On the Outside Looking In: The Musings of a Low-Income Student

I suppose it’s a bit cliché to say that I feel like more of an outsider at Colby than I do anywhere else, but what term other than “outsider” (or perhaps “imposter”) could be used to describe a working-class individual at an elite liberal arts college with at $60,000 plus tuition? That’s more than twice my family’s annual income. Back in my small Maine hometown, in its small public high school, the middle class was the majority, and there were just as many students at or below my family’s income level as above. Everyone knew who the few “rich” kids were, and mocked them relentlessly. When I arrived at  Colby the rich were no longer the few.These people were so confident, so attractive in their confidence – so obviously wealthy (or well-off, at the very least), able to pay their own way. I was immediately intimidated by them, unable to insult them the way I heard so many other less fortunate peers do. They weren’t dependent on massive amounts of financial aid, weren’t expected to work their backsides off in hopes of earning their place at a university made for people of their standing.

Really, I envied the scholarship students. Questbridge. Bunche. Posse. They, at least, could claim ownership of the “low-income, underrepresented, high-achieving” identity like a badge of honor. I didn’t have the security of that label or that pride in my working-class roots. I learned very quickly how shameful it was to associate oneself with blue-collar work. When a senior in the wind ensemble was lamenting her currently fruitless job search I jokingly asked her if she wanted to work for my father, a convenience store owner. I will never forget that look of cold, condescending disbelief, never mind the flat refusal of the ironic but oh-so-ill-timed offer. If this woman – someone I’d deemed a friend, someone who’d never struck me as particularly high on the societal ladder – viewed trade with such disdain, how much more puissant would that sentiment be coming from a more privileged student?

I’ve long believed that socioeconomic status, more than race, gender, or any other identity-politics dividing factor combined, separates society. Really, only the rich have the luxury of going to college for no reason other than studying. In maintaining a place at this college, of course, I’m being hypocritical, but I have to wonder, often, if I’d have been better off going straight to work rather than wasting me and my father’s hard-earned money on a degree that may not get me anywhere. Those with money to spare have no need to trouble themselves with anything of the sort. They can afford, quite literally, to spend four years studying art or film theory or gender studies, no matter that such qualifications equip one to do little more than teach in the long run – though I don’t mean to decry non-academic work. Actually, I think it’s far more valuable than unremitting assignments. Work is where I and many others feel truly imbued with a purpose.

Over the course of seven years I’ve been a sandwich maker, a motel chambermaid, and an amusement park ride operator; it’s easy enough to complain about jobs like that, but the fact remains that you’re helping people, and learning to navigate among them as one of them. You’re not tucked away in some elite college learning things that ordinary folk don’t know exist. You’re actually out in the real world, and I think that’s an experience most colleges, to the detriment of their students’ capabilities for success, fail to push adequately.  

This sort of blue-collar work is a reality for many students immediately after graduation, or is at least expected by Ivy Leaguers. All that talk circulating with each new batch of incoming freshmen, about the “Colby bubble”? The easiest way to break that is for students to break away from their sense of superiority. Going to college doesn’t make anyone better than the average American. They may be better able to articulate an opinion on a complex issue, but in the long run, how is that any more important than, say, knowing how to repair a car or home plumbing system? Certainly most people wish for more than labor in life, but exposure to it in early adulthood can only make a person stronger. College is something many privileged students seem to take for granted, because they’ve never been faced with the possibility that they might be the ones on their feet a full day, living from paycheck to paycheck. And if they take it for granted, how can they be expected to fully appreciate the learning they’re doing? The smartest individuals out there are the ones able to couple intellect with humility. Humility in the classroom, or the debate, when one’s opponent presents more compelling evidence or a particularly well-conceived mode of alternate thought – and humility in the world at large: a willingness to get one’s hands dirty in the pursuit of knowledge and a broader understanding of humanity. An ability to see the less fortunate, the working poor, not as intellectual inferiors but as crucial players in the working of society as a whole. Cogs turning the wheel for the educated and well-to-do to drive the vehicle of life along.

I’m reminded of the Campus Climate Survey: all those questions about whether students felt if they “belonged” at Colby, “felt valued” here. I wonder why there wasn’t a single question addressing socioeconomic status, whether there might have been a correlation between that and perception of worth.

I wonder if I’m the only one who feels her attendance is a betrayal of her place in society, who thinks she has no right to mingle with the elites and expect to be viewed as their equals in a professional or social setting. Who longs to shout “I am not, and never will be like you” to all those people who stroll so easily through life, everything organized – trips abroad and prestigious internships, research opportunities, and company positions peppering futures paved with gold. I wonder if those people sense the disparity as clearly as I do. There’s no comfortable place for a cog pulled from its fellows and told to become a wheel. It simply doesn’t fit.