I felt like I was alone… I would be like ‘Is there anyone like me?’ I never got that idea. Everyone seemed to be better off than me ‘Am I just the most poor student here? Am I who’s struggling the most?’ I think that’s what made it hard for me—that I couldn’t really talk to anyone.
Karen Reyes, First Generation Penn Student
A low-income student who attends, let alone graduates college is rare. While about half of people raised in high income households receive a bachelor’s degree by age 25, only one in ten from low-income families do. Even when researchers control for academic ability, only half as many low-income students graduate as their high-income peers. Fortunately, on the rare occasion that a low-income student manages to get into an elite institution, such as Penn, they graduate at virtually the same rate as their wealthier peers.
This is why some elite institutions publicly emphasize increasing financial diversity within their incoming classes. They can afford to have a diverse student body because they have the resources to pay for these students to attend. Harvard looks for the best and brightest, regardless of their financial need. The Harvard Campaign has led to them increasing their investment in financial aid by 70% since 2007. Penn has similar goals; since 2004, they’ve increased the percentage of low-income students by nearly 76%. And these two are not exceptions to the rule, but rather shining examples of what prestigious institutions can accomplish: Erasing the economic barrier of attending great colleges and working towards closing the class gap in higher education.
However, these students after having been granted access to these great halls find them to be far too empty. Researchers find “social-class background is strongly related to a sense of belonging at college, which in turn predicted social and academic adjustment to college, quality of experience…and academic performance.” These feelings are often “particularly acute at elite schools” as a result of low-income students being the overwhelming minority.
At the time of my acceptance to Penn, my family was homeless, and for me acceptance meant that my homelessness didn’t matter. We had overcome our circumstance. My mom’s sacrifices were worth it. Going to Penn meant I was granted access to a path out of poverty, it meant that I would be privilege to resources that others of my circumstance could barely imagine. Penn was success, relief, and a dream come to fruition.
While I am immensely grateful to Penn for the experiences and opportunities I was—and will continue to be—granted, I think it is important to discuss the reality of being a low-income student at an elite institution. For two years I had convinced myself that everything was great—that the isolation I felt from my peers was normal. I was stuck between two worlds, neither I could be fully part of. I felt guilty that I was able to leave the stress of our current circumstances, to the comfort of a dorm room and an unlimited meal plan. I felt dishonest with my new friends because they didn’t know about my life. Penn, while providing the financial support that built the foundation for my success, failed to provide the emotional support and mentorship I needed. I always felt I had a secret, a shameful confession that would change how people saw me and diminish my credit as an equal peer. The words of a classmate have followed me for a long time; “Penn lowers its standards to let in low-income students who don’t have the same test scores or experiences as everyone else so that they can look good.” I wish I had had the courage to remind him that students from low-income households often overcome more to get access to a school like Penn, and they deserve to be here just as much as anyone else—but at the time I didn’t believe it myself and I didn’t think anyone else would understand.
This study, here summarized in a blog post for my former work-study employer Civic House, concentrated on the experiences of twelve low-income students, most of whom were first generation college students. Names and key identifying factors have been changed. I talked to them about their time at this university. We shared some tears, some laughs, and some frustrations. I hope that any low-income students reading this now finds it to be somewhat comforting, as I did, that there are indeed people here dealing with the same problems you are.
All interviewees received full financial aid packages. This included both tuition and living expenses. Despite that, many found they still struggled with their financial situation, especially when buying necessary school supplies (chief among their concerns were textbooks). Hong Phan, a soft-spoken junior and daughter of a veteran father, said it was hard to feel like she belonged.
Just in terms of academic resources, getting textbooks was really hard for me. I just tried to borrow textbooks or use the library. I still do. Little things like that, they tend to pile up and it’s very hard for you to feel like you belong here. Even though you’ve already been accepted…the everyday expenses and small stuff like that really affected me in the beginning.
Ethan Calahan, a Missouri senior who frequently sent money back home, similarly describes his struggles acquiring textbooks:
I had $200 and school started…I got really scared because class syllabi were coming out and I needed textbooks. I needed textbooks now. So I went in [to the financial aid offices] with this sort of apology that “I’m really sorry that I can’t afford anything and please don’t kick me out” because I was really worried that SFS had the power to kick me out of school because I couldn’t afford it.
Many students talked about not being able to afford the extra costs associated with college life. They dubbed it the “BYO-culture at Penn,” referencing the frequency that their peers celebrate at restaurants. Andres Valero, the proud son of a newly licensed real estate agent from Florida, said:
[People] ask you to go to a BYO and I would say “Yeah I’m busy,” or “I have a lot of work to do.” But really it’s “I’m broke so I can’t make it out,” but nobody wants to say that. It’s embarrassing. Some people don’t understand that kids don’t have the money to go out to a restaurant—even “just once a week”—or a BYO and spend 20 to 30 dollars, even if it is fun. Some of us can’t have that much fun because we just can’t afford it.
Students are grateful for the financial aid they received, but financial burden remained a constant stress. Nathalie Diaz, a senior from Florida, strongly felt the effects of not growing up in a family with many economic resources. She said she never felt she could “claim” her status as a Penn student because of her inherent financial need. Students’ financial status only served as a reminder of what they cannot participate in, and it sets the foundation for other challenges they face.
A sense of isolation underpins other struggles and challenges. Some questioned their place at Penn. Hong said “Every day freshman year I thought about transferring because it was a lot of stress.” Diana Donoghue admitted, when asked how her freshman year was, “I hate to say this, but I’m just happy I’m still here.” Wesley Gomez, a senior and the son of a school janitor, also reported not feeling like he felt he fit in as well as other people did.
This feeling of isolation emerges for different reasons with each individual student, though they frequently came about when low-income students were faced with how different their backgrounds were from the people around them. For some students, it happens in small ways. Astrid Carranza recounts a story about a freshman hall-mate:
Her and her friends had this thing where they’d compete to see who can spend the most money. But not just that, they were saying, “Oh, fifty dollar wine? That’s ridiculously cheap.” And I’m like “Fifty dollar wine?! That’s more than I spend in a week on food.” They’d be like “$13,000 a semester, that’s a ridiculously low amount,” and I’m like “What?! That’s more than half what my mom makes.”
Students also reported feeling like they do not fit into the Penn mold. Nathalie recalls how she felt excluded without any direct interaction just because of the visible difference between herself and other students on Locust Walk:
I think definitely there are some groups that I just am not – I would never be affiliated with… I became most aware of it when there’s this frat house on Locust Walk and they hang outside a lot and every time I walk past and they’re out there I feel like I don’t belong. It’s so weird. I’m just like “What is this?”
Respondents felt they were missing out or had missed out on important life experiences. For instance, Diana states, “I think that [Greek life] feels pretty exclusionary. I didn’t really get to try it. I might have hated it or I might have loved it, but I’ll never know.” For Diana, the point is that she never felt she belonged to the community, regardless of how they may have responded to her; she does not feel comfortable entering the process in the first place. Karen Reyes, a recent graduate who moved back home to help her parents said:
I think for one thing is that…I felt like I was alone. I think that’s something you feel too…I was trying to figure out if people came from the same situation financially, like poor high schools. I would be like “Is there anyone like me?” I never got that idea. Everyone seemed to be better off than me, they seemed to have parents that were teachers and I was like “Am I just the most poor student here? Am I who’s struggling the most?” I think that’s what made it hard for me—that I couldn’t really talk to anyone.
Because students feel they cannot share their experience with their peers, they stop talking about it. This does not happen right away. Many students describe developing silence about their backgrounds as a process. In the beginning they made attempts to tell people about their financial background and the struggles they face. However, these attempts are often met with disappointing responses from students.
I always find that once you declare that you are low-income, automatically the way [others] socially interact with you changes. They’ll always be like “Is it okay if you come to this?” “Yes, it’s okay.” Like, I have ways to go to social things…I’m “low-income,” I don’t live in a box. (Astrid Carranza)
I’ve never talked about it openly with anyone. People don’t understand, they really don’t…They listen, but they don’t understand it…I also think a lot of people see it as a weakness. From our side it puts us in a very vulnerable and weak place when we explain it. I’m okay with being vulnerable, but I’m not okay with having someone capitalize on that because “Oh he’s poor” is a derogatory statement. You know? “He’s broke so let’s not hit him up to hangout because he’s not going to come anyways” or “He won’t help buy drinks” or whatever. Yeah, people don’t understand. Some people are like “Oh, I’m poor. My dad only gave me $10,000 last month.” Like, gah! You have no idea man. (Andres Valero)
Antonio Rodriguez recounts an experience he had with a freshman year girlfriend who meant well, but could not understand his life experiences:
I told her this situation I had at home and told her how two weeks before I moved to Penn it was me, my mom, my dad, and my two sisters living in a single bedroom apartment, so we had all slept in the same bed since my little sister was born. So about five years or so it was five people in a single bedroom house. I told her other things and she just sort of started crying for me, because she had never—she was empathizing—but she never really understood that those situations could exist.
When I asked Antonio how that made him feel, he said “I felt guilty. Yeah. I felt guilty because I didn’t understand that would elicit that kind of reaction. For me and pretty much everyone else I interacted with growing up that was the situation.”
Sometimes these attempts at sharing their background with others are met with direct hostility. Diana was featured in a high-profile video project posted on social media about the experience of applying to colleges for low-income students. At the beginning of freshman year, Diana learned that her two roommates had seen the video.
[My roommates] were like, “It isn’t fair that we get these scholarships and Penn takes it away rather than we get to keep them” and “It’s unfair that…” like she said something to me, “You’re not really that low-income if you can afford cosmetics.” I was like–she was trying to say that I can’t really have it that bad. And yeah well it’s true, I could have nothing, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that there is financial struggle in my family. You don’t know. Maybe another family member bought that for me. It was just a very frustrating situation.
Students learn to stay silent to not be treated differently. Diana reflects how typically she is “ambiguous…if I was talking to people who didn’t really know me who were complaining about [financial aid],” because of the stress associated with admitting you are low-income. After Antonio’s experience with his girlfriend mentioned above, he said:
Essentially yeah, that left a bit of a mark on me. In the sense that I’m very careful now in telling people about what my situation was at home or anything that happened at home…There’s a small fear that they’ll see me differently.
Molly McDonald, a senior whose mother has been unemployed since her father’s death, says “I never straight up tell people where I’m from or what my background is. You know, the stuff people ask when people are getting to know each other. I never say ‘Yeah, I’m from a poor place,’ I say ‘I’m from West Virginia,’ end of story.”
If they didn’t talk about their past, some felt they could pass for the mainstream just because they went to Penn. People make assumptions of other’s financial background based on the majority socioeconomic class at Penn, and respondents could hide behind this assumption to avoid being treated differently. However, particularly for students of color, this does not always work.
I’ve always found one thing that bothers me is that when I explain to either professors or fellow friends or peers in general about the things I have difficulty with academically, they’re like “Oh that makes sense because of your culture” or “It’s because you speak Spanish that you don’t get these things” so I find it a little bit strange, the fact that they attach that to why I’m dealing with that struggle because I’m like, “Well, I’m not the only person struggling with this.” (Astrid)
Nathalie, a Hispanic woman, feels how she looks is a major contributor to why she doesn’t feel like she belongs. She states, “As soon as I say I’m a Penn student [it seems like] everyone knows I’m on financial aid, just by looking at me… Everyone knows the no-loan program, so the idea of like ‘Oh, she’s probably here because she’s on financial aid’.” Nathalie has learned to drop her Miami accent so there isn’t an additional thing separating her from the people around her. Wesley had to learn how to go between home and school, having to “tighten up” when he comes to Penn to fit in.
When asked what the greatest positive influence was on their time at Penn, students identified either an adult mentor—advisors, professors, bosses—and some said large friend groups. The most important aspect of these support systems was that they found a person or a group of people who they felt comfortable opening up to. Nathalie said, “I think that definitely my freshman year I did want to drop out. But then, I didn’t, because I had my posse.” Having a strong social support network proved to be a huge factor that students identify as getting them through successfully. Molly McDonald’s thesis advisor became a person she went to when she was stressed:
If I came in and I would be stressed out or if I would be really happy, he would be like “Okay, tell me.” “But that’s not what we’re talking about.” “No, that is what we’re talking about.” He was very persistent about not just being formal…Through that way he kind of learned more about who I was and where I came from…And now because of that I feel like if I have problems now, it is very easy to talk to him.
Karen remembers how she was able to cry with her academic advisor. Because her advisor knew about her financial situation, she never felt like she was “confessing to something.” Hong, during a particularly tough academic time, reported that her academic advisor was “really concerned about my mental wellbeing. Like, even more so than how I was performing in those classes…I still didn’t do very well, but it was a lot less stress and it’s nice to know that you have someone who was concerned about more than just your academics here.”
Some students had a professor or advisor go out of their way to make them feel more comfortable and reach their goals. When Andres told his professor about his difficulty trying to pay for a project she told him “If you need a loan from me personally, I will pay for it. If you just need to crash on my couch.” Antonio reported how “my advisor and undergraduate coordinator, both would set up meetings with me or I would ask if we could set up meetings biweekly just to make sure that I was on track during [a tough] period.”
These, unfortunately, seem to be exceptions to the rule. Students often describe feeling uncomfortable talking with professors or going to office hours. Andres mentioned how he only went to office hours for one professor for his entire time at Penn. Some students feel marginalized by faculty and staff that, like their peers, do not understand their situation. Astrid discussed her frustration with her pre-major advisor, saying “I think what offended me was that he was putting me as if I was a stereotypical case. Like because I was [in the social sciences] and because I was in Fine Arts, that they are two stereotypical things to both my gender and my culture.” Esther also had difficulty with her advisor;
The advisor who told me to double major obviously didn’t consider that I’d have to take out loans for summer classes. Like she said everything with great intentions and there’s nothing wrong with that, but I think that she just assumes that everyone here is on the same level.
These students, the ones I interviewed and ones silently struggling across campus, are extremely capable individuals who find ways to mitigate the intense adversity they face. However, we need to find a way to help them do so. Thus far, formal programs are not found to be a determining factor in low-income student success and need to be reassessed in how they are serving traditionally underrepresented students. Of the students in my study, all but one were part of a formal program aimed at helping them adjust at a postsecondary institution, yet few found their programs helpful. (When I asked Antonio if he wished he had joined one, he said “No. It doesn’t seem like there’s too much of a community there at all.”) Schools should be working to create more intensive programs that actively involve each student in a group, and provide mentorship through one-on-one partnerships.
A driving reason behind students’ feelings of isolation is that other students “don’t understand.” This causes their peers to react to their situation in insensitive, and sometimes hostile, ways. It is feasible that training programs could be developed for the entire student body that seek to educate and foster a community of understanding and awareness. Penn might accomplish this in a freshman seminar, an online workshop, or during NSO. This can all be done with few university resources and has the potential to make a huge impact in the student body.
Spending my senior year doing this research and having these conversations forced me to confront my own experience at Penn. We all owe so much to Penn for paying our way, for believing we could overcome our circumstances, yet that doesn’t change the reality of the situation. Through my study I discovered a very real struggle that was being denied a voice. I realized the isolation I felt freshman year, the denial that I was different from my peers, and the rejection of my current surroundings and my home was all normal. I was lucky, looking back, that I managed to succeed. I navigated the first two and a half years on my own. I never told my freshman hallmates, because if I had I’d be treated differently, but my omissions felt like lies and this slowed the development of true friendships. It wasn’t until my junior year that I found adults who were there to support me, in every aspect of my Penn career—academic and personal.
I wanted to give voice to the people I interviewed in this study so that students like us know we’re not alone. When I was interviewing Andres, also a senior, he began discussing his time at Penn. While talking about all of the hardships he faced because of his background, he seemed angry that no one had been there to help him get through it, but proud of what he’d achieved despite this. As he spoke about the possibilities for the future, about the skills that Penn had given him, about impending graduation and the possibilities and fears it brought, he talked about other low-income students and why they’re so valuable.
So many low-income students have such potential, they can do anything; they can do amazing things. But to come from that background, someone needs to tell them to dream big. If you’re a talented, low-income student, someone needs to get them on the right path because once they’re on the right path they’ll do anything to get it done…I think it’s unfortunate. These kids are a force to be reckoned with.
Andres Valero, First Generation Penn Student
As I listened, I too became inspired by him, by the story of others, and by the hope that maybe we can change the projected outcome for low-income students – prove to Penn that we were worth their investment and so are so many others like us. But we can’t make it alone, and luckily we’re not alone.
Megan Russo is a 2015 Civic House alum living and working in Boston, Massachusetts. Her senior sociology thesis was on how low-income students at Penn get acclimated to college life. She likes dogs, long walks on the beach, and eating pizza. You can follow her blog at https://meganrusso31.wordpress.com/
Views or opinions expressed in this blog belong to the post’s author and do not represent those of Civic House, its employees, or its partners, unless explicitly stated.