Biweekly column "I'm First" returns with a first-generation student's experience with classism, lived and theoretical.

I didn’t know I was poor until I got to Wesleyan. I grew up in a neighborhood without much economic diversity. Wealth was something that I saw on TV shows and not something that I thought anyone actually had. I grew up in a single-parent household, but didn’t think much of it because most my friends were in similar situations. I never felt like I was missing out on anything because I always felt loved and supported.

College was definitely a turning point in my life. When I entered my freshman year here, I really didn’t know what to expect. In my family, going to college was almost like going to Hogwarts. College was something that was talked about and everyone assumed I would go, but it seemed so far off in the distance. When I got to Wesleyan, I felt like I was in another universe. Wesleyan students talked about things that I had no knowledge of. I had never read “The Odyssey,” I had never been to Prague, and I had never eaten kale before.

“Social capital” is not a term thrown around in my neighborhood, but members of my community are the ones who need it the most. I don’t know any rich hedge fund managers. We do not have connections. Instead, we rely on connections we make with one another. We form a community of people who love and respect one another, something that I’m still struggling to find in the cutthroat real world. If you want to talk about a paradigm shift, I’m the perfect case study. I lived my life in the crowd, doing well in classes, and not really making any trouble. When I came to Wesleyan, activists were everywhere, raising their voices to help communities, some to which they belonged and some to which they did not. That pushed me to think about the hurdles that my family has to jump through—that I have to jump through—and the reason that I speak up is so that people after me do not have to.

Growing up, we didn’t talk about social justice in school. My teachers never mentioned classism, although the issue greatly affected their students, with the majority of my classmates qualifying for free or reduced lunch. I remember first learning about issues of social justice and wanting to bring some of my knowledge home.

One of the first times I talked about social justice with my family was when my cousin was watching “Friends.” I said, “Don’t you think it’s weird that almost all of the people on this show are white? I mean, why isn’t there any diversity? The show does take place in New York City.” My cousin told me that she didn’t care that there were no black or Hispanic people on the show. She just wanted to laugh. I pressed her and asked her why the lack of diversity on the show didn’t bother her. She simply told me to stop overanalyzing things and continued to watch the show without much thought. It’s moments like this that make me realize I live in two entirely different worlds, one at home and one at Wesleyan.

At Wes, some of us have the privilege of talking about issues of social justice in theory. My mom, who works six days a week, 12 hours a day, does not ever think about classism, but she lives it. She is the one affected most when her landlord raises the rent or the MTA decides to increase the fare. Some of you may not even raise an eyebrow when this happens (although you may still get angry at de Blasio), but those few dollars means food that we will not have, bills that may not be paid, and people that lose vital support. Sometimes I’m angry when I have to work the closing shift and my friends are out having fun, but then I realize that my family members have struggled all of their lives to provide for me.

It is hard being a student and working two jobs just to help my family out with the bills, but then I think of how much support my family has given me over the years. They may not be able to help me pay for books or help me pay my student contribution, but their words of encouragement before I take an exam or when I’m stressed about a paper are enough. I may not have millions of dollars to my name, but I am privileged in a very special way: I have my family. My hope is that the issues that I am facing today mean something. I know that getting a degree from Wesleyan is bigger than just me. That degree will help my younger cousins realize that college is possible for them, too. I am the first person to go to college in my family, but I will not be the last.

  • k.d. lang’s mangina

    Extremely well said. This really resonated with me. I attended Wes under similar circumstances as you, and we share many of the same sentiments. Two quotes really stood out:

    “It’s moments like this that make me realize I live in two entirely different worlds, one at home and one at Wesleyan.”

    “At Wes, some of us have the privilege of talking about issues of social justice in theory. My mom, who works six days a week, 12 hours a day, does not ever think about classism, but she lives it.”

    I can’t number the amount of times I’ve felt this exact same way. I think many of the students at Wes are so isolated from the very people their causes affect, and they cannot (and often never will) connect with the average working class American.

    Thank you for writing this.

  • Marie JP

    Thanks for writing this. I am going to share your word with others. I was not “poor”, but my folks were regular working people with high goals for me. I was academically prepared for Wesleyan. Wesleyan was my first experience with people from wealthy backgrounds. I had not travelled to Europe, did not play lacrosse, my folks did not have a summer home. In the quest to make Wesleyan and similar schools accessible to students from poor economic circumstances, the social adjustment is often overlooked and not supported.

  • BC

    There will always be financial inequalities in the world. No one will ever have the same amount of money as the other. I remember when my school wanted to implement uniforms because they thought that it would erase socioeconomic barriers, but guess what… as soon as you stepped outside we saw socioeconomic diversity anyways… Some people drive Lexus, some drive junk boxes. It is always going to be there. You just can’t let it define who you are.