I moved into my college dorm on August 19, 2008. I’d passed Duke University’s East Campus many times—it was within walking distance of my boarding school—but I’d only actually set foot on the campus once before, for a tour. My dorm was a nice one; we had air conditioning. My first conversation there, with my new roommate, went something like this:
“Hi, I’m Kristin. Nice to meet you.”
“Hi, I’m XX. Nice to meet you. Where are you from?”
“I’m from North Carolina. I grew up about two hours from here. What about you?”
“I’m from Great Neck.”
“Oh. Where is that?”
“It’s in New York. Have you read The Great Gatsby?”
“Yeah, sure. Hasn’t everybody?”
“Well that’s where I’m from. Where that book takes place, where Gatsby lived.”
I had no response to this statement. I’d rarely met people from places outside my state; I’d never met someone who defined herself by a literary location—and one used as a warning against capitalism and obsessive American dreaming, yet. Duke would become my own Great Neck; I’d unsuspectingly joined Gatsby on his pier, staring over the water at a strange and unknown world of wealth and privilege.
Statistically speaking, low-income kids who aspire to an education are in a race they have very little chance of finishing. “Students from affluent backgrounds graduate from college at six times the rate of children from low-income households. For lower-income students, merely going to college is an achievement,” writes Harvard University professor Tomiko Brown-Nagin.
I am more or less a first-generation kid. My mom, a teacher, got an associate’s degree when I was five years old. But in her family, no one had a higher-ed degree. My grandfather was a truck driver and my grandmother drove a school bus. They were smart, but they hadn’t been through the system and they certainly didn’t know how to navigate a world inhabited by wealthy people.
An absence of educated family members is only part of the problem, however. The data suggests that low-income students have trouble accessing information on selective colleges and the financial aid they provide. “We find that income-typical students are fairly isolated from other high achievers, both in terms of geography and in terms of the high schools they attend,” write Caroline Hoxby and Christopher Avery in a paper published by the Brookings Institute. Hoxby and Avery examine high-achieving, low-income students and their college application processes, and hypothesize why these students appear in such small numbers in selective colleges. The reasons for this gap, they initially write, “puzzle” them. But for me, it makes perfect sense.
I spent the first five years of my life living in a trailer—what one of my mother’s students once called the “white-people projects.” For a long time, I was ashamed of this fact. I probably still am. Then we moved into a house. I never wanted for things—I had food and shelter and some after-school activities—but after my parents divorced, my stingy father turned into my mother’s particularly stingy ex-husband. My sister lived at home for a bit but then moved out, so it was just me and my mom. We were fine. But things could get tight. For a while, my mom worked three jobs. She taught, then taught again after school. I’d make dinner for us for when she got home. On the weekends, she practiced home health care; she’s also a nurse.
In rural North Carolina, there is no “upper class.” The wealthiest people nearby owned houses that had cost $200,000, maybe $300,000. The poor people lived in the backwoods in shack-like homes or trailers. We weren’t on welfare, but recently my mom informed me that we’d been living paycheck to paycheck. If she’d lost her job, welfare would have been our only option.
Boarding school was the first place I really got to know people who had grown up outside of my small town of six thousand people. At my first high school, there had been two Chinese kids – siblings. But in this so-called “liberal bubble” in the middle of the state, I was exposed to a whole new world of people. I met Jewish people and gay people and Indians. What I didn’t experience then was class difference. That awaited me at Duke. I hadn’t intended to go there; I had wanted to leave North Carolina. But I didn’t get into many schools outside my home state and Duke gave me the most money. No surprise: at Duke, money was everywhere.
My freshman year at Duke was filled with a lot of confusion and loneliness. I was confused by everyone and lonely because I spent a lot of time wondering, “Where are the people like me?” The thing is, people like me are hard to see. Sometimes you can see money on a person and sometimes you can see the lack of it, but often you can’t tell at all. And if you can’t tell, you can’t find people who share your experience.
Hoxby and Avery also note that low-income students exhibit two kinds of behaviors: approaching college admissions based on their level of achievement or approaching it based on their income level.
“The majority of high-achieving, low-income students do not apply to any selective colleges despite apparently being well qualified for admission. These income-typical students exhibit behavior that is typical of students of their income rather than typical of students of their achievement.”
Kids like me—focused on their achievement—approach college like a high-income student would, with a confidence and a bravado that propel them toward “reach schools.” But income-typical students consider education in terms of price, proximity to home, and other factors that limit access to selective colleges.
My culture shock in college was immediate and pervasive. My first three semesters taught me patience and tolerance. I had thought I was open-minded, but to be open-minded, you have to accept all kinds of differences—including when people have shitloads more money than you do and don’t recognize their own privilege.
A very good friend told me once that when she was looking at colleges, her parents asked their financial adviser if they should apply for aid. I thought, Now I know people with financial advisers. I’d never known anyone who had enough money to need advising, or anyone lacking the common sense to know that if you can afford to pay an adviser, you can afford college.
Duke gives good financial aid. At an orientation session, I was told that 42% of students were on some degree of financial assistance. So 58% of students are paying full price? Holy shit, that’s like $60,000—that’s more than my mom makes in a year. Ho-ly shit. And that 42% included students who received minimal aid or academic scholarships. Were there any Duke undergraduates who’d grown up as “poor” as I had? I don’t know, but I never met one. I can’t imagine what going there is like for someone with even less money and fewer resources than I had.
The nearest financial peers I found were those whose parents made only $100,000 or $200,000 a year. That was a manageable divide. To be friends with someone, you have to prioritize money in similar ways. You need to be able to afford to eat out the same amount, to go out the same amount. I couldn’t imagine myself spending time with people whose parents made $100 million a year and had bought a child’s way into Duke twice, or people who would fly to Miami to try on a pair of shoes and had their own when-I-need-it apartment in Manhattan. Even when I had learned the details of those lives, I couldn’t imagine what it felt like to occupy them.
Brown-Nagin argues that universities need to make more concessions for low-income students and need to do a better job of recruiting them, and she is certainly right. But colleges also need to do a better job of giving the students who do make it into the system somewhere to go and the tools to navigate a totally foreign world.
From my perspective, social class and economic class seem divergent. I am now culturally and socially in the middle class. I live in Brooklyn, I work at a large tech company as a journalist, and my hobbies are those of the middle class. But economically, I’m not there. I have a moderate amount of debt (which feels insurmountable) from graduate school, have at times been close to being unable to pay rent, and, most importantly, have the mindset of someone who grew up without money.
In an article in The Atlantic, “How Poverty Taxes the Brain,” Emily Badger reviews a study in Science on brain functions. “Poverty imposes such a massive cognitive load on the poor that they have little bandwidth left over to do many of the things that might lift them out of poverty—like go to night school, or search for a new job, or even remember to pay bills on time.”
Being poor is a mindset. I know my parents would save me from ever being homeless, and I am lucky to have that safety net. But I am cheap, or at least I am compared to my friends. I feel a real fear of having no money. I approach my life differently because the fear of poverty is closer and deeper and I believe that I am more cautious with decisions about jobs, apartments, travel, and even food because of these feelings. Am I less accomplished, less impressive than I might otherwise be, too? Confidence can fill in the gaps of your inadequacies or at least hide them, and I very much lack the confidence that comes with wealth.
Over the last few years, I’ve noticed a strange development. I am articulate, knowledgeable about random minutiae, speak with a mild to nonexistent Southern accent, and now have both a master’s and undergraduate degrees from top universities. New acquaintances think I was born this way, that I have always lived this socially upper-class life. The subject of money and parental support would sometimes come up in graduate school. “Your parents are paying for NYU, right?” No. I’ve got scholarships and loans. “Well they must be helping you out somehow?” Nope. I’ve worked and mostly supported myself since I was 18. One classmate vehemently believed I was born in the upper class and told me so often. She told me it was “just they way I came across.”
In some ways, this interpretation demeans my experience and my difference. I no longer expect to find people who understand my upbringing. And in an attempt to restate my own struggle changing social classes, I have become distinctly proud of being Southern, much more than I ever was when I actually lived in the South. I bring up my roots when no one asks, and I love to meet people with whom I can discuss the intricacies of southern hospitality and cuisine. I have strongly formed opinions about pimento cheese, biscuits, and okra. And I feel the need to remind everyone I meet that I grew up without money in a rural county no one’s ever heard of, in a town no one’s ever heard of, off a highway no one’s ever heard of.
It’s not that being poor and being southern are the same, they aren’t, but it’s a way I’ve learned to grasp for identity in a world that often feels strange. My life in New York City is the one I’ve chosen to live, but still I don’t always feel it’s mine.
I was on a date a few months ago. We were chatting about social need and volunteerism. I argued that my upbringing had informed my views on what it means to help other people and had made me more accepting of struggle and poverty. The guy didn’t respond to my argument about social need but rather to the way I’d described myself. “I don’t encounter people like you often,” he told me. “Everyone I know has wealthy parents, lawyers and doctors, who have always been able to help them out.” And I thought, I don’t encounter people like me either, let me know if you find one.
I don’t think I’ll ever understand what it’s like to not value a dollar. My money is precious to me, even when I choose to give it away. I don’t know if I will ever have enough to feel at ease in the world. Just like Gatsby, who was exacting even in his profligacy, who measured his worth in every gulp of champagne and beautiful shirt—like Gatsby, I am another stranger in New York, far from home.
Kristin Oakley is an editor-at-large for The Brooklyn Quarterly. She holds a masters degree in digital journalism through Studio 20 at New York University. To learn more about her and see her work, visit kristinoakley.com.