I didn’t realize I came from a low-income home until I came to this university.
My family was considered well-off in rural Pennsylvania; my parents are still together, my mom went to college, and I bought my clothes at the mall instead of the Salvation Army.
Where I grew up, shopping at the thrift store wasn’t trendy or cool—it was for poor people. To shop there for fun would be a selfish insult to our community’s needy. Nobody vacationed in Europe during the holidays, kids worked to help support their family, and going to college was a privilege, not an expectation.
How many kids at UR view their education as a gift?
After sitting through countless financial aid seminars on this campus, there is one question I know will be asked every time: “Why is it so hard to meet with your financial aid counselor?” Recently, I listened as a female financial aid representative tried to answer this question. Would she answer better than her predecessors? No, unfortunately she wouldn’t. She explained that appointments are easy to make through email even though the financial aid department doesn’t host drop-in hours. What she failed to mention was the truth: if you think financial aid is hard to meet with, you’re probably rich enough that you haven’t actually tried to contact your counselor.
Let’s look at the facts. According to University statistics, only 51 percent of students who choose to come to the University submit a FAFSA form and receive need-based aid. Essentially, 49 percent of our student body comes from a family deemed fiscally capable of paying for college without assistance. In a study recently published by TIME, less than one quarter of UR students are “normal” in comparison to the average American family earning $60K annually—the other three quarters live within the top 40 percent. Perhaps this doesn’t startle you. Maybe the realization only 11 percent of UR students analyzed in the same study come from families in the bottom 40 percent, whereas 6 percent of students come from families in the top 1 percent, will.
There’s a minority on this campus no one is talking about. Despite the incredible efforts our campus has made to destigmatize race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and disability, no one is talking about economic class.
Granted, money is hard to talk about, but there are plenty of students who will inadvertently make comments that perpetuate their monetary privilege. When I hear people talk about their Canada Goose jackets or Patagonia fleece, I’m reminded of how excited I was to buy a new, brandless coat from Burlington as a kid. Am I offended? Absolutely not. I’m not here to scold the upper-class for indulging or tell people to “check their privilege.” It’s okay to be rich. Many families have worked their asses off for generations to stake a claim in the upper-class.
I’m here to tell wealthy students to open their eyes and appreciate their parents’ hard work, to feel lucky, and to see their education as a gift.
Privilege perpetuates privilege, but awareness also perpetuates awareness. Take a moment to acknowledge the comfortable lifestyle you were born or grew into. Sometimes acknowledging your own economic status is more about what you don’t do and say, not what you do. Do not complain about being the “poorest” kid at your private high school. Do not talk about the costly international trips you’ve been on without being prompted to do so. Do not shop at Goodwill because you want to be vintage. And please, do not assume I can afford to go out to eat on Friday night because I go to this university.
Despite the dont’s, there are also do’s. Do thank your parents for providing you with a private education. Do value your international experiences on a deeper lever and share your insights when asked. Do donate your used clothes to Goodwill. And please, if you invite me out to eat and I decline because of money, gracefully propose an alternative.
Ultimately, whether your family is well-off, middle class, or lower class, know that your economic status doesn’t define you—your actions do. We’re all struggling to make tuition at a school like this, regardless of the government’s or the school’s opinion of our financial situation.
There is poverty on this campus, maybe not the kind marked by rags, but there is a poverty we all must learn to be attuned to.