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.
One more year, one more graduation season. I’m not a graduate this year, but in the past few months, my Facebook newsfeed was swamped as friends who were the year below me in undergrad alternately jumped for joy and stressed out about what was to come next. My little brother graduated from high school this year as well, and his life seems to be a constant whirl of graduation parties and preparation for going off to college. It’s an exciting and eventful time for many people in my age bracket.
A little more than a year ago, I was wrapped up in the same heady swirl of events. At my school, graduation was preceded by Senior Week, a full week of parties, special events, and other celebrations, all with the sole purpose of having fun while creating memories and bonding with our class. As I watched my Facebook feed fill up with chatter about this year’s events, fond memories came back to me of my old dorm, my old roommates, and all the good times we shared. But to an extent that surprised even me, that fondness was immediately overshadowed by memories of feeling excluded and marginalized, of being told abruptly in the end that no matter what financial aid and school resources had done for me, I was not like these people, could not be like these people, and did not belong- all because of money.
I started hearing about Senior Week almost from the moment I arrived at college. As we ran through the obstacle courses and other challenges of orientation that forced us to bond with our housing groups, our RAs smiled and told us to remember it well- we would repeat those activities again, four years later, as we reunited with the same housing group during Senior Week. In later years, underclassmen who had stayed to work or help at graduation told tales of the many events, the week of fun and mayhem, the twinking lights and live music of the final Campus Dance. It was known by everyone I knew there, part of a common language and set of experiences used to define what it meant to really be a student here.
And in all that time, up until two months before graduation, nobody every thought to even mention in my hearing that it cost money.
Not a little money, either. A pass to all the events was $100. Individual tickets to some of the events were available, but pass-holders got first dibs; some events were sold out based on pass sales alone. The Campus Dance wasn’t included; tickets were another $20. Want to bring family members visiting for graduation? That would be another $20 a person. Want a chair to sit in at the dance- literally? None to be had, unless you purchased a table for $80 in addition to the cost of tickets.
In the weeks before graduation, spending that kind of money was completely impossible for me. I had just swallowed the cost of having my senior thesis printed and buying my cap and gown- two more major expenses nobody had thought to mention until immediately before they were required of me. My summer housing had an unexpected security deposit I had to come up with. I was borrowing money from my partner to make ends meet and feeling deeply shamed because of it, waiting for a promised check and knowing that my summer job was horribly underpaid. In short, I was a mess, and feeling my lack of financial cushion more acutely than I ever had before.
And then there was this.
There was one other option, mentioned in a small note at the bottom of a long, colorful, and exciting-adjective-packed email about the events schedule. I could send an email to someone- a person I had never met or heard of, whose credentials or ability to assess my situation were never mentioned, and whose confidentiality was never guaranteed. She might decide to give me one of a number of partial waivers available- based on what criteria, it was never mentioned. But oddly enough, I don’t routinely give out my financial information to someone I don’t know and who is represented to me so unprofessionally. And even a half-cost waiver would have left me with a $50 cost, plus $20 for Campus Dance- still considerably more than I could afford to consider.
Besides which, I have a major problem with this method of appearing to promote inclusion. It sets up an event and set of practices as markers of being part of a particular community, hypes and advertises incessantly, and encourages students to think about them as sources of essential memories, rather than as events that cost money and exclude those who can’t afford it. It creates a culture where money goes unmentioned, and references to the cost of events are buried in layers of online content and never, never acknowledged in casual conversation. It doesn’t give poor students an opportunity to plan in advance enough- if anyone had mentioned the cost to me earlier, I would have had time to budget and save up. It expects poor students to be comfortable sharing all the details of their financial situations with essentially random people- not established financial-aid professionals- on demand.
Most of all, it expects them to grovel- to get down on their metaphorical knees, expose and debase themselves to some unknown person’s satisfaction, and beg for the opportunity to do something that the community around them is treating as a given, or even as something that the responsible, reasonable college student would be remiss to miss. Many other big-ticket events on campus functioned on similar premises; emails and posters mentioned in small print somewhere that some fee waivers were sometimes available, if you contacted/begged some random person- sometimes even a fellow student, who certainly had no business inspecting and judging my financial details.
I don’t bear a grudge against the attendees or organizers of expensive events on principle; some things do cost money, in fact a lot of money, and god knows most of the parents and students at my school could afford the cost of senior events. I also don’t have a problem with need-based financial aid in general. That sort of aid got me through college, and if my financial aid officers needed to examine my family’s financial state in detail to give me that aid, I consider that an acceptable tradeoff. But there’s a difference between holding expensive events and and making central parts of the university experience too expensive to be accessible, and there’s a difference between allowing a qualified financial-aid officer to review my financial information and begging a random, unqualified person to grant me the option to be like everybody else.
The purpose of pouring effort into student life at a university is to create and nurture a community, and the specific purpose of building up graduation and senior events into expectations, with attendance assumed for everyone, is to foster and celebrate that sense of unity and shared identity, and to create memories that will encourage students to maintain that identity as alums. Having such a bad experience at the end of my senior year left me with a sour taste in my mouth, convinced that I had been naive to think that I was welcome there or could ever really fit in. I felt alienated from the community that had been my home for the past four years, in which I had had great experiences and learned so much about myself, just at the moment when I was supposed to feel most deeply connected to it.
Sure, I could have decided not to attend these events, and for some of them, that’s what I did. But I didn’t decide these events were important. The institution and its traditions did, and its community bought into that wholeheartedly. On a broader level, the culture I live in decided that graduations are a thing to be extravagantly celebrated and college a time to be nostalgically commemorated, that “memories” are worth any amount of money (which people are assumed to have available) and failing to spend money on such things is wasting one’s fun-filled youth, and that certain sums of money are so small as to be not even worth mentioning or “complaining” about, and nearly everyone I know (including myself!) buys into these ideas to some degree. I can challenge or ignore these pressures, but the fact is that that has consequences, especially for the social and interpersonal negotiations that are already made more difficult because of my lack of money and because I carry with me everywhere the realities of growing up poor. Missing those events meant missing important bonding experiences with my friends, and feeling abruptly disconnected and quite lonely during a time that was supposed to be all about fun and celebrating those relationships.
I don’t know what exactly would have helped this situation most. Increased effort to create more free events? Adding graduation-associated fees to the normal billed fees, so that the students in most need would have it taken care of through the normal financial-aid process? Perhaps even just sending out an email to graduating seniors a semester or two in advance, notifying them formally of the costs surrounding the graduation experience and providing a more trustworthy process for those in need to get help with those fees?
There has to be some way to make communities like my university more inclusive- actually inclusive- of people of a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds. There has to be a way to get beyond assumptions that all students have a certain amount of money, unprofessional, humiliating, and haphazard attempts at aid, and the perpetuation of classist and ignorant treatment of poor students. While my school trumpeted its financial-aid policies and its efforts to draw in a diverse student body (in terms of income as well as other factors), I came to believe that it didn’t actually care very much about supporting poor students, recognizing their particular needs, and making them feel like they are actually a valued part of the student culture.
It wasn’t good for me- it deeply impacted my overall memories of my college experience- and it’s not in my school’s best interest either. If I do use that education to eventually become wealthy, and if I find myself in a position to donate my money or my time to my alma mater, I’m going to think long and hard about how that institution treated me- about the culture and daily contacts that were the cost of its gift of financial aid- before I decide to support it any further.