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The Social Class Privilege of Travel

Socioeconomic and Class Issues in Higher Education
January 5, 2017 Sonja Ardoin, Ph.D. Appalachian State University

The Social Class Privilege of Travel

I did not get on an airplane until I was 21 years old. 

I never had the opportunity to fly, until a student organization in college sent me to a leadership conference in Columbus, Ohio during the summer of 2003.  I was both excited and terrified.  For anyone who saw me that day, it was blatantly obvious that I was a new flyer. I had no clue how to go through security; I overpacked a duffle bag and could not fit it in the overhead bin; and I struggled with navigating the new environment of an airport. And, I could not call my family for tips because none of them had ever flown either.  I am still thankful for the gentlemen who sat next to me on that first flight from Baton Rouge to Memphis; he had the awareness and patience to explain each noise to me to ease my anxiety and he also helped me find my next gate. 

After experiencing air travel for the first time (and surviving an emergency landing … ask me about it sometime!), I caught the travel bug.  I wanted to see the country and the world.  It did not necessarily matter where; I just wanted to go.

I wanted to go because I knew it was a privilege and honor to fly threw the sky and land in places I had only seen on a map or on TV—to experience new things and meet new people. 

Which is why I was in a reflective space on a plane last month.  I was on a stopover in D.C., between Columbus (ironically) and Boston, when I found myself watching 100 middle schoolers board the plane.  I thought, “Wow. These 7th graders are getting to experience air travel at such a young age, explore our nation’s capital, and gain experiences and perspective.”  The 7th grader inside of me was jealous, knowing that these students were going to be ahead of the curve of other 7th graders (ones like me) who do not have school trips to D.C. or get on airplanes because their families, schools, and communities cannot afford such luxuries.  Yet, the educator I am now was grateful that these students had this opportunity; I knew it was providing them with cultural, social, navigational, and aspirational capital (Yosso, 2005) that can contribute to their growth as people and citizens.  So, half of me was frustrated that not all students have the opportunity to learn and growth through travel, while the other half of me was celebrating these students’ experiences.

That is a common place for me as a higher education professional from a working class background—experiencing class straddling (Lubrano, 2004) and recognizing how opportunities related to social class, such as travel, can create gaps between people based on certain learning and life experiences.

Now, I do go.  I am in the privileged group who travels. I fly at least once or twice a month for either work or leisure.  And I relish the opportunities—even the welcome and not-so-welcome adventures that travel can bring.  Because I know.  I know it is a privilege to travel, to fly, to explore, to wander. It allows me to gain various forms of social class capital and to learn and grow both professionally and personally.

So, I hold together these three parts of me: my working class background that kept me close to home for half of my life, my collegiate experience which introduced me to air travel, and my current middle class career and income which provide the opportunity to continue traveling.

And, I challenge myself and anyone else reading this to notice the class privileges that arise for you … starting (potentially) with your next visit to an airport.


Lubrano, A. (2004). Limbo: Blue-collar roots, white-collar dreams. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley &

Sons, Inc.

Yosso, T. (2005). Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community

cultural wealth. Race Ethnicity and Education, 8 (1), 69-91.