Content warning: mention of anxiety
I had midterms in two important courses this week. Despite hours of studying, I wasn’t really prepared for either of them. A huge pit sat in my stomach as I walked into each exam, but the scariest part of those few days was forcing myself to try on my old winter coat.
If it didn’t fit, I’d have to get a new one—the Student Aid Society’s Clothes Closet, a wonderful resource, doesn’t have one in my size. I could handle the cost if I got lucky and found something that fit in Savers or Goodwill, but if not, I’d have to start using a credit card. After seeing what interest rates on loans and credit cards have done to my family, even considering the option hurt. I once went two months without important medication because I just couldn’t afford it, and that turned out okay. Yeah, I had some really rough symptoms, and my grades dropped a bit, but it could have been worse. How bad could just doubling up on sweatshirts really be? Wouldn’t I adjust to the cold if I treated it like exposure therapy? Did I even need a winter coat?
I turned over every version of the worst-case scenario in my head countless times before I worked up the courage to try on my coat. To my surprise, it fit even better than last year. I felt so silly after freezing my ass off for days without it and lying to concerned friends that I’d just forgotten my coat in my room, a bit too literally frozen from anxiety. But life’s trained me to always expect the worst—it just hurts me nearly as often as it helps me.
The American ideology of self-sufficiency and inherent, unbounded individual potential, reinforced in many ways by Wellesley, has deeply poisoned how I perceive myself. Being poor at Wellesley has always felt like a personal failure. Why can’t I just work more hours at my jobs? Why can’t I get a job during the school year that pays better? The reality is my jobs can’t give me more hours, I already have two of the best paying jobs on campus, and I need time to devote to academics as well as taking care of my health. How can I pull myself up by the bootstraps if I can’t afford boots?
Things are looking up a bit as I’ve somehow managed to land an extremely well-paid job for my post-grad life, a multiple of what my family makes each year. That’s come with challenges too, like friends assuming that I somehow have money now and can spot them. Even my family being proud of me has been a challenge, though a more personal one. Knowing that my parents’ labor has never been societally valued the way my desk job will be makes me feel physically ill. How can I be truly happy and financially stable when I know my parents are still struggling? I already help them out with the mortgage, but seeing how it hurts their pride makes me think they’re not going to accept more money from me even when I start my full-time job.
The thought that my financial situation is going to improve feels so far out of reach, even after signing on the dotted line and shaking my manager’s hand. A large part of me can’t help but feel like I’ll always be poor. My post-grad contract is contingent on me graduating, and I’m terrified of failing a class and losing everything all over again. For a college that talks so often about imposter syndrome, we rarely have conversations about navigating the kind experienced by poor people in a rich place.
My first day at the internship that led to my job offer, everyone went around and said what their parents did for a living. The joke was that “everyone” came from families already in the field, and the few who didn’t had parents in other high-paying professions. When it was my turn, I skirted the question. I’m proud of the work my parents put into keeping our family afloat (and am simultaneously disgusted that our economic system means they have to), but I was scared of already being labelled the odd one out. I still feel ashamed of my decision to hide my background.
I continued through that summer afraid of asking too many questions and seeming ignorant. I wasn’t sure of what I should already know when compared to the other interns. I didn’t know what level of socializing with my boss was acceptable, so I ended up seeming cold and aloof—traits that are far from my true personality. My workplace’s perks were the stuff of legend, but one of the few friends I made that summer described them as feeling “like home.”
Attending Wellesley had thrust me into this sort of environment before. An ice-breaker in my FYM group had everyone go around in a circle and list off the countries they’d visited. Meanwhile, I didn’t even have a passport. My professors have asked students to purchase their own supplies unavailable on Amazon for course projects, thinking it was fine since the courses didn’t have textbooks and unaware that low-income students often use gift cards to purchase their books. In numerous social science courses, “the poor” have been talked about as if we weren’t human, let alone in the room.
Wellesley sets out to provide students of all backgrounds with a world-class education, but it’s failing to give low-income students the skills and support we need to truly thrive. We need a Clothes Closet with as wide an array of sizes as possible. We need SFS to get rid of the so-called “student contribution” that wealthy families pay anyway, and we need them to start applying our scholarships to our “parent contribution” as well. We need a better-staffed Stone Center, since for many this may be the first time we’re able to afford to see a counselor (your first few visits at a minimum are free here!). We need panels of alums in similar positions who’ve made it. We need a professor from a low-income background to give a talk on things they wish they’d known about academia. We need to be further educated on what we need by those who’ve been in our positions. Moreover, we need the college as an institution to set up these events and support structures, instead of orgs run by unpaid students who have the same daily struggles as those they’re trying to support.
Being a Wellesley student has taught me a lot, but only exposed me to the world of the wealthy. The thing is, exposure isn’t the same as education—being immersed in the cold without a coat just makes you freeze. Wellesley doesn’t teach low-income students how to navigate wealthy spaces. Here, we struggle to teach ourselves.
From November 2017 issue