Death of the Berger

Jake St. Pierre
Class of: 

Graduation is officially a couple weeks away. I’m closer and closer to leaving the university that provided me with security and warmth. The university that has raised me for the past four years and helped me mature into the man I am today. I’m not terrified. I’m not nervous. I’m not in denial, I swear. Anyway, since my days here are numbered, I figured I’d make this final blog post my swan song and address a topic that’s personal importance has done nothing but swell in recent days – addressing the tension in the air.

When I finally decided to come to St. Lawrence, I received a lot of flak from my classmates. They felt I was betraying my North Country roots; that I was leaving them behind for a school deemed as "the other". One particular encounter continues to swirl around my head – our school buses doubled as transportation for sports teams and we were headed to an away basketball game. Decision letters had been mailed out for most colleges and, naturally, Facebook was crowded with post-graduation announcements. A lot of my friends were headed to the local SUNY schools; most were trying their hand at a trade. Not many kids at my school in Heuvelton, about 25 minutes from St. Lawrence, had a high-end private college in mind for various reasons. The topic was in the air, though, and eventually the conversation was bound to swing my way. One of my underclassmen friends asked me if I had any plans after graduation. I was proud of all the effort I’d put into getting into a great college, so a huge smile flashed across my face. I finally got the chance to make my big announcement. “I just got accepted to St. Lawrence!”

I expected some form of small congratulations, a thumbs up or something. I didn’t expect what followed:

“Oh, you’re gonna go hang out with the rich kids?”

In one motion, he dismissed all the work I’d put in over the years and made me feel as if I was abandoning my hometown. I never realized how important class was to people, and his words weighed on my conscience. I spoke with my high school principal, a fellow Laurentian from the ‘80s, about the situation. He was a bear of a man with an even bigger heart. He started the conversation by welcoming me to the Laurentian family. We talked about his memories of the school – playing football for the team, failing his art history class, etc. As our talk winded down, I finally summoned the nerve to bring up this socioeconomic-class issue. He knew exactly what I was talking about. He smirked and began telling me about this group of students from back in the day nicknamed bergers. Before I was even born, St. Lawrence had earned the unfortunate reputation of housing wealthy students who wanted nothing to do with the locals. They turned their nose up at the working class and caused a fair amount of division. Not only with the locals, but the locals who actually attended St. Lawrence as well.

Let me clarify the situation – throughout St. Lawrence County, it’s rare to be college-educated. In fact, you’re almost as likely to live in poverty as you are to have a university degree (18.9% compared to 21.6%, according to the latest census). Most North Country kids decide to work a trade like welding or farming because these skills require training, but don’t carry the initial price tag associated with higher education. My parents never graduated from college. My father was a dairy farmer who became a financial advisor to better support his family and my mother left college to raise us. However, college was an unspoken fate in my house. My sisters and I are technically first-generation students, but my parents always immensely loved us and showed it by trying to give us the experiences they never had. They encouraged our passions and taught us the value of diligence, commitment. My sisters and I worked incredibly hard in high school and earned the Augsbury Scholarship, an award given by St. Lawrence to North Country and Canadian students for academic and extracurricular achievement.

I went from living minutes away from trap houses to being neighbors with sons and daughters of the one percent. I went from drinking well water from the hose spigot to having Brita dispensers around every corner. I was confused, walking around campus and seeing Land Rovers parked in the lots. Life seemed pretty easy around campus. I was super worried that the rumors were true. That there was class warfare happening right on the campus I’d chosen for the next four years. As my time here progressed, I found the complete opposite to be true. First off, St. Lawrence’s financial aid department is full of literal Saints. Over 97% of students received some sort of financial assistance in 2015. The University spent more than $60 million on student aid between July 1, 2014 and June 30, 2015. They do everything possible to ensure that you can afford a private liberal arts college experience. There’s no shunning the kids with financial handicaps, and most of the time when class is brought up it’s to oust the issues we face as a society around money. To point out discrimination and condemn it. The one time in class I ever witnessed a student using hurtful rhetoric and flaunting his wealth, my professor immediately shot them down. Sure there’s wealth here at St. Lawrence, but it’s never used divisively. I can honestly say that I’ve never been outright discriminated against based on socioeconomic class.

St. Lawrence University isn’t "the other" and it never has been. It’s an establishment crafted to embrace, not alienate. The same principles that breed North Country kids are the same principles that nourish Laurentians: family. Tight-knit communities. Enjoying the natural beauty of the area. Savoring small moments. Conversations that lead to bigger ideas. I urge my fellow North Country kids to reconsider St. Lawrence’s outdated, unfair reputation that came from a clear minority. Bergers really don’t thrive here. We’re all humans striving to develop our passions. We’re all trying to better our situations. And we recognize that we’re in it together. I’m forever grateful for my Laurentian family – this school has opened my eyes to a bigger world and provided opportunities previously inaccessible. I’ve made lifelong friends here, gotten to explore the burgeoning edge of academia, met people from just about every cultural background out there. And I’m a better human because of it.

Thank you. Here we go, Saints.