Mind the Gap: The emotional toll of being poor on campus

I often forget how rich the people sitting next to me in class are. Most of my close friends at Tufts are also low income, and other friends are not likely to talk openly about their class (or even realize the privilege it holds). There is a certain stress that exists when you have grown up poor: you are more likely to know about parents’ finances (because you’re worried about how bills will get paid), you recognize how easily one can become homeless, you start to feel that making ends meet means pushing different debt around. I got to Tufts acutely aware of how lucky I was to be able to afford higher education through so much money in grant aid.

Getting used to being here freshman year was a little bit like touring Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory: I saw every resource as a new kind of magic. Simply being accepted was a testament to the amount of privilege I had, yet my week was riddled with proof of how different I was from so many Tufts students. I looked at the price of my premium meal plan (now around $3,000) and thought about how many weeks of groceries my family could buy, how many months of bills they could pay. I felt the pressure to acclimate to such extravagant standards. Everywhere, I would keep spotting proof of such normalized luxury: most iconic has been the Canada Goose “parka,” an $800 purchase in a city where the temperature rarely drops below 20 degrees Fahrenheit.

Sometimes, I think to myself how lucky it is that thrifting gained popularity when it did: The scavenging I was taught as a kid is now en vogue, and I can exist on campus looking ‘alternative’ instead of feeling constantly awkward. In middle school, I saw my thrifted wardrobe with just as much pride, but I always felt estranged from the kids who got Uggs and gaucho pants (remember those?), and I would have never told anyone I got my pants from K-Mart. When friends disdainfully conclude “there’s nothing interesting here” at Goodwill, I can’t help but think of all the people who use such a store to buy plain shirts when their current ones are threadbare or sneakers for their 10-hour standing shifts.

Perhaps the most tiring part of being poor at an elite university is the creeping fear that I won’t ‘move up.’ In the back of my head, there is a sense that if I don’t graduate and reach a middle class income, I will deserve to struggle to make ends meet. The year of medical leave I took was partly due to that fear eating me up. Now, I am on campus with a goal of normalizing the existence of poor students in higher education. With financial aid application season in full swing, I want to give value to all the time my fellow students put into proving their often complicated financial situations. And for all the ways Tufts has reminded me of how different I am from some people, it has also provided the resources for me to experience a sense of childhood, of not having to feel anxious over food or bills during my first year. As of now, I inhabit this kind of in-between identity: poor in upbringing and wealthy in resources. I try to reconcile that privilege with my struggle.