Reflecting on the privileges of attending an Ivy League school as a student born into poverty.
As a man who grew up poor, I can definitively state that the central drama of being poor, at least for me, was not wanting to be poor. This may seem like an obvious, even trivial, truism, except I’m not broaching a simple complaint about curbs on one’s purchasing power or access to networks of institutional power and means. The experience of being poor, for me, was about identity and perception. It was about being alert to how I was perceived (or thought I was perceived) in societies to which I was introduced—teachers at school, neighbors, baseball coaches and fellow teammates in Little League, politicians I greeted on school field trips, and any number of other citizens and notables who looked upon my small skinny frame and saw a boy with two threadbare parents who were once compelled to raid my entire bank savings account of months’ worth of paper route savings in order to pay the rent.
They may have looked upon me with contempt, indifference, or empathy, and I cared for none of it. I resented any pity in eyes that bothered to look at me and see me for what I was: a boy who lived in shabby triple-deckers in dilapidated areas of town, who talked with a coarse and provincial Rhode Island accent, who glanced back at them with a recalcitrant and melancholy eye, whose father painted houses and whose mother waited tables, and whose worldliness did not extend beyond the few square miles of a city district in which I hung around with other ‘scrubs’ from the same or neighboring city wards.
I confronted pity with indifference. I didn’t want charity and I didn’t want sympathy. That’s not to say I did not accept the offer of a friend’s parent to take me on a camping trip, or that I would not call a baseball coach and let the phone ring and ring and ring until he picked it up because I needed to arrange a ride to practice. I appreciated whatever help came my way, but I was reluctant to express gratitude. I shrugged with indifference. Yet, I was born with an inherent predisposition to being deferential, so I believe my gratitude was still grudgingly conveyed in subtle ways, like the muttering of a genuine thanks or in the way I didn’t complain or raise hell if anything ever went awry.
But I was not going to be in their debt, or go out of my way to treat them like a benefactor. I wanted to be respected, and for me that meant showing that while I appreciated their charity, I did not need it. I was fine on my own, thank you very much. Unfortunately, in neighborhoods where poverty thrives, there is a pride of defiance that also thrives, part of a culture in which one is quick-tempered, ready to conceal any hints of indignity, and prone to distrust of anyone or anything not familiar to those who inhabit the small insular society of homegrown grit to which poor boys become accustomed as they compete, cooperate, or otherwise congregate in a hidebound nest of economic deprivation. Growing up poor, in short, was a trial in which I fought for what scraps of respect I could find.
It was this ingrained attitude of defiance that explains why I recently read a story in the Washington Post about poor students at Ivy League schools with some misgivings. The Post article provides an anecdotal account of the financial challenges faced by economically-disadvantaged students at Ivy League universities, even among recipients of substantial financial aid packages. The article explains how financial aid does not necessarily eliminate all the basic needs of poor students who gain admission to an Ivy League school, and illustrates the point by examining the experiences of a handful of students at schools like Columbia, Brown, and Cornell. For example, it does not necessarily help cover the costs of food, textbooks, and a social life, forcing students to make choices about whether to spend a marginal dollar on food at the expense of a textbook, or vice versa.
Though I am skeptical of generalizations drawn from anecdotal evidence, I could not help but be impressed by the parallels between the experiences of the students profiled in the article, and my own experiences while attending an Ivy League institution as a student of limited means. Like the students profiled in the articles, I found myself confronted with restrictions on my social life. I could not afford spring break trips to Cancun and other exotic locations, or off-campus excursions to high-priced restaurants, bars, and other venues where students with more financial resources could afford to attend (and thus cultivate networks of friendships, not to mention enjoy the break from campus life). I also skimped on meal plans to save money, and was at a loss to get my daily caloric intake on spring break, or even weekends, when the dining halls closed. I often bought used textbooks, but even then struggled to meet the cost for curriculum items that could cost hundreds of dollars per class.
But though I shared with them the direct challenges of finding creative ways to make ends meet, or simply suffering in silence the material compromises I had to make at the margins, it would be dishonest of me if I did not also admit that I found a few silver linings in my own experience that the article failed to capture. I could not shake the sense that the article ignored, and probably would have declined to validate if mentioned, a subtle dimension of my own experience as a poor student at an Ivy League university: I felt a certain kind of privilege in being poor.
How could I feel privileged when I struggled to eat, buy educational items like books, and to afford attendance at social events?
It is true I lacked financial privilege. I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in May 2001. When I received my degree on a chilly and rainy commencement day, after hearing Senator John McCain speak about nothing that I can remember, I had more than $10,000 in credit card debt (and tens of thousands of dollars in student loan obligations). I accumulated this debt because a credit card was all I had to fund my senior thesis research. It also was the only thing that stood between me and not eating on weekends. I had a meal plan during the week, though like some of the students profiled in the Post article I reduced my weekday meal plan to cut costs. But dining halls did not open on weekends when I was a student there in the late 1990s. I had no car to drive to a grocery store (or money for weekly cab rides to the grocery store), so I got my meals from Wawa, Allegro’s, Salad Works, and other stores and eateries in West Philly (and food trucks if I had any cash available; the other places accepted credit cards.)
During my final year, while studying on weekends (when I was not riding my bike around Philadelphia collecting data from cab drivers at cab stands as part of the research for my senior thesis), I would take breaks and walk up to 40th and Spruce and eat pasta and chicken parmesan at Allegro’s Pizza. I charged all of my Allegro’s lunches and dinners to my card, and every time I pulled out my card my jaw clenched, contemplating how I was ‘smoothing my consumption over time’ (after all, didn’t I have a lifetime stream of an Ivy League grad’s earnings that awaited me?) as we learned in economics classes, but which alternatively meant that weekend meals constituted an example of ‘living beyond my means.’
I was admitted to the University of Pennsylvania in 1996. As a track and field recruit whose parents had no means whatsoever to pay the bills of an Ivy League education (or even a community college education), I received a substantial financial aid package, consisting of a few loans, but mostly grants (the Ivy League didn’t give scholarships, but I was led to believe that recruited athletes were given liberal consideration, especially if they were poor). I was obviously elated, but I was soon faced with my first financial impediment even before I ever set off for Philadelphia. As a senior in high school, I received a scholar-athlete award, an annual award given to a student who has excelled in both academics and athletics.
The award provided a hefty scholarship of $3,000 (it may have been a slightly different amount, but that’s what I remember). This was fantastic, but I was soon disappointed when I realized I would have to inform the university that I received this scholarship, because my aid package would have to be deducted by the amount of the scholarship. I was disappointed because I had hoped to use the $3,000 to buy a new computer (since I was poor, I had never owned one except for an ancient Compaq 380 my mother had bought me at a yard sale for $100 thinking she was doing me a favor; but the computer had little more than a word-processing capability.)
The next decision was what to do about weekend meals since the meal plan only covered weekdays. There was something called a Quaker Card that you could put money on and which could be used in selected outlets around campus. I ended up shamefully going to my grandfather with hat in hand asking if he wouldn’t mind putting $400 on the card for me before I left for school. He was a stolid, unapproachable old man from whom everyone in the family scrounged what they could when they were short a few dollars, simply because he had a postal pension to supplement Social Security. But thankfully he relented and I had my weekend meal plan set, though I would have to be careful not to buy fancy dinners and use up my $400 in the first month or two I was there.
Freshman year went by without much of a hitch. But like students profiled in the Post article, I had to fend for myself during spring break when the dining halls closed, mostly eating cheese and mustard sandwiches on wheat bread that I bought at Wawa with money from my work-study job. I didn’t have money to go on trips, or even to visit home other than when my mother coughed up the money for me to take the train back on Thanksgiving weekend. During my sophomore year, I had only one pair of sneakers, and those were sneakers given to me as a member of the track team for training. If it rained and the sneakers go soaked, or if they were sweaty and malodorous after a workout, or if the air hole was punctured so that an annoying hiss sounded after every step like a reminder that I needed a new pair of shoes, I wore them anyway because they were the only shoes I had.
At the end of my sophomore year, I landed a summer internship at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. As one who grew up on the streets, who had previously only worked as a waiter, who had no family members who could advise me on the refinements of office culture, I was nervous and uncertain about how I would adapt to a genteel professional environment of slacks, button-down shirts, ties, briefcases, and, most important, the poise and intellect of PhD-educated economists. But I did the best I could. I earned $13/hour and was able to save enough money to provide a significant boost during junior year. It was like a windfall to me. I remember depositing hundreds of dollars in the bank at a time like I had struck it rich, and it made me feel like I had picked myself up by the bootstraps like a bona-fide Horatio Alger.
But by the time my final year of college arrived, I was short on money again. And when I finally graduated with more than $10,000 in credit card debt, this credit card debt severely restricted my social life during my first year in New York City, as I worked to pay off the debt in the first year. The debt constituted a little more than twenty percent of my first-year salary, before taxes, while I paid New York City rents (though I economized by living with two roommates in Queens rather than in the higher-priced neighborhoods of Manhattan). This of course limited the money I had to spend on, say, dinner dates and happy hours, since in NYC drinks could cost $10-$15 a pop. Needless to say, my networking and dating life suffered. Moreover, I was still learning to adapt to a genteel professional environment of suits, ties, briefcases, and the poise and intellect of PhD-educated economists, in the consulting firm which provided me the opportunity of my first full-time job in the adult world.
Suffice to say, then, that I feel qualified to comment on the ‘privilege’ of attending an Ivy League university as a student of limited financial means. I do not present my experience as more unique or worthwhile than others. Each student makes of experience what he or she will. As for me, instead of resenting the financial challenges, I considered my poverty to bring with it privileges not available to students who came from more financially-capable households. For one, I was so used to being poor that I had no conception of what it was to be rich, except for whatever spectacles of glamour I saw in the movies or on shows like Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. There was a kind of privilege in such simplicity, a sense of knowing where my priorities were, because I knew where they had to be. There is an animating clarity in not being confronted with the tyranny of choice that access to means can impose upon the impressionable ego of a college student. I was forced to cultivate my ambition, out of pride of ego like any other student, but also out of pure economic necessity.
That did, of course, impose a kind of tyranny of constraint. Students burdened with loans, or simply with the challenges of having no secure source of additional funds (since many Ivy League schools have eliminated loans), feel pressure to avoid concentrations of study in areas for which they may be well-suited or in which they have a keener interest than a field of study that promises a more lucrative career, lest they confine themselves to less remunerative careers that may prolong indefinitely a life of financial struggle and thus be unsatisfying to themselves and families who depend on them for financial advancement. There was also the challenge of not being conversant with the decorum of a culture of wealth, a thing not to be underestimated when one considers that differences in wealth can lead to differences in the urbanity of one’s world view, the mannerisms of one’s speech and conduct, one’s ease with codes of dress and speech, and one’s knowledge of social and economic opportunities.
Being poor can impose a kind of tunnel vision. There is an inherent insecurity in poverty that can verge on the desperate and galvanize the will to overcome. This is especially true among students who have shown the talent and determination to be admitted to an Ivy League university. These are students who start with little and must make the climb if they so desire, but then have the privilege of being able to say: I built this life for myself. It is, in a sense, the privilege of being able to personify the American Dream without having to be burdened with a cultural grudge against you because you started life with the advantages that financial security confers a child born into wealth.
I cannot venture an opinion on the extent to which any particular rich or poor student dwells on these sentiments of pride and place. I can only present my own perspective on the matter. And I state flatly that I have always enjoyed having the prerogative of being able to venture an opinion on poverty and economic struggle because growing up poor gives me a kind of ‘street credence.’ This is no small advantage in the world of ideas and policy, when one’s view on matters is often not judged on the merits of logic and facts, but on the relevance or proximity of one’s background to the issues being discussed. It is as if the integrity of one’s opinion depends not on its rational underpinnings but on how germane one’s background and experience is to the matters at hand, as if experience is the most credible grounds on which to judge one’s insight. I reject this presumption, but at the same time I appreciate its rhetorical efficacy. Being poor, then, confers a kind of credential in speaking about what it means to be poor, and thus allows me to say that I was proud I had to find ways to fend for myself. It was an accomplishment in itself, and I do not resent it one bit.
I did, however, envy the kids who were smarter than I was at things like computers and science because they had grown up with computers and summer research programs and households where their parents were scientists and professors and astute businessmen. Moreover, I felt inferior because I was a recruited athlete and it was often assumed I was a jock who didn’t have the brains to get in without sports. I knew it was true that I probably wouldn’t have been admitted without my athletic achievements, but ultimately it just made me more determined to prove myself. Envy and self-consciousness proved to be powerful motivators. As I have said above, I wanted to be respected. It was hard to hold my head high when walking away from a fellow student’s dorm room where he had been doing calculus problems with ease, and I took one look and humbly remarked that I could at least recognize the function for a parabola, and knowing right away that he was silently forming a judgment of me as a student who did not belong at an elite university and who had been admitted simply because I was an athlete.
I left the room ashamed, but also determined. Maybe I was sensitive about it, but I think I was better off confronting my poverty, and the repercussions of poverty (such as several years of a neglected education as a student in inner-city elementary and middle schools), as a personal challenge, rather than sulking and wishing the kids who did not know about poverty had taken a course in ‘microaggressions.’ I never considered myself a victim, only as someone who started out with less and got help from elite institutions a little late. What was important to me was what I made of my endowment of means and circumstances. The ‘rich kid’ was always an abstraction to me. It did not occur to me to target them as people to be emulated. In fact, it seemed to me that I encountered no such thing. Even the calculus student who seemed to scorn me: I did not know he was a millionaire heir until I heard a rumor about him months or years later. Perhaps my own experience, having attended an inner city middle school that was more akin to a war zone, blinded me to the subtle micro-aggressions of bias and subliminal ill-treatment. Not entirely, since I acutely recall a snigger from one student when I asked him a dumb question that revealed I did not know how to use a printer. But for the most part, kids were kids. We were all concerned with the same things: going to class, exams, sex and dating, sports, politics, and the like.
I became friends with kids rich and poor, white and non-white, city and rural, and I never thought about the identity politics of being a student. The prospect of joining a fraternity never appealed to me; the track team was a fraternity of sorts, even if I did not always feel like I fit in there either, and maybe professors awed me with their celebrity halo effect, which is perhaps less of a hurdle for students whose own parents were professors or powerful corporate executives. I found the people I liked hanging out with, and I’m sure some were poor, some were rich, but I never really knew because it didn’t occur to me to ask. I just wanted to do my thing, be respected, and get smarter.
I’m proud of how I turned out. I saw my struggles as a badge of honor, a battle scar I could wear with pride. It might be small consolation, and if under a Rawlsian ‘veil of ignorance’ I suppose I would hope to end up a rich kid rather than a poor kid when the lots of destiny are drawn, but the rich kids did not have the privilege of saying they made it this far despite the challenges of being poor. They had other sources of pride and privilege, of course, but I always considered it a privilege of being poor that I could benefit from the character-building exercise of overcoming the obstacles of poverty. Sure, I would have liked if the university kept the dining halls open during spring break, or provided an alternative, and I would have liked to have been able to go on exotic trips, but this was my journey, my struggle, and my own life to claim and take pride in. It encompassed some envy of kids who could afford the luxuries of travel and social excursions and general economic security, but I learned to be happy with what I had, to aspire to those things I wished to obtain, and to cultivate the discipline to achieve goals I set out for myself. I don’t regret any of it, or complain about any of it, though none of that is to say I would not have appreciated free meals during spring break.
For me, there was a privilege in being poor. I often joked that as an Ivy League student it was best to be rich or poor but not middle-class: rich kids had no problem with the enormous expense of attending an Ivy League university, and poor kids got financial aid, so it was the middle-class students who could not quite afford it on their own, but were not poor enough to receive sufficient aid, and who thus faced tough decision about whether they could ultimately afford to attend an Ivy League school. For me, all I had to do was accumulate a not insignificant but entirely manageable amount of student loans in exchange for an Ivy League education. In fact, financial aid made it possible to pursue areas of study I chose out of interest rather than necessity.
Indeed, I stayed a fifth year and accumulated a few extra thousand dollars in loans in order to be able to write a thesis and apply for jobs without the additional obligations associated with being a member of the track team (my duties came to end after senior year since college sports participation is allowed for four years only). I was grateful that Penn accommodated me. Maybe the extra loans were an example of poor decision-making from the standpoint of personal finance, but personal finance is not something I learned growing up with parents who could barely balance a budget. As a result, I took on a few extra thousand dollars in loans to stay a fifth year and write a thesis that ultimately won a ‘best thesis’ prize, which was a major accolade when applying to graduate programs in economics.
All of this is to say that there is a uniqueness in being poor that rich kids could not appreciate. There was a sense of empowerment in being able to claim I had made it to an Ivy League school despite the limitations of my background and the poverty from which I came. I probably didn’t belong there based on academic achievement alone, but the fact I survived and thrived was a mark of pride, an achievement I had strived for. Perhaps, I could have achieved more had I grown up with the advantages of wealth and means, but this was my achievement and I could lay claim to it. Every student has his own experience and his own interpretation of his experience. I knew students who were poor who nevertheless traveled on spring break. I didn’t know where they got the money. I presume they skimped on other expenses, or borrowed, or had jobs I didn’t know about. But they made it happen. Perhaps they made sacrifices I did not know about, and perhaps they wished it had not been so hard on them.
As for me, I am glad it was hard.
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