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Thursday, June 08, 2023
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Meeting people with different backgrounds at UW-Madison can help you realize and understand your own privileges without making you feel guilty.

Higher education: an opportunity not to be wasted

Privilege is a strong word. A lot of people like the benefits that come with it… but don’t like to be told they have privilege. For some of you, you’ll be hearing about privilege for the first time this fall. It’s something a lot of people scoff at – after all, you can’t see it, so how can you be sure it exists?

Actually, attending an institution like UW-Madison is a privilege that changes the futures of thousands of young people each year. Because of this, getting into UW is not an easy feat. I remember what senior year of high school is like. It’s all about crafting the best version of you possible, made of a challenging course load, extracurriculars and a selling point that makes you unique. All of that goes into your application and one acceptance letter later… you’re here!

You might think that every student has the technology one needs to fill out the Common Application at home, or if not that they have computers at school. Perhaps in your school district a wide range of AP classes is the norm. Maybe you had access to a college counselor. Maybe your school even had more than one.

A lot of students at UW, particularly in-state students, come from “legacy families,” meaning other members of the student’s family have attended this university before them. Perhaps your dad likes to tell you stories about the epic football games he went to or your older sibling has already told you where the best study spots are. It’s difficult to prove, but often times students that come from legacy families have an admissions edge and find it easier to fit in at school.

It is easy to think that going to college is the natural next step in life for every high school graduate; and accepting student loan debt is just an unfortunate but necessary part of life. This is simply not true.

UW-Madison has and continues to remove barriers to higher education for underrepresented students, but there is still an achievement gap. To put it plainly: there is a deserving somebody who is not here who desperately wishes they were. Someone who saw the price tag on the financial aid website and decided it wasn’t even worth it to apply, or who had to spend hours at a public library trying to write a personal statement with no outside guidance. Somebody who wanted to pursue their education but felt an obligation to stay home and provide another source of income for their family instead.

If this isn’t you, I’m not asking you to apologize for what you have. Every person, even someone who might be categorized as “underrepresented,” carries some kind of privilege with them. I think all students would benefit from reflecting on the circumstances that allowed them to get here. A lot of freshmen (and their parents) cite similar reasons to do well in college. “College costs far too much for students to be slacking off” is the most common. Another is that many people believe at least a bachelor’s degree is necessary to get a well-paying job, so you might as well try if you have to be here. I think first year students are capable of going beyond these reasons. Higher education is more than a means to an end and it is not something that everyone gets to experience. A UW education aims to provide students with more than textbook knowledge: there are opportunities here in research, athletics, arts and humanities, volunteer service and more that are unique to our campus. I hope that by the end of your four years here you take part in something that helps you realize the doors that are open to you as a UW student. These will become your own reasons to be grateful.

Whether you had an entire team behind you to help you get to college or if you carried yourself through on your own, we are so happy to have you on campus. Welcome to Madison! 

Izzy is a sophomore studying political science and education policy. What aspects of higher education are you looking forward to? Share your thoughts with us at

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