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Being poor at an elite university is harder than you think

I am a “low-income, high-achieving student” living in a bubble among high-income, high-achieving students.

“Don’t you have a cousin with a trust fund or something that can pay your way?” said a woman interviewing me for a grant.

No, actually, I don’t.

I am a senior at one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country. I want to go into the film industry, and as I embark on my journey into the “real world,” I have come up against a huge obstacle: money.

I have come up against a huge obstacle: money. Click To Tweet

My best friends come from different countries, cultures, and backgrounds. Even though we were raised differently, we have changed and developed so much in our time at college that we’re far more similar now than we are different. But one thing never changes: money. You can dye your hair, shift your political party affiliations, date someone you never thought you would – but money doesn’t change.

I work to support myself through college, my friends do not. But I am living the American Dream, pulling myself up thanks to countless non-profit programs, scholarships, and grants. I am a “low-income, high-achieving student” living in a bubble among high-income, high-achieving students. I am living in a bubble where money is invisible, but it’s assumed that you have plenty. I am living in a bubble where my career counselor suggests I take an unpaid internship in New York after graduation. She claims paying your way isn’t that hard if you waitress and get some babysitting jobs. She asks me, can’t my parents support me a little longer?

Money is invisible, but it’s assumed that you have plenty Click To Tweet

But that’s not feasible for my family. When I say no to my counselor, her disappointment questions my dedication, my commitment. As if the only thing standing between me and success is just wanting it bad enough. What she cannot fathom is that the sticker price of my education outweighs the funds that raised me.

As I graduate from an ivory tower, as my friends scoff at starting salaries that shadow my household income, I am expected to pay my own way. Because I want to pursue my passion, I am expected to work for free or fund my own projects until someone notices.

The sticker price of my education outweighs the funds that raised me. Click To Tweet

“Don’t you have a cousin with a trust fund or something that can pay your way?” No, actually I don’t. But I feel the weight of this question as I walk around my campus. I feel the weight of this question as I scramble to pick up jobs. I feel the weight of this question as I enter one of the most subjective, variable industries the world has to offer.

I feel isolated from my peers who complain about being “so broke,” when what they really mean is that they’ve spent most of their monthly allowance. I feel weird when my friends discover thrift stores as a fun, dirt cheap, adventure, when this is how I was raised.

I feel the weight of this question as I walk around my campus Click To Tweet

However, I also feel love and support. I love my school, I love my friends, and I am grateful for where I am and everyone who pushed me to be here.

This elite institution that has trained me to expect the most from the world, and that’s a part of me I can’t deny.

I have to grapple with the fact that while I will always be my home and my family, part of me is here now. Part of me is this place, and my friends, and my high-class education.

I know I am not alone. I know I am not the only one stuck between two worlds, feeling the weight of the expectation that we have someone to pay our way. Feeling the weight of family that sacrificed to get you here. This is our place, and this is our power.

This voice is unequivocally mine Click To Tweet

This spring, my class graduates and gets the opportunity to put our ideals into practice. As we search for our next step, I feel the responsibility of talking to my friends about money. I feel the responsibility to expand their idea of a “livable wage,” because if I don’t, who will?

“Don’t you have a cousin with a trust fund or something that can pay your way?”

No. And I don’t need one. This is what makes my voice mine – unequivocally mine.