I wasn’t expecting to encounter the issue of “socioeconomics” when I left home for college. I had been poor for so long that, in a weird way, I didn’t even think about it anymore. I mean, of course, I thought about it—whenever I couldn’t eat out with my friends, when we didn’t have enough money for groceries, when I wept after getting a notification that my bank account had been overdrawn, after hearing snickers from the rest of my class when I had to turn in the form applying for free school lunches in homeroom…I didn’t have to think about it because it consumed my whole life. I didn’t think about my place on a spectrum of socioeconomic privilege. Every day was just hard, and I had long learned that some things others had, I didn’t—I couldn’t. I didn’t think about if I was disappointed if I couldn’t see a movie with my friends, or buy a new book by my favorite author, or any other trivialities—it was such an impossibility that I never even considered it. After years of hard days, I stopped feeling the hard anymore, and they just became days, and it’s only when I look back that I recognize the gravity of what I was going through, and I see that each day I lived in fear.
Before going to college, I didn’t feel poor – I knew I was poor. When I started my freshman year, my peers were celebrating their freedom from their parents, while I was celebrating a bit of freedom from the economic worries that shadowed me everywhere I went. They didn’t disappear—I took food from the dining hall to stash in my room in case I wasn’t able to buy more, I made panicked phone calls to the financial aid office when my books were more expensive than I had anticipated, I interviewed for job after job after job—but in so many ways money didn’t factor into my day-to-day existence at college. Though I was nervous about having enough food, my scholarship-funded dining plan included both plenty of meals and points that were used at on-campus restaurants and grocery stores. No cash necessary. There were lots of events on campus I couldn’t attend because I didn’t have enough money to buy a ticket, but there were lots of free things I could go to as well. Concerts, movies, comedy shows, it didn’t matter—I didn’t need to be able to afford an admission price to hang out with people anymore. Wesleyan, to me, was like a luxury camp: heat, power, laundry, my own little room. For the first time since I could remember, all of my basic living needs were met. Although I was conscious to live frugally, after a couple of years at Wesleyan, I could almost forget that I was poor, sometimes. Instead of knowing I was poor, I felt I was poor, but only on the rare occasions that my friends wanted to leave campus or go out to dinner. I was extremely lucky that Wesleyan afforded me a financial aid package that afforded me this opportunity, as I know that many of my fellow Quest Scholars still had to constantly fret about making their student contribution each year. Mine was a different kind of education, one that many of my peers didn’t need—how to live each day free of fear.
During my time at college, this freedom had its own difficulties. I was, for most of the year, living out of poverty, but the circumstances of my family’s finances hadn’t changed. Inevitable financial emergencies occurred, and I had no one to turn to. Neither of my parents could afford to send me money if an unexpected charge came up on my student account. In fact, when I could, I sent money I earned from my work study job home. This disconnect, this isolation, is an uncomfortable place to be. As much as life had improved for me, I couldn’t relate to my fellow students on a lot of levels—our experiences growing up had just been too different, shaping our minds in completely different ways. At the same time, I was sometimes unable to talk to my mother or sister about experiences or problems I was having at school. My mother didn’t go to college and had lived in the same small-town her entire life—she had never had the privilege of encountering some of the problems I was having. There’s a lot of talk about how to help gifted students from underprivileged backgrounds go to college; there’s almost no concern for the radical way in which it displaces them from their community without integrating them into a new one. I was a top student with great grades, but I couldn’t compete with my more advantaged peers when it came to summer internships. I wanted to work in publishing, but there is no way I could afford to live in New York for a summer, or even Nashville or Atlanta, two cities three hours away from my hometown. I had been given a great gift of a liberal arts education, but perhaps now, more than ever, it was obvious that no matter how great the powers of my mind, I would never be able to compete with richer students. After believing for so long that there’s a way out, this is devastating.
I wish I could say that post-graduation all of this works itself out, but that’s far from true. I have been extremely lucky (and have worked many long hours) and I’m not poor anymore. Not rich, by any means, but like in college, the majority of day-to-day economic worries are no longer present in my life. I recognize what a blessing this is, and I am thankful for it, but it has left a hole that I don’t know how to fill. As I mentioned early on, growing up, poor wasn’t just what I was, but who I was. My mind, my energy, my hope was all tied up in being able to afford the necessities of life. A tremendous amount of my whole being was given every day to fighting fear and worry, to making it to the next hard day. I’m unbelievably proud of that person, my high-school self, who didn’t give up the fight, who believed against all proof that there was a better life. Getting out always seemed like the hardest part, but I’ve come to know that figuring out where you’re going is almost as challenging, raising a hundred new moral quandaries every day. Does it compromise my essential moral beliefs to buy a new book when it comes out, even if I can afford to? Where do I want to live, since I’m no longer tied down to the city where my family has lived for generations? What can I do with all of that energy I used to put into the fight? For so long I have resented people who can spend money without thinking, even as that was the place I fought desperately to reach. Now that I’m there, can I still respect myself? Who am I when I’m not poor anymore? I wish I could give you a better answer, but the important thing to remember is that someone, a lot of people probably, believe that you deserve a chance to figure it out.