Writer Dorothy Allison, a self-described “working class storyteller,” shared stories of her struggle as a working class student attending college at a keynote speech at the University of Wisconsin Friday in conjunction with the Working Class Student Union.
WCSU seeks to bring to light the struggle of students supporting themselves financially and promote discussion about working class students on campus, according to the organization’s website.
Allison said the power of her words should come with a warning label, as she is not afraid to hold anything back as she tries to attract the public’s attention.
Growing up in poverty, Allison said she had had to make many sacrifices in order to succeed. She thanked the Hippie era as an anti-materialistic time in America that allowed her to fit in.
Allison said her college decision came from the fact that she did not have a winter coat to attend Michigan State University, so she had to go to Florida Presbyterian College instead.
Florida Presbyterian, now Eckerd College, was a middle-upper class college, and Allison later taught at Stanford University. She described the harsh experience of not fitting in and noticing an environment which constituted of “them,” the students with whom she was unable to relate to when growing up.
Allison said her inability to fit into this new environment and her constant comparison of herself to other students created a “cracked soul” and a sense of self-worthlessness. Trying to pass as someone who she was not for so long made her angry, she said.
Allison said she felt like a creature in a zoo that was put on a pedestal at scholarship events, where she became the center of attention because those who donated money wanted to feel good by seeing the product of their costs.
Allison outlined the importance of teaching oneself a sense of pride. She said pride can kill a person, but it can also make them much stronger, as most do not have the opportunity to look back on great jobs and be thankful for where they have come from.
Allison said the best way to treat the issue of working class students is to acknowledge that their life is different from many other students and to treat them as a valid member of the class. Advocating for working class students’ rights is important, she said.
Allison described how people did not expect her to be successful or get an education because she was a “baby lesbian.” She said her resilience always provoked her to prove people wrong after she was told she could not do something.
UW student Ingrid Rothe, who attended the talk, said Allison highlighted the growing divide between the working poor and the upper class. She added she felt she could identify with Allison as a writer.
“[Allison] knows how to be a real person and she keeps learning through her experiences and relationships. The open feel that Allison creates makes me feel as if I can connect even through her distant writing,” Rothe said.