Each time I give a tour of Washington and Washington and Lee, I end with a personal story about why I appreciate this university. Besides the academic rigor, close relationships with professors, and beautiful location, I highlight the close-knit community here. I mean it when I say that I love this school for its community - to an extent.
Community takes on a myriad of definitions. Community can be as basic as a shared geographic location or as personal as a feeling of belonging within a group.
Community is security, feeling safe when sharing your opinions, even if the group’s ideals differ.
Community is comfort, existing as you are without fear of judgement.
Community is exactly the concept of mutual trust that W&L promotes as its quintessential trait.
While our honor system and speaking tradition foster relationships, camaraderie, and respect among most students here, their promises of community neglect several and specific groups.
I worry that the atypical, nontraditional W&L student is excluded from our traditions entirely.
Washington and Lee ranks third among similar universities for median parent income, amounting to $261,000. With 81% of students coming from families whose income lies in the top 20% of the U.S., community can be found between students with similar economic backgrounds.
US News places Washington and Lee second and third in fraternity and sorority participation, respectively. With participation in Greek life of around 77%, communities are solidified winter term of freshman year, as soon as rush ends.
W&L seems to be comprised of more cliques than communities. Our campus is united because of our unique speaking tradition. Our small population allows us to know each other on a more personal level than many other universities, and our entirely student-run government gives the student body a more active role in maintaining our community.
However, it is possible that students here who do not fit the typical W&L standards feel excluded. Maybe it is because of the way they dress, how they act, or where they are from. Even though it may not be evident from outward appearance, some students here know that a large gap exists between themselves and the surrounding student body.
The W&L community is meant to be accessible to every student. To borrow a phrase from the Bonner Program, “we are only as strong as we are inclusive.” Our university, built on self-governance, can never be whole without each part of our student body represented.
A community fails when people of color are invisible, their opinions never heard.
A community fails when we ostracize students based on their gender expression or sexual orientation.
A community fails when a student questions the motives behind an upperclassman’s friendship.
A community fails when our speaking tradition is ignored in favor of perceived social boundaries.
A community fails every time one student breaks the trust we promote as integral to our honor system. A lack of basic respect, recognition, and acceptance shatter the illusion of community we present to the world.
Community is more than shared geography; it is a group of people who respect and value each other no matter their differences.
Mending the weak spots in our community’s system of values requires acknowledgement that no specific group deserves more space on our campus than another.
Beyond acknowledgement, fostering an inclusive community requires action. It isn’t enough to sign a petition, go to a rally on the colonnade, or share a Facebook post about an event; it means taking a step back and finding perspective.
It means recognizing your current place on W&L’s campus, examining the social culture you are a part of and propagate, and working individually to make our community one that is built on fellowship, not geography.
It means creating a new standard to which we conform, but not blindly. Our community succeeds when we create a campus inclusive of all, not exclusive to some.