Being Poor on Campus

I know what it’s like to be part of the working poor. I’ve worked as an adjunct (part-time faculty) for many years at multiple schools and as a full time non-tenure track professor for almost 8 years. My current job, which pays me $46,000 before taxes and comes with health and retirement benefits, is the best job I’ve ever had.

I know what it’s like to buy generic food at the store and clothes without a brand name. I know what its like to walk into a restaurant and search the menu for something I can afford. I know what it’s like to get collection calls on bills I can’t pay and to fear of getting sick because my insurance has lapsed. Insurance I couldn’t even afford to use. I know what it’s like to be poor.

I’m saying this not to elicit sympathy or make anyone feel bad. I’m saying this because (for some reason) poverty is one of the last no-go areas of conversation on college campuses. It’s ok to talk about ethnic, racial, and gender diversity. Disability is now more accepted than it once was. That’s not to say there aren’t still problems, but people are talking about these groups and the unique issues they face on campus. Schools are creating programs to help them.

What do low-income students get? It depends on the school, but the recent Chronicle story on the University of Michigan shows that trend might be changing. A guide “Being Not-Rich” on campus was created by students at the University of Michigan who are low-income and also (in some cases) first generation college students. This crowd sourced document was meant to fill a gap in student support services that focused almost solely on financial aid and not enough on the indirect ways in which being poor influences a person when they attend college.

I can’t speak for everyone, but I remember my own days as an undergraduate and graduate student. I was blessed that my parents worked at the University of Vermont. Without tuition remission, a key benefit of their job, I wouldn’t have been able to attend college at all. Our family was in that awkward position of being too rich to be considered poor by FAFSA and too poor to be considered rich. Hell, me and my parents didn’t even understand what FAFSA was or how to fill it out. Scholarships and grants. No idea. I applied for several schools, knowing all along that UVM was it. No money. No option. No real guidance to indicate to me otherwise.

Most of my friends went off to state schools around the country. Some to private. As in high school, I got to hear through the grapevine about their ski trips and treks around the world. Meanwhile, I was working summers in a series of odd jobs to help pay for books and fees as well as repairs to my car (A 1987 Oldsmobile I called my ‘car of many colors’ because I covered the rust spots with spray paint and never could get the colors to match the original paint color on the car.)  My vacation was a working vacation for most of my undergraduate years as a deckhand on a car ferry. I got some sun and time on the water, but I also had to empty chem-toilets and scrub down soot stained gunwales.

Graduate school was meant to be my escape. I moved to the big city (Chicago) from Vermont. Finally I was so poor that FAFSA deigned to give me money. I had to figure out its mysteries on my own, however, as neither of my parents had more than an associate’s degree that they had paid for by working while attending school. Different times.

I had money, thanks to FAFSA and a TAship, but not much else. I had to find a place to live and set up new networks of friends. Starting from scratch. I also discovered that the money FAFSA gave me was mostly loans and those wouldn’t even cover all my bills. In addition, I discovered that education is not a cure all for poverty. Sometimes it heightens the contrast between what a low-income person doesn’t have and what those with money do. Yes, money, but also cultural capital.

This last part is where I’ll end. One of the things I like about the crowd sourced guides to being “not-rich” on campus is that they are not theoretical. People write down what they have lived. I also like that they are nuanced. Someone who hasn’t experienced life in low-income conditions can’t know that a book is a luxury. A real treat. That a vacation is probably a chance to pick up more shifts at work. That after school activities are also a luxury and (sometimes) embarrassing. After all these years and degrees, I still don’t like classical music. I listen to it, but it feels foreign to me. I especially dislike modern composers that so many faculty seem to like. Some classic country or blues/rock is more my speed. And, yes, I like mimetic art. No modernism for me. Pretty flowers twice a day over Picasso or Pollack. How many seminars and symposia have I gone to where my tastes are declared “debased” and “infantile.”

I’m a proud son of the working class who (even as a professor) still has to hide his identity as one of “the poors” to fit in. So to those low-income students in college, I get it. You’re not alone. I feel out of place sometimes here as well. But here’s the thing, good ideas don’t belong to anyone. They are the property of those who use them.

I’ve used my education to be an everlasting pain in the ass to management in higher ed, many of whom claim to be leftists and “radicals.” I’ve also used it to help my students, most of whom are low income and feel a little out of place adjust to college life. I teach them not only my subject area, but the things I wish I had learned while in college.

Poverty should not be considered a permanent social status. Nor should it be ignored as a real barrier to success. Providing more money is one way to help, but so is acknowledging the real class divides on campus that mimic those in the country at large.

I respect all people regardless of their background. As a proud son of the working class, I simply ask those who haven’t lived in low-income circumstances to do me the same favor.

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