On a whim this past Wednesday, I attended a meeting for first-generation/low-income students. As a low-income student in my third semester at Wes, I had never attended any sort of events or groups designed to bring people with my shared experience together. I did not feel any urge to meet people who were bonded by the simple fact of their parents’ income, despite often feeling uncomfortable with the frequent issues that low-income students deal with on a daily basis. However, with the offer of free Thai food, I decided that I would give the forum a shot.
The first observation I had was the comfort level of everyone in the room as we talked as a group. Economic status lies under the surface of many day-to-day conversations about activities and lifestyles, and whether people realize it or not, college life is completely different when you worry day-to-day about financial needs. From the beginning, students in the group cracked jokes about asking others to print stuff for them so they could save money, or hanging clothes out to dry in their room even though the odor of smelly clothes makes the financial savings barely worth it. Or, how our fellow students will complain about “being broke” while they wear an outfit that costs more than everything in our room put together. Or, how running out of points would leave them “starving,” even though their parents could add $200 in Middletown cash to eat out. It was a relief to vent about what I experience each day with other students who share the same outlook. Usually, when someone makes a subtle comment about socioeconomic status, I bottle up the discontent I feel and ignore it. However, the space allowed me to share openly about the problems of a campus that refuses to talk about class divides.
The issue of class at this school first rose to my attention in my sociology class. We spent a few weeks discussing race and the sociological implications that accompany it. As in many sociology classes, people who experienced the topic spoke about it to further classroom understanding of the issue. For race, it was people of color who spoke of the day-to-day challenges of what it meant to be a minority in a society with discriminatory institutions. When the class shifted to income levels, my fellow classmates quickly raised their hands to speak about the pitfalls of capitalism and the shocking level of income inequality in the United States. However, when it came time for people to speak to their own personal experiences with wealth, few people had anything of substance to say about the class divide on this campus. I shared the struggles my mother faced while providing for three kids on a waitress’s salary, an issue my family still faces. Unsurprisingly, no one else shared anything close to this.
Roughly half the students at Wesleyan can afford to pay full price. Of the other half, only a small percent have parents who earn less than $60,000 a year. What does this mean? An overwhelming majority of students here have no understanding of what it means to be financially uncertain. Just look at the low-income/first-gen Facebook group, which consists of a measly 324 members at a school of over 3,000.
I understand it is more difficult to be aware of someone’s socioeconomic status than their race, but there are easy things students can always be doing to create a more comfortable atmosphere for low-income students. If someone says they cannot afford something, do not say things like “It’s only $10” or “C’mon, x amount of money is nothing.” Do not make fun of people for being stingy or refusing to eat out or spend money on alcohol. Do not tell me how lucky I am that the administration can afford to give out large sums of aid money because after we receive our grant money, we have to beg to get anything else. A student shared the other day that the school denied her emergency food money on the basis that she had already received it once. There are too many other grievances for a single op-ed, but in general, don’t pretend to be poor or that you understand what it is like.
Finally, if you aren’t low-income and want to have a conversation about class differences, go about it gently. I remember in middle and high school being told that talking about money was rude and people held shame about their statuses. I no longer feel this way and will gladly discuss the challenges I face attending Wesleyan on a tight budget. But not everyone feels this way, so be aware and sensitive of what people deal with here.
Jack Leger is a member of the class of 2021 and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.