parties on July 4th, and their in-ground swimming pool and large wooded lot were amazing to me. We all had to be on our best behavior at the boss’ house, though his wife was very affectionate and kind to the children. I still sometimes feel like I am that little girl, trying to be on my best behavior.

Rich people can seem like foreigners to me, with their own culture, experiences, and set of expectations. I have befriended several rich people in my life, and each friendship has yielded moments of awareness of differences. One friend explained that her family of origin “dresses for dinner.” I quickly surmised she meant “dressed UP for dinner,” seeing family meals as a more formal affair. As someone who grew up on tuna casseroles in the suburban kitchen banquette, I couldn’t quite relate. Another friend told me, while watching the Olympics together, that the woman in the equestrian event “boarded her horse” at my friend’s family’s club.  She also asked if I made my aliyah to Israel for my bat mitzvah. I didn’t know how to explain that the idea of that trip for a teenager was absurd for our family; we were lucky to be able to pay for a catering hall for the afternoon reception. She had never known a Jewish child who hadn’t gone to Israel; I hadn’t known any adult or child, other than our Rabbi, who had.

Nowadays, I have to remind myself that I likely have more in common with the rich people I encounter. I tell myself that I hold a position of respect as a professor and administrator (more or less, in this political climate). The rich people I encounter are as different from one another as any other group of people, I repeat to myself. It is still intimidating.

I have written before, like Dr. Crazy and others, about coming to academe as a child of the working class. I have worked through my challenges in the classroom, but this new frontier as a fundraiser brings new FOGs (Fucking Opportunities for Growth) to this working class girl. And donor relationship building isn’t something an administrator can overlook in these fiscally challenging times. Donors are a necessity for any program that wants to function well.

Any suggestions from other children of the working class who are serving as administrators?


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