Calling La Simón Elitist is Like Calling the Sky Blue

I love La Simón deeply. But commuting to and from campus every day from Guatire gives you a whole new perspective on elitism, USB-style.

Dear Alejandro M.,

To understand why people are so angry at the management at Universidad Simón Bolívar and calling the university elitist, you could do worse than to have a chat with…me.

I grew up in Guatire, a small suburb of Caracas where you probably wouldn’t want to live right now. Years of unplanned growth turned the birthplace of Rómulo Betancourt and Vicente Emilio Sojo into a perpetuum immobile. Good luck travelling the 50 km that separate us from La Simón by public transport in less than three hours. Sure, suburbs like Charallave are much worse off, but buhoneros and motorizados long ago took over my beloved city.

I am middle class. My parents are both teachers, I went to a semi-private catholic school, my only job as a kid was to learn everything I wanted: music, chemistry, math. I didn’t have a care in the world. 2003 was a pretty good year for my family, I graduated from high school and found myself a top spot via the admission test in La Simón. I was one of the only four students who made it to a top public university from my school that year (four out of 88).

Honestly, I have no right to complain. My alma mater has done right by me. I graduated in five years with a rocking GPA. I was the pitchman – literally – for “studying requires sacrifices but it’s worth it” from Alianza Para Una Venezuela Sin Drogas. I have a lovely job in a gorgeous European city now.

And yet, I have no patience for the idea that La Simon is anything but elitist. Let me tell you why.

During my college years, I commuted over 50 km. each way from Guatire, a place that most of my fellow classmates knew only as a signpost on the way to the beach. My commute involved waking up at 4:30 am, getting a ride from my dad to the bus terminal, waiting in line for the next bus to Petare. Once in Petare, it was metro to Chacaito and finally another wait in line for the Bus to take me to La Simón.

My average commute time was just under three hours in the morning, add another 30 minutes or so if there was rain, plus 30 minutes if it was Monday or Friday, plus one or two hours if an 18-wheeler had broken down in the tunnel, you get the picture.

Thing is, my professors didn’t. I had a door slammed into my nose once at 7.32 am because I was late to a class starting at 7:30.

“Where do you think you are going? You are late, you can’t come into my class. Next time you should wake up earlier like your compañeros de clase: they ALL made it” Sure, they all did, in the cars their parents bought them for their 18th birthdays, some of them from places as far as La Florida or Alto Hatillo. You know, they live really, really far.

As a famously vocal – but very rule-loving – student, I accepted my fate. I was late, the teacher was right!  I decided I should find a better way to get me and my fellow Guatirepeople (that’s actually how we call ourselves) to the university.

Getting the Guatirepeople together was easy: we all sort of knew each other from waiting in line for buses in Petare. So we banded together and trudged off to the student union to ask for their support in getting a bus to take us from Guatire to the campus in one fell swoop.

It’s a day I will never forget.

We were greeted by the president of our Student Union: your typical sifrina, perfectly blow-dried hair, mandibuleo and sports car included. “Why do you need a bus. I’ve heard our current system works just fine, I’m sorry but we can’t help,” she said as she twirled her car keys around her little finger.

Granted, she wasn’t like 100% of the students from La Simón, just like 93%. That’s a rough estimate, but then 93% of students that enter through the admission test did graduate from private schools.

Did I mention I was pigheaded and vocal? Oh sorry, I’m also pigheaded. This time, she wasn’t right, I was right! She should’ve stood up for us, and we weren’t about to let things go without a fight.

You might think the university didn’t know about the Guatire situation. But oh no, they knew about it – all too well! Employees had their own university-owned blue bus for their commute. They refused to let students ride it, apparently because they needed the extra room to sleep.

We went to the Directorate for Services and demanded a meeting. They said no. We went to the Economic Vice-rector and demanded a meeting, he also said no.

Then… we talked to a bus driver, closed the entrance and the exit of the university and we were magically granted a meeting with guayaba juice and cookies included. The next day, the Guatibus was born together with my reputation as “TupaMaru”, because in la Simon if you complained back in 2005 you were immediately labelled as one.

But La Simón is not elitist you say? I beg your pardon.

Going back to the 93% of sifrinos, that’s an exaggeration, I realize that. Not everyone who comes up through private school and ends up in La Simón has a daddy-bought car and lives in el este del este, of course. And yet a study by Prof. Nelly Fernandez regarding the profile of USB students concluded that your average  USB-Joe belongs to the middle or upper-middle class.  

As far as for our Frau Ex-Präsident, we shouldn’t blame her, she just lived in a parallel reality unaware of how some other Venezuelans live, her own “Hundred Acre Wood”. She’s not entirely responsible for that. Yet that’s the point: what’s “normal” in La Simón is privilege. Privilege never has to explain itself. Privilege is the default setting. It’s only if you’re not from a privileged background that you need to explain yourself.

That’s what elitism in La Simón is about: a default setting where it’s just taken for granted that you have access to resources that the vast, vast majority of Venezuelans don’t have access to. No “equal opportunity program” you tack on can overcome this reality. We have to face up to this issue, not to deflect from it: coming up with real solutions is a question of intellectual honesty.

César Alejandro Urbina Blanco

Guatireño, the grandchild of two Carmens. BSc in Chemistry from La Simon and PhD in Chemistry from The University of St Andrews currently working as a Research Scientist in Germany. Big science geek, proud winner and supporter of the Chemistry Olympiads and former Viola player from El Sistema. Always up for a good discussion unafraid of playing the devil's advocate, politics, religion, science or art, you name it I'm up for it. In one word: Cesapo.