GUEST EDITORIAL: Vanderbilt, let’s check our privilege

By becoming more conscious of our privilege as Vanderbilt students, we can adapt our discourse about international conflicts to be more productive.
Student reads in hammock on lower quad in commons, as photographed Oct. 24, 2023. (Payton Ohler / Hustler Multimedia)
Student reads in hammock on lower quad in commons, as photographed Oct. 24, 2023. (Payton Ohler / Hustler Multimedia)

In the last couple of weeks, college campuses across the country have seen a heightened level of stress and tension — especially for students impacted by the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict.

While it would be naïve to think that such conflicts do not impact college students, I have grown increasingly disappointed and concerned with the nature of discourse about these tough topics on our campus. College should be a time to freely grapple with difficult ideas and explore new opinions. But, that is difficult to do when I find myself being confronted by inflammatory exhibits that cloak their goal of activism under the guise of educational and factual material.

It feels frivolous to participate in conversations about the ethnic and religious issues of another region knowing that, as a student at a top private university in the U.S., I carry a special privilege that is not afforded to most people. The privilege to attend class every day and learn about topics ranging from intersectionality to black holes to the Mayan empire. The privilege to have three meals a day at my disposal and a health center just a block away from me. That is not to say that the life of a college student is perfect. Many students struggle to get the aid and mental health resources that they need to succeed in their academic and personal lives. However, I find that most students cannot appreciate the many protections and freedoms that are available to all of us.

Over Spring Break, I had the opportunity to visit Israel and volunteer at understaffed farms. During the day, I spent my time picking oranges and planting lettuce, while at night, I spoke extensively with Jewish and Arab Israeli citizens with a variety of perspectives. Outside of their own opinions on the conflict, each individual was still processing their raw trauma and pain. And despite their differing views about the conflict and the current state of the Middle East, one thing was abundantly clear — as an American student studying at a top research institution, I have the privilege of safety and security that most of the world cannot access.

Coming from a region engulfed in a devastating war to Vanderbilt’s campus was jarring —  I found that our campus community’s discourse and debate was not productive and lacked empathy and understanding. I respect that the issues in the Middle East are nuanced and students want the freedom to express their grievances and demand more from the administration. However, one thing remains absent from the conversation — the fact that we have the freedom to express these views with relatively little consequences compared to those overwhelmed in the real conflict. While sit-ins, protests, posters and Instagram pages are absolutely ways to engage in activism, they should not be conflated with actual ongoing strife around the world. Students have even compared the conditions at Vanderbilt to a literal jail, just one example of gross misinterpretation and misrecognition of our privilege.

I encourage students to leverage this privilege to make their opinions heard and fight against the injustices they care about. I also encourage students to use the resources at their disposal to enrich themselves and engage in discussions and studies that are unique to our advantaged position. 

It is challenging to participate in this reflection —  to recognize the immense amount of resources that we are privy to and the distinctive opportunity to undertake endeavors that can create meaningful change on our campus, throughout the city and even in the world. The power of speech and protest is not one that I, or any Vanderbilt student should take for granted. Nevertheless, our campus has taken on a complicated conflict that materially impacts a small portion of students with the unnecessary expectation for everyone to take a side. 

It is challenging to participate in this reflection —  to recognize the immense amount of resources that we are privy to and the distinctive opportunity to undertake endeavors that can create meaningful change on our campus, throughout the city and even in the world.

For anyone contending with the hardships occurring all over the world and in our own communities, I hope that you find the outlet to express yourself in a positive and productive manner and encounter support systems who will hear and listen to your concerns. I also wish that individuals and organizations on this very campus can recognize their privilege and maintain respect for each other’s experiences and viewpoints. As a community that is supposed to share the common values of acquiring knowledge and bettering the world for those around us, we must step back and acknowledge our fortunate position. It feels to me like we are progressively allowing polarization to get the best of us and squandering this distinctive opportunity to celebrate our diversity of opinion and experience. Ultimately, we, as a campus community, should aspire to find common ground and work towards cooperation, not divisive factionalism — a challenge that starts with realizing our privilege.

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About the Contributor
Isabella Lefkowitz-Rao, Guest Writer
Isabella Lefkowitz-Rao is a sophomore from Washington, D.C. double majoring in psychology and economic history. Outside of class, she enjoys working out, listening to music and exploring Nashville.
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Comments (10)

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2 months ago

Amazing, thoughtful piece. This is exactly the messaging this campus needs right now.

Free Palestine
2 months ago

the students who protested included many students of color, many low-income students, many disabled students, many queer students, etc. — and you have the fucking audacity to lecture them about privilege when you afforded a trip to an apartheid state for spring break.

the irony is laughable

2 months ago
Reply to  Free Palestine

These volunteer opportunity are essentially free and fully sponsored by non-profits, so even low income folks can participate… she spent her time doing service during spring break, working in agricultural labor– What else should she have been doing?

1 month ago
Reply to  Free Palestine

As a queer student, I cannot wait to move to Palestine after graduation and live my truth openly and freely.

angry vanderbilt student
2 months ago

the students who compared the conditions in kirkland to conditions in jail literally had been to jail because the university decided to arrest them for protesting against a genocide. i think i trust their judgment on that one

Lo Meisel
2 months ago

The irony of asking students of color to check their privilege after they’ve been suspended/expelled for activism… while also talking about your international spring break trip to go assist a genocidal nation. This is one of the most out-of-touch perspectives I’ve ever read.

2 months ago

Thank you to the previous commenters for so beautifully validating the thesis of the article.

Free the 27
2 months ago

It’s somewhat ironic when you ask Vandy students to ‘check their privilege’ while they’re simultaneously being stripped of essentials for advocating their beliefs. The contrast is striking—preaching about privilege while observing students lose their meal plans, housing, and healthcare due to protest. Although your intentions might be in good faith, the message comes across as patronizing. Activism is far from a luxury; it’s a vital response to injustice, fueled by a profound understanding of global issues, not just the conveniences of campus life.

These students are actively engaged with complex global issues like the Israel-Palestine conflict, driven by a commitment to justice and solidarity. Your appeal for moderated activism because of ‘privilege’ misses the core of what it means to be an activist. It’s about leveraging one’s position to drive change, not diminishing one’s voice due to campus comforts. Instead of advising students to ‘check their privilege,’ we should be urging them to utilize it, turning awareness of privilege into proactive, meaningful advocacy for those lacking the same platforms or opportunities.

Cranky Alum
2 months ago

This op-ed is somehow worse than the last one. You get 3 meals a day, read about black holes, and have the money to study abroad (in Israel!). That means you can not protest on behalf of the Palestinians!!

At least the last guy was shameless in his writing. This just tries to hide the same sentiment with lefty-feel good cliches.

2 months ago

so let’s get this straight:

the author 1. boasts about a spring break trip to a nation committing genocide while claiming that actually everyone else on campus are the people doing things in poor taste and

2. claims that students expressing anguish over, again, A GENOCIDE are the privileged ones, conveniently discarding the fact that there is a decades-long history of activists supporting Palestine facing extreme institutional repression and smear campaigns in the academic and professional spheres

Ever hear of canary mission? Ever reflect on the fact that the ostensibly “privileged students” are the same ones that are currently facing mass suspension and potentially expulsion and are the ones that have faced severe speech suppression and surveillance over the course of the past several months and years (because let’s not forget, these same students have organized around other social/political issues and have faced silencing for those issues as well)?

Given the superfluousness of the arguments made in this editorial, it’s a bit rich to claim that everyone else on campus is being myopic. Very ironic quite frankly.

Last edited 2 months ago by Jack