“I don’t want you to retraumatize yourself.” I couldn’t help but feel slightly insulted when an administrator said this to me. Not only was it an empty phrase, it was a lie. Of course Wesleyan wants me to retraumatize myself. Of course it does.

When I was writing my college essay for Wesleyan, I was distinctly aware of the economy of suffering. I pulled up every grisly thing that I had experienced—sexual abuse, emotional neglect, food insecurity, religious discrimination, housing insecurity, harassment, my dead hamster, my aching tooth—and ran them over in my head and over in the paper until I landed on the story that made me sound like the most wretched person in the world, but also the most resilient. It was a laughable exercise, taking the horrible things that happened to me and crafting them into a cohesive narrative, framing myself as some heroine, someone who was able to deal with these things and come out better for them, or some bullshit like that.

It wasn’t a lie, wholly. The bad things certainly happened. I just don’t know if I was as equipped to deal with them as my essay suggested. I don’t know if I was as strong as I made myself out to be. But no one wants to read a story about a sad sack. People want to read about someone who faces the odds and beats them. I was well aware of what I was doing, selling out my suffering for a place at an elite university—retraumatizing myself.

It worked. Of course it worked. It is working now, I hope, because I am doing the same thing now. I am writing about all the ways I am suffering, undercutting it with humor by belittling my own traumas, making myself seem nonchalant. I am hoping that you will identify with me because I don’t seem pathetic, but that you’ll still be interested in my struggles. I want you to sit back and enjoy the drama of suffering without having to worry about all my gross emotions bleeding out onto the page. It is a deceitful thing to do, as a writer. But it is effective: Wesleyan accepted me. My suffering was acceptable. They enjoyed the story.

The economy of suffering does not extend everywhere. Suffering is fun when it is just a story, when it is contained on a page and carefully crafted. Stories don’t require anything of their readers. They don’t need you to do anything. But I do. I need Wesleyan to do things. And when it comes to that the suffering is simply not enough.

When Name Redacted invited me to their office to discuss some of the barriers I faced getting into Wesleyan and some of my personal issues with financial aid, I thought it was because the economy was going to work. I thought I would be able to share my story, that they would extend human sympathy, that some policy might change or that they at least might hold my expense in their mind for future reference. This was a silly and stupid thing to believe because it had not worked since I had gotten into Wesleyan. When I appealed to financial aid because I have no familial support for tuition and am working 20-plus hours a week and am ineligible for low-interest students loans and am worried that I will not be able to pay my tuition, the economy did not work. When I appealed to ResLife to give Haven Hall a fighting chance because it is important for students with housing insecurity and food insecurity, as well as for giving first-gen/low-income students a place just to exist on the campus, it did not work. My appeal to Name Redacted, similarly, did not work.

I sat in their office for a good two hours explaining my experiences and trying hard not to “retraumatize” myself, which translates into trying hard not to cry. Crying was weakness, it was a loss of rhetorical control, which I was not about to repeat. I told them why coming to Wesleyan was hard. I told them that I grew up in a community that told me schools like Wesleyan were impossible to get into, that didn’t focus on scholarships or financial aid, that had no resources. I told them that I did not understand how financial aid worked because no one had ever taught me. I told them that it was difficult to apply to schools because they all assumed I had familial support. I told them that it was hard to appeal for things like a non-custodial wavers and independent status because I was from a community that lacked many resources.

Let’s take a brief aside and discuss what is required from a non-custodial waver or appeal for independent status. They typically want proof from a third party that you have been traumatized in some severe way. My father, for example, was abusive. I had to prove this. All I had were a few counseling visits and a pastor to write letters for me. The counselor (who was religious) and the pastor would not do this because the abuse I experienced was “hearsay.” This sort of answer is characteristic of the abusive religious systems common where I’m from. For another example, my boyfriend was kicked out of his home by his abusive father. He slept in the park for a few days. He has no documentation of his homelessness because there were no homeless shelters, no social workers. He has no documentation of his father’s abuse because he could not afford a counselor, and because his school counselor was a secretary, and because people in small towns take sides (they were on his father’s side).

In short, I attempted to make apparent to Name Redacted that there were some big gaps in resources for first-gen/low-income students and that rural poverty is different than urban poverty. In many rural communities, there are hardly any resources. Any assumption on Wesleyan’s part that there are resources, even basic ones, is a disservice to people from these communities. It is why my cousin works in a stone crushing plant, it is why no one I know went out of state for college, and it is why going to this school feels like such an immense gift. Every day I feel so sickened at how lucky I was.

The response of Name Redacted was, essentially, to tell me that I was wrong. They said there was no difference between rural and urban poverty. They said that these resources (pastors, councilors, social workers) did exist. They talked over me many times. They were not very good at listening. The economy didn’t work. On the upside, I did not cry.

I would like to note briefly that only a very small percentage of Wesleyan’s population comes from the Midwest and the South. (Over the last five years, the average is six percent for students from the Midwest and seven percent for students from the South). I would also like to note very briefly that everyone I know from these areas is either from a private school or a city or a wealthy family or all of the above. I would also like to note that there is a reason why the application rates for these regions waver. I will leave a chart of demographics for reference here.

After I talked to Name Redacted, I felt angry and sad and then nothing at all, because that was easier. I went home. I could not do work. I could not do much of anything. I was too tired. I am tired. I am tired of cashing in on the economy of suffering, of painting myself as stronger than I am, of Wesleyan’s admiration of my suffering, of Wesleyan’s complacency in my suffering. I was accepted to this school because of my suffering, because someone found it moving, because the story was acceptable. Now that I am here, though, the suffering is worthless, it is unimportant, it is no longer confined to a neatly constructed college essay. It is therefore unacceptable.


Katie Livingston is a member of the class of 2021 and can be reached at klivingston@wesleyan.edu.

  • Ralphiec88

    Great piece, but I think you come to the wrong conclusion. Suffering by itself never had any value. Not to admissions, though admissions certainly values grit and perseverance over suffering. Not now, as you try to navigate the financial challenges of a college education with a limited support system and an world that quite frankly doesn’t care about you or your suffering. You make a valuable point that the provisions at Wes for students on the margins of the economy are more effective prior to admission than those for the years actually at school. But you’re not “cashing in”, and there’s nothing to be guilty about. This is going to be hard. Very, very hard. You’re not going to get there by selling suffering; you’re going to get there by repeatedly asking “what are my options?”, having a very clear goal of where you want to go (a clearly saleable major is a prerequisite), finding out who will give you the guidance and recommendations you need, taking a lot of lumps, and never giving up. That’s a lot easier to say than to do of course, but the rewards will pay off for life. Whatever you do, don’t fall into the trap of wallowing in militancy about “marginalization.” That’s a luxury reserved for students who are not truly marginalized. Instead, know every day that you can get there, even when you have the deepest doubts. I hope to see your article and your insights looking back on your experience when you graduate.

    • Katie

      Hey, Ralphie. Thanks for your comment. The point I was trying to make in the article is that admissions, and colleges in general, economize suffering in the sense that if you present a sob story or discuss your marginalized status in some way, you are more highly valued. However, in practice the same colleges don’t always take seriously the same suffering they claim to value.

      I understand your suck it up buttercup rhetoric because in practice self reliance is the only thing that works. Obviously, I know this or else I would not have been able to make it to this school. However, I do not appreciate colleges fetishizing suffering and then waving it aside when it’s convenient. I also think we should always fight for the improvement of systems and that is what I’m trying to do here.



      • Ralphiec88

        It’s not helpful or accurate to view admissions policies that create opportunities for disadvantaged applicants as valuing or fetishizing suffering. There are millions of Americans suffering in one way or another. The ones who get in to selective colleges are those who have demonstrated disadvantages, but in particular demonstrate the ability and drive to overcome those disadvantages. It appears that you are losing that perspective and putting your future at risk. Again, your suffering has not be “waved aside”, it never had any value. If you come in with a chip on your shoulder (e.g. a reality check is not “suck it up buttercup rhetoric”) and an expectation to be compensated for suffering, it would not surprise me that subsequent discussions have not gone well.
        What’s also likely to be lost in your approach is constructive dialogue on a genuine issue: how could the guidance, services, and processes to support students with disadvantaged backgrounds be improved? It’s hard to be objective on that question when you’re in the middle of it, but attacking the likely well-intentioned and dedicated people you need in your corner is not going to be a path to success.