Low-income students face unique stress, anxieties in college

by Katie Rafter | 10/8/15 9:33pm

Cesar Rufino ’18 said that he often tells people he feels like he is living two different lives — one at home in Chicago and one here at Dartmouth.

“I feel like I am finally starting to solidify my spot on this campus, and it’s been hard,” he said.

Rufino, who serves as part of the QuestBridge national ambassador executive board, is attending the College on a full scholarship through the QuestBridge program.

Rufino said that students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are more likely to feel isolated on campus because they have a more difficult transition to make from life at home to life at school.

Rufino said that coming to the College was a shock to him, as it is a completely different environment from the city he is from.

“I love the fact that there’s a huge mixture of different kinds of people here,” he said. “There’s not just one perspective, but it’s obviously dominated by a certain socioeconomic background.”

He said this makes life at the College difficult for students from more economically restricted backgrounds, because they are not used to certain aspects of their friends’ lives.

Rufino said that while he believes it is common for students to seek out people from similar backgrounds to their own, he has used Dartmouth as an opportunity to meet different people and step out of his comfort zone.

“I do know that some kids like to keep those that are similar to them closer, but it can be something that limits your own perspective,” he said.

First Year Student Enrichment Program director Jay Davis said students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds can be susceptible to feelings of anxiety and isolation on campus.

“There are definitely some sources of anxiety that can be tied to socioeconomic status, and particularly to financial issues at home,” he said.

He said there are many students on campus who send money home from their campus jobs and have to worry about financial strain as well as financial issues.

It is common for students to seek out those with a similar background to them, but a student’s financial background is not always apparent, he said.

“I think when students learn that they are from similar backgrounds financially, particularly if they are from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, it can be a huge source of support,” Davis said.

Programs like FYSEP provide an important sense of community, made up of people who understand and are eager to help students, Davis said.

Rafael Nunez ’18, who is himself a QuestBridge scholar, said that the College provides funds to students to give them the opportunity to take advantage of what is offered here, such as Dartmouth Outing Club Trips and going abroad.

He said that while the College provides this aid, the fact that students grew up with different socioeconomic backgrounds causes a divide.

“Coming to Dartmouth and mixing with people who had a lot of money growing up is different, and the way we interact is different,” he said.

Josefina Ruiz ’17, who is also a QuestBridge scholar, said that because students on campus predominantly come from privileged backgrounds, it is more likely that students from lower economic backgrounds will feel a sense of isolation and feel that they do not belong.

She said that, in her experience, students are often drawn to others from similar backgrounds, although there are some exceptions.

“If two people are very open and frank about where they come from, I think that friendships are established amongst them, and they support each other,” Ruiz said.

Rufino said that many people believe that Dartmouth and the other Ivy League institutions do not do enough for students from lower and restricted socioeconomic backgrounds.

Rufino said, however, the College ensures that students have the opportunity to meet individuals from similar backgrounds, and, in his experience, the First Year Student Enrichment Program and La Alianza Latina helped foster these close relationships.

“I personally think Dartmouth does a great job mentoring those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, for example through the FYSEP program,” he said.

Nunez said that these programs help students who feel unprepared for higher education adapt to the College.

He said participating students were educated about all the resources the College has to offer and how to take advantage of them, as well as how to adapt to life at Dartmouth.

Ruiz said that while she believes the College’s aid packages are comprehensive and the resources offers are sufficient, students do not seem to perceive the socioeconomic gap.

“[Students] think that everyone is like them, or at least they seem to think like that,” Ruiz said.

She said that some conversation topics that wealthier students enjoy, like clothing, seem less important to students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds who have a stronger sense of injustice or hardships.

Rufino said that because he is on a full scholarship, he does not face some of the same financial constraints that some students who receive financial aid.

“Life here can be really busy, so sometimes it may be really comforting to not have to take out any loans, but it may be a different burden to actually take on jobs on campus,” he said.

Nunez said that the ways in which students often spend time with each other often calls attention to subtler differences. While going out to restaurants is common, Nunez says he feels unable to participate because of the cost.

“It doesn’t always have to do with the money, sometimes I find it hard to be myself around people of a higher socioeconomic class, because the way we grew up was different,” he said.

Nunez said that attempts to bridge perceived gaps between socioeconomic classes often do not work. For example, student organizations send out campus-wide blitzes inviting students to their events but only students who relate to the organization will come, whether that organization is a Greek house or an affinity group.

Rufino recently joined Kappa Kappa Kappa fraternity, and does not feel that his socioeconomic status has impeded him throughout the process.

“It’s not something that has come up, it’s not something that’s obvious,” he said.

He said that being on a scholarship frees up his financial obligation, which gives him the opportunity to take advantage of certain aspects of campus such as Greek life, but he understands how other people feel more restricted from this.

“In Greek life, just like in my personal life, I have made so many great friendships in the year that I’ve been here, and my socioeconomic status has nothing to do with those friendships,” he said.

He said he believes that socioeconomic status will come up in the future in relation to dues, though he does not believe it has had an impact on his relationships and social life within Greek life.

Ruiz said she has had friends that have decided not to rush because of dues, which she said are often an automatic barrier.

“I think some people think ‘if it’s going to cost me anything, I’m not even going to pursue it,’” she said.

She said that she is against Greek life to begin with, but gender-inclusive Greek house Phi Tau’s removal of dues made her consider participating. She said that some students do not consider the financial barriers to rushing, and this results in conversations and experiences that might alienate lower-income students.

Nunez said he does not feel comfortable in many Greek houses on campus.

“I feel awkward in some situations, especially in Greek houses with the connotation of having people from higher socioeconomic backgrounds,” he said.

He said that although these organizations offer financial aid for dues, it is the social aspect that causes discomfort, as he cannot relate to the life experiences of many of the brothers.

“I’ve been through a lot things growing up, and you meet someone who’s had everything handed to them on a silver platter, and you guys don’t click,” he said.