The invisibility of socioeconomic status: Low-income students discuss “culture shock”

by Sam Forstner | 5/14/15 7:58pm

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Ilena Jones ’15 discusses how here low-income background affected her past four years at the College.
by Jeffrey Lee / Jeffrey Lee

I sat across from Ilenna Jones ’15 at a high-top table by the stairs in the Collis Center, just talking for half an hour. From my vantage point I could see countless students going about their days — leaving with cardboard stir fry containers in hand, checking flyers on the bulletin board for job and lecture postings, exiting Collis Market with ample snacks for their Sunday in the library.

From the brief once-over I gave each passing individual, I obtained a simplistic, superficial snapshot of their identity — I could see the pigment of their skin, the way they carried themselves and not much else. While these details are not all there is to understand a person, they are what the eye sees and the brain subsequently internalizes, every day, hundreds of times a day. These brief glimpses often yield little insight into another identity category — class.

Jones said that this invisibility means class is often overlooked. The visibility of issues like race and gender lead to higher levels of activism and support around those issues, she said.

“They receive more attention on this campus because they’re not invisible,” Jones said.

No recent campus activism like last winter’s “Freedom Budget” and this spring’s #BlackLivesMatter protests have focused entirely on class issues. The “Freedom Budget” did put forward proposals to address several systems of oppression, including classism, in addition to sexism, heterosexism and ableism. More visible identities are more often used to label individuals as a member of one group or another.

“Even if you don’t want that to be your identity, people will make that choice for you and make assumptions about you,” Jones said.

One of the only ways to discern a person’s class without them explicitly telling you their financial situation is by their clothing, Jones said, pointing to items like Canada Goose jackets as “class indicators.”

Jones said that this often can put pressure on low-income students to change what they wear.

“I used to always wear T-shirts and jeans, and now I’m like, ‘Oh, well, if I’m a woman at Dartmouth, I should be wearing really nice dresses and jewelry,’ which is not really such a big deal for me back at home,” Jones said.

For most of us, the transition to college is a difficult one. Living alone in a new place, constantly being introduced to countless new people and being faced with a demanding workload is a tremendous adjustment. That adjustment is further complicated for students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds at an institution like Dartmouth.

“When you get here, you know yourself and your family background and you look at everyone else here and think, ‘What have I come to?’” Jones said. “There’s a culture shock. People are going to think, ‘I don’t belong here because I haven’t traveled the world yet or I don’t know how to ski.’”

Kelsey Justis ’16 , a Quest Scholar, said that it can be a struggle to adjust to the College environment as low-income students “definitely” face a culture shock.

“You just come here and see so much obvious money,” Justis said. “Whether it’s in the clothes, the way that people act, the things they talk about, what they value. There’s just a complete disconnect. Students from low-income backgrounds come here and have no idea how to interact.”

Jones serves as the liaison forDartmouth Quest Scholars, a campus branch of the national QuestBridge organization that helps high-achieving low-income students apply to college. She coordinates efforts at Dartmouth with national headquarters and helps reach out to prospective students, matching them with current students who can relate to them and answer their questions.

The organization plans to change its name to the Dartmouth Socioeconomic Alliance to better reflect its desire to reach all members of the community not just those affiliated with QuestBridge.

Emily Chan ’16, co-director of DQS, said that while the College does provide certain resources for low-income students, these students still face problems.

“I believe that everyone on this campus is capable of achieving, regardless of where they come from,” Chan said. “Dartmouth does a really excellent job of leveling the field, but at the same time there are difficulties, there are definitely some opportunities they are not able to pursue.”

Justis said the organization has been very helpful, not necessarily due to specific initiatives or events, but simply due to the fact that it has allowed him to meet other students with whom he can identify.

Jones said DQS serves an important function because the invisibility of class makes it difficult to find a sympathetic ear. She said that not having the same perceived experiences and opportunities as other Dartmouth students carries with it “a kind of shame.”

Justis equated being open about one’s low-income background to a “coming out” of sorts. He said that students might fear their peers harboring negative attitudes due to stereotypes the media perpetuates. Justis said these include the misconception that, “If you’re poor, you’re lazy.”

The presidential steering committee’s report submitted to College President Phil Hanlon showed that 59 percent of Dartmouth students come from families with incomes of over $200,000, despite these families making up only six percent of the nation’s population.

Thus, not only low-income students, but middle-class students as well, make up what Jones calls the “silent minority” on this campus. Jones said that no student should deal with culture shock alone and that DQS hopes to ensure that students have a support system.

Jones, from Baltimore, described her living situation before college as one characterized by poverty. She said that the topics her friends from home discuss at their colleges are not conversation topics that would be deemed acceptable at Dartmouth.

She said that it is normal for her friends at University of Maryland at Baltimore County -— an institution with a considerably different socioeconomic makeup from Dartmouth — to talk about needing jobs and the difficulty of balancing work and school.

Chan said that in addition to increased awareness, the College could make greater funds available for students who are of lower income and would like to go home over breaks, travel or work unpaid jobs or internships.

“We want to change the idea of class being something that’s broken and needs to be fixed,” Jones said. “Maybe my drive for success is just driven by a perceived failure of my family. Did my family fail?”

Jones said that many students on campus do not appreciate the ability to go to the Class of1953 Commons and eat as much as we want before walking five minutes to the Hopkins Center to see an Italian opera.She said that being here feels “like a fantasy” at times and that her background constantly molds her decision-making.

“All through my life it was poverty and that has shaped everything for me,” Jones said. “If I’m thinking about whether to study or go out, I think about the reality that I want to happen. There’s a pressure that’s always there.”