10 tips for conservative first-years at Vassar
Welcome, Class of 2023!
I could list all sorts of clichés: “it’s okay to be nervous,” “greater independence comes with greater responsibility,” etc. But you’ve probably gathered from the title that my intended audience is much narrower than the entirety of the incoming class.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Vassar’s student body is overwhelmingly left-of-center–our ongoing poll of the student body has 85% saying they’re registered Democrats and a quarter identifying as democratic socialist or communist. Though many students are not politically active, the ideological discourse is dominated by a vocal minority which is considerably to the left. Entering this environment as a conservative student is daunting, to say the least.
Not only will you have to adjust to all the standard new-to-college things, but you’ll also have to navigate one political minefield after another. So I thought I would share some thoughts I gathered over my first year as a conservative student at Vassar in the hopes that someone might find them helpful or, at least, reassuring.
You knew what you were getting yourself into; embrace it!
Give yourself some credit. You worked very hard to get into Vassar, and you made the choice to matriculate here. You are allowed to be surprised by just how left-wing the school is (I would be shocked if you were fully prepared for it because I certainly wasn’t), but you knew it wouldn’t be the Republican National Convention.
The crucial thing to keep in mind, though, is that you wouldn’t have chosen to come to Vassar if you wanted to be surrounded only by like-minded people. Embrace the fact that conservatives are a tiny minority on campus. As long as you have the right attitude, this experience can only make you stronger.
Every time you are challenged, take it as an opportunity to act as an ambassador of your ideas. Tell them what you really believe and who you really are, not what they want you to believe or who they want you to be. This experience of constantly justifying yourself, as frustrating and tiring as it can be, will, in the end, better prepare you for life after Vassar, whether you go into a field like politics or not.
Get to know people before you get to know their politics.
While you should always be honest with people about your political and philosophical points of view, you should never base a relationship on politics alone—whether you agree with the other person or not. We’ve always found ways to get along with each other before and 2019 should be no different.
So, especially in your first year and more than ever during orientation, put politics out of your mind completely when meeting new people. Take some time just to be an incoming freshman, not an incoming conservative freshman. It’s much easier and more productive to discuss and disagree about politics when you’ve already built up some level of trust with someone. And if they reject you because of your politics, then you wouldn’t want them as a friend in the first place.
But be prepared to explain your beliefs and how you came to hold them when necessary.
One of the first things you will learn about Vassar is that the bar is set considerably higher for conservative opinions than it is for liberal or leftist ones. Starting during orientation, you will notice blanket statements, generalizations, mischaracterizations, and all manner of other objectionable things going unchallenged. And not just from your classmates, but from faculty and administrators too. In an environment as politically homogeneous as Vassar, some amount of this is inevitable.
While you should always challenge what you see as deserving of opposition, this will not always be a possibility. For example, on the first evening of my orientation, the opening speech in the Chapel accused Vassar of occupying and colonizing the land on which it is built. As egregious, accusatory, and intellectually dishonest as I found this, there was simply no way for me respectfully and thoughtfully to voice my concerns at that moment.
This lack of opportunity for discussion and disagreement is often by design; some people would rather talk at you than with you. Nevertheless, whenever you do have the opportunity to constructively disagree, seize it while being aware that many people will disagree with you out of reflex rather than consideration.
Because of this, always think carefully before bringing up your disagreement. Make sure you know the facts and how to present your argument in a clear, logical, and respectful manner. It is much better to let pass a comment you disagree with than to get involved in a debate for which you are ill-equipped. In short, pick your battles carefully.
Be prepared to justify even your most basic premises.
On a related note, you’ll need abstract and theoretical backing for your opinions in addition to hard facts. I’ll go into this in more depth with number five, but suffice to say that, in most cases at Vassar, the premises you have always held to be true and used to justify your opinions will be called into question and dismissed.
In some cases, these common beliefs will be called racist, xenophobic, bigoted, and so on. Even if you grew up in a predominantly left-wing environment, you will not be prepared for the sheer depth of disagreement you experience at Vassar. In other words, you will disagree with people about things so fundamental that you never thought they could be disagreed with.
Embrace this too. Early on in my freshman year, I felt discouraged and frustrated by this deep level of disagreement, but, ultimately, it led me to understand more fully my own beliefs. The political homogeneity of Vassar carries many built-in, surface-level perks for those in the majority. It’s easier to speak up, for one. However, especially considering Vassar’s reputation as a rigorous liberal arts college, these “perks” are really disadvantages. In this way, and quite ironically, Vassar serves its mission much more fully for its conservative students than for those in the majority.
Read up on the history and philosophy of conservatism.
Conservatism’s intellectual ancestors can, in some shape or form, be traced throughout recorded history. For your purposes, though, I would recommend starting at the point where a vague sense of traditionalism became a fully fleshed-out conservatism; and that means diving deep into the Anglo-American conservative tradition beginning with Edmund Burke. Read as much as you possibly can, and not just in politics. You’ll be surprised at the philosophically conservative messages you find even in nonpolitical works.
While there are countless authors I could recommend, many of which are still on my to-read list, the biggest thing to remember is not to get stuck in the contemporary political din. It’s important to know about things like immigration policy, health care, foreign policy, and much more, but conservatism goes deeper than just politics. You’ll need to understand the historical roots and philosophical depth of conservatism in order to do your political opinions justice.
Seek out like-minded people, but don’t limit yourself to them.
Even though you should always embrace the opportunities provided by challenging your beliefs, it’s also perfectly healthy to have somewhere to go where people mostly agree, at least on the big ideas. The important thing to keep in mind is that there is a difference between an echo chamber and a club founded on common interest. If you ever feel like you’re in an echo chamber, even if you agree with the group, get out; it will do you a grave disservice.
That being said, do seek out fellow conservatives, libertarians, etc. I’ve found that, in order to have the energy and motivation to go out and embrace the challenge of being a conservative at Vassar, I needed to know that other people had the same experiences as me.
Don’t assume people will be intolerant of your beliefs, but don’t be surprised if they are―at least at first.
Most people at Vassar are on the left, but that does not necessarily mean they are intolerant of opposing viewpoints. If you take my advice and forget about politics while you’re getting to know new people, you will likely fall in with a group that is open to your beliefs, even if they mostly disagree. If someone is going to be intolerant of your beliefs, that intolerance will also show in nonpolitical ways.
Remember that the most you can do in any interaction is to represent yourself well and truly. How others react to this is out of your control, so don’t worry about it. Show that conservatives are intelligent, open-minded, and intellectually rigorous. You’ll have done what you can to foster tolerance and mutual respect at Vassar. And you’ll be making the experiences of future conservative students a little bit better for it.
Many professors who are clearly on the left are also open to informed and constructive disagreement.
Most professors everywhere, and Vassar is no exception, would be the first to admit that they are not infallible. Despite the fact that the vast majority of Vassar’s faculty, in particular in the humanities and social sciences, is evidently left-of-center, every professor who has taught me so far has been open to intelligent differences of opinion.
It’s also important not to let yourself be intimidated by a professor’s credentials. This is not to say that they will try to intimidate you, but only to get the point across that just because someone with a Ph.D. says something doesn’t make it the objective truth. Western academia is built on disagreement, and every thesis is open to challenge, be it from a peer-reviewed journal or a first-year student.
If you feel like a professor is twisting the subject matter to fit a political narrative, the best thing you can do is to read more on that subject on your own. Try to find multiple points of view on each topic—whether they were acknowledged in class or not. And bring these up in discussions if the professor does not. By informing yourself further, you’ll be doing yourself a service, and by shining a light on facts, trends, and events not highlighted in the syllabus, you’ll be doing your classmates a service.
Do not feel pressured to defend something you do not believe in. Do not let anyone, under any circumstances, tell you who you are, what you believe, or why you believe it.
I cannot stress these points enough: conservative and Republican are not synonymous; Republican and Trump are not synonymous; and, most importantly, your name is not synonymous with anything.
Unfortunately, for those Vassar students who have not done the work of digging into their own beliefs as well as opposing ones, the instinct when confronted with a divergent opinion is to attempt to shut down dialogue altogether by defaming the character and motives of their opponent.
They might accuse you of secretly being a bigot; they might say you only believe what you do because you’re privileged; or they might simply say you’re only a conservative because your parents are. In any way they can, they will impugn the imagined motives behind your beliefs rather than engaging with the beliefs themselves.
You should always, if the moment is appropriate, voice your contrasting opinions. However, if the response is one of bad faith and accusation and your attempts to engage substantively are not reciprocated, then the best and only option is to walk away and let it go. You cannot control how people react to you, but at least you will have represented yourself with dignity and integrity.
Tread carefully, but own your beliefs. Speak up.
There is a time to be tactful and a time to be blunt, but never a time to be rude or disrespectful. Remember that the preconceived notions of many people at Vassar about conservatives are not positive. The standards for you are higher than for those in the intellectual majority. For this reason, it is vital that you maintain a civil and temperate demeanor in all interactions, no matter how frustrating.
By all means, speak passionately in defense of your beliefs. But don’t confuse anger for passion, especially when many already think of conservatives as angry know-nothings. Passion speaks well of your character and can strengthen your argument; anger is a sign of weakness and desperation.
Above all, though, speak up for what you believe in. Through your actions and speech, force your peers to judge you by your character and to engage with your ideas in good faith.
This was by no means an exhaustive list of advice, but rather some thoughts I gathered over the course of one year as a conservative at Vassar. Everyone’s experience will be thoroughly individual, but, if nothing else, I hope I’ve assured you that you are not alone.
Have a great first year, Class of 2023!