class rage speaks
Ruminations on the personal experience of being poor and my journey toward being fully myself in spite of classism's silencing and setbacks. Here's to feeling a little less alone.
Sometimes things just seem to come full circle. So it is for me: having depended upon financial aid for my entire college career, and depending upon it now for graduate school, and having thought a great deal about how class impacted my college application process, I currently find myself working in an office that handles financial aid and admissions information for a major, extremely competitive university. I didn’t take this job because of its particular subject matter; I took it because I needed a job, and this is a good job that pays well and helps me build skills that will be useful later. Nevertheless, it’s satisfying to be part of the process that give students in very great need access to the aid that allows them to attend this school- just as was done for me.
It’s not the easiest job. There are everyday exasperations- students who won’t turn in their forms on time, parents who call and call and won’t accept the answers they’re given, people who demand immediate access to staff, people who take out their frustration on me when they request things that I just can’t do- but those are the perils of any job that involves dealing with people. Then, there are the small heartbreaks that I witness every day and can’t allow myself to fully feel. I hear the most desperate stories. I have to tell people that no, contrary to that random email you got, our admissions deadline is closed for the year- no exceptions. I must deal delicately with callers who just don’t understand how competitive admissions is here, and how little chance they stand of being able to take advantage of our financial aid at all- often because of the lack of opportunities that comes from growing up poor in the first place.
Personally, I can empathize with these stories to a degree that is deeply painful, and I’m still deciding what is the best way to mentally prepare myself to deal with the stresses of this job. Strangely, though, some of the worst of the discomfort comes from my colleagues, not my clients.
All of the student workers here are grad students. All are intelligent, academically minded, college-educated, and high-performing enough to be accepted here for grad school. We have a lot in common, and I usually get along with them quite well. But as I spend more time there, I’m becoming more and more uncomfortable with their attitude toward the applicants and other inquirers we encounter while doing our jobs.
An ever-present part of the student-staffer position is to answer phone calls, and frequently, these calls are from people who are interested in this school and have heard about its generous financial aid program. When we answer these calls, my fellow staffers are invariably polite and helpful; they provide the appropriate information, explain briefly why our aid procedures work the way they do, and direct callers to other resources like our website and the visitor’s office. But when that phone gets hung up? Out comes the mockery, the unfair assumptions, and the total ignorance about how class can affect individuals’ educational opportunities.
I have sat, stunned, as my coworkers made fun of people who didn’t know how the college-application process worked, literally saying things like “Do these people just not know how to apply to college?” Well, no, many of them don’t, I want to say. Imagine yourself in this situation: no one from your community applies to prestigious schools, and few go to college at all. You may not have guidance counselors or teachers who are willing to help students with the application process. All the terms that you’ve rarely heard before- SAT, ACT, SAT II, AP, IB, IDOC- sound like nothing so much as a meaningless jumble of letters. You may not have Internet access, and even if you do, you may have little Internet competency or no idea what to search for. You vaguely know that this university is prestigious, and you’ve heard that they will pay for poor kids’ schooling, and you’re desperate to give your kid or yourself a better life. You’re just not in the cultural environment that best supports students applying to schools like this one. So when an email gets passed your way about how this college offers such great financial aid for poor families, what do you do? You latch onto that hope- no matter that you don’t understand it completely.
I’ve watched my coworkers roll their eyes and get frustrated while on the phone with people who completely misunderstand who we are and what we do, and then explode once the call is over. How dare someone confuse our graduate programs (which have separate aid systems) with the undergrad program? How could anyone possibly not get the point that the aid we offer is for admitted students of our college only? How could someone be so stupid as to think that the student they described to us would be able to get in here? Why should I be nice to someone who missed a deadline they didn’t know existed? Don’t these people know who we are, how great and important and selective we are? Don’t these people know anything?
I never know quite what to do in these situations. The coworker who is most vocal in his mockery is extremely well-spoken and self-assured, so I rarely feel confident enough to challenge him. Sometimes I nod or laugh along, because I’m afraid that arguing will put this job I need in jeopardy- particularly as my boss and other non-student coworkers often join in- but I’m always ashamed of myself afterward. Sometimes- more and more, these days- I stand up to them, pointing out that I myself was in a similar situation, and that I was extremely lucky to come out of that process with admission to a good school. But that defiance takes a huge amount of emotional energy for me, and its price is coworkers who avoid my eyes, don’t speak to me, and get into convoluted defenses of their own positions that sometimes hurt even more than the initial assumptions. And even when I do challenge them, I always feel like they don’t actually believe me regarding how these issues have affected me personally- as if even my openness about my own life is not enough to dissuade them from thinking that if I am here, at this school, and appear to be smart and competent, clearly I could not have actually come from a poor background.
I believe that this office is doing something laudable and necessary in helping low-income students attend a school which many start out believing is completely beyond their reach. Being the recipient of similar aid fundamentally and completely changed my life, and I see every day the effort that our staffers put in to help people like me and to inform them that this program exists. It just makes me incredibly sad to see that sometimes, even the people whose job it is to aid low-income people are so burdened by unquestioned, internalized classism that they are unwilling to even treat with basic respect the people they’re supposed to be helping.