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Poverty on a private university campus

What’s it like being poor while attending one of the United States most prestigious schools?

When was the first time I felt uncomfortable at Duke because of money? My second day of o-week. My FAC group wanted to meet at Mad Hatter’s Bakery; I went with them and said that I had already eaten on campus because I didn’t have cash to spend. Since then, I have continued to notice the presence of overt and subtle class issues and classism on campus. I couldn’t find a place for my “poor identity.” While writing my resume, I put McDonald’s under work experience. A friend leaned over and said, “Do you think it’s a good idea to put that on your resume?” In their eyes, it was better to list no work experience than to list this “lowly” position. I did not understand these mentalities and perceptions of my peers. Yet no one was talking about this discrepancy, this apparent class stratification that I was seeing all around me.

People associate many things with their identity: I’m a woman, I’m queer, I’m a poet. One of the most defining aspects of my identity is being poor. The amount of money (or lack thereof) in my bank account defines almost every decision I make, in a way that being a woman or being queer never has and never will. Not that these are not important as well, just that in my personal experience, they have been less defining. Money influenced the way I grew up and my family dynamics. It continues to influence the schools I choose to go to, the food I eat, the items I buy and the things I say and do.

I live in a reality where:

  • Sometimes I lie that I am busy when actually I just don’t have the money to eat out.
  • I don’t get to see my dad anymore because he moved several states away to try and find a better job to make ends meet.
  • I avoid going to Student Health because Duke insurance won’t do much if there is actually anything wrong with me.
  • Coming out as queer took a weekend and a few phone calls, but coming out as poor is still a daily challenge.
  • Getting my wisdom teeth removed at $400 per tooth is more of a funny joke than a possible reality.
  • I have been nearly 100 percent economically independent from my family since I left for college.
  • Textbook costs are impossible. Praise Perkins Library where all the books are free.
  • My mother has called me crying, telling me she doesn’t have the gas money to pick me up for Thanksgiving.
  • My humorously cynical, self-deprecating jokes about being homeless after graduation are mostly funny but also kind of a little bit true.
  • I am scared that the more I increase my “social mobility,” the further I will separate myself from my family.
  • Finances are always in the back (if not the forefront) of my mind, and I am always counting and re-counting to determine how I can manage my budget to pay for bills and living expenses.

One Comment

  1. Wow. I’m not even sure how I stumbled on this post, but it really affected me… isn’t is odd how we try to hide our ‘poverty’ in order to ‘fit in’. I’m 55 years old but have been struggling with this all my life. This may seem odd, but one of the most embarrassing incidents happened to me about 15 years ago. I was working three jobs, including one as a library assistant at a medical college while finishing my MLS (Masters in Library/Information Science). I was invited to a holiday party at the library director’s home… and arrived bearing chicken wings… not understanding that this would be considered completely declasse… especially to the vegetarians/vegans among the group. I know it sounds idiotic… but it was so embarrassing to not know what was ‘right’.. especially since it was expensive to purchase/cook the damn chicken wings in the first place. I felt like a fool.

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