Column | March 6

The invisible minority

This column is the second in a series about socioeconomic diversity and low-income students at the University.

Signing into Terrace Club was one of the best decisions I could have made this year. The people are awesome, the food is delicious, and it’s just a chill place to be. Admittedly, though, I still had to face the universally stressful facet of every eating club: sophomore dues.

Though I knew I would have to pay dues this semester, I wasn’t actively thinking about it. Perhaps I imagined the financial aid office would help cover the fees, like they do junior and senior year, or maybe I thought the fee would be small. You can imagine my surprise and panic when I was slapped with an $800 due expected by the end of February. I called the financial aid office but was told the most they could do was offer me a loan and attempt to lower the amount if I didn’t meet my student summer savings amount. The next person I contacted was the assistant bookkeeper at Terrace who told me I could pay in three installments, after which I felt much less panicky. Still, what would have happened had I joined a club that did not offer this option?

This is just one example of how low-income students’ experiences at the University are unique in ways other students may not even realize. When I reject a last-minute invite to go to a Kanye concert for “only” $100 or reluctantly split a check evenly among a large group of friends when I pointedly got a cheaper meal than everyone else, the subtext is so subtle that most people from different socioeconomic backgrounds don’t realize it exists. And from here, it is simple for unawareness of experiences of low-income students to translate to unawareness of the presence of low-income students in general.

Having a minority status means just that: Your numbers are smaller, and therefore more effort is required so that your voice is heard. But unlike racial minorities, and even some religious minorities, there is no simple physical demarcation that says, “You’re a low-income student” (unless you’re very good at telling the difference between Old Navy and Sevens jeans). This isn’t necessarily a bad thing — people don’t want to be reduced to and identified by one piece of their lives. But because it’s only our personal experiences that are unique, rather than physical differences, it is almost as if low-income students aren’t here.

Ironically, this lower visibility is partially the result of one of the University’s greatest attributes — its amazing financial aid program. Students whose family incomes are lower than $60,000 — already well above the national median income — receive full tuition, room and board covered by the University. The average grant begins to decrease above the $60,000 mark, but it remains fairly generous still. Thus, the University does as much as possible to ensure that students are on financially equal footing in paying for their college education.

But I find that much of university support for low-income and first-generation students stops with its widely lauded financial aid program. Once the tuition bill is paid in full, it is tempting to say our financial differences are then null and abandon the discussion all together. But receiving money for college does not mean the end of being low-income, and neither should it mean the end of acknowledgement of this status. However, discussing what it means to be low-income is generally taboo. This is not to say the University is willfully ignorant. I think it has room for improvement in addressing and discussing diversity in a number of forms. Socioeconomic diversity is simply the least obvious and, as such, the easiest to put on the back burner.

Undoubtedly, the students here are ambitious. If they feel as if the University is missing something that could have a positive impact on campus culture, they take the initiative to create a new conversation. But taking the first steps to create a campus culture that embraces socioeconomic diversity is a difficult endeavor. A student’s socioeconomic status is not a defining characteristic, but it is a significant one that has affected personal experiences and interactions with the world for years. Sensitivity and fear of being stigmatized (or worse, endlessly sympathized) can be a deterrent from getting involved in student groups concerning low-income and first-generation experiences, or creating a new organization. And while Princeton has always boasted their self-starting students, a large portion of responsibility rests with the University to help make campus a safe, accepting place where students are comfortable enough to begin talking.

Because of the silence from both the student body and the administration, the image and experiences of a low-income student at Princeton are obscure. What comes to your mind? Hopefully you haven’t conjured up a picture of a 20-something-year-old Oliver Twist, asking for a bit more porridge at Rocky dining hall. But on the opposite side of the spectrum is … nothing. You have no idea what being a low-income student entails because it never crosses your mind. Both of these scenarios are bad.

We want to move from ignorance to understanding the unique experiences and perspectives of low-income students as people. By doing so, we break down the stereotypes that low-income students may face. We also invalidate the image of Princeton as an institution only for the rich and privileged and encourage prospective students to apply. The University has a major stake in transforming this image, then. Still, the time it takes to implement such change can often be so great that it hinders efficiently addressing issues. Here is when simultaneous student group initiatives take the forefront, proving that while individual efforts are often fruitless, there is always power in numbers.

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I am personally involved in Princeton University Quest Scholars Network as president and liaison. PUQSN is only a campus chapter that constitutes the national Quest Scholars Network, which aims to provide academic and professional resources for current undergraduate scholars while increasing the accessibility of higher education overall. Our campus chapter, though, also aims to create a sense of community for students here, through community service initiatives, study breaks and our mentor/mentee program. Our events help create a place where the floor is not only open but also comfortable enough for members to talk about their Princeton experience. We soon discover that while our similar socioeconomic backgrounds are what initially brought us together, we all share much more in common and realize these backgrounds are only a small part of our stories.

And now, PUQSN is no longer an anomaly on this campus. Two other student groups representing low-income and first-generation students have recently been created and are officially recognized by the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students. Among them are the Gates Millennium Scholars, a scholarship that covers a student’s undergraduate education and sometimes even graduate school, depending on the student’s area of study. There is also a Princeton chapter of Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America, which is comprised of students who participated in the college preparatory program. Co-founder of the campus chapter, Kujegi Camara ’16, says she felt a need for the student group after her first few weeks at Princeton left her shocked at campus culture and the sense of alienation low-income and first-generation students can feel. At the same time, Camara says, “It’s easy for Princeton to strip you of your other identities to where you’re only a Princetonian. LEDA, and student groups in general, help you return to these other pieces of yourself.” It’s challenging to do this when you feel as if you are alone in your experiences, however, and this has been the motivation of creating student group conglomerate.

Together, PUQSN, LEDA, Gates Millennium and affiliated student groups, have been working together to create a council — named Princeton’s Hidden Minority Council — under which student groups with an interest in low-income and first-generation Princeton students, current and prospective, could fall. The hope for this council is two-fold: getting more student members to become more active in their respective organizations and centralizing campus resources for them, while creating large-scale events and campaigns on campus to engage with students who are not low-income or first-generation. A major player in creating this council has been Brittney Watkins ’16, the other co-founder of the Princeton chapter of LEDA. “With the stress of home, work here, extracurriculars and actual academic life, I really wanted to create a space where students can come and say this is what I’m dealing with, and it’s okay that I’m dealing with it. And I think it’s important other students are aware of this experience.” Watkins says that efforts to raise awareness on and off campus have also been a major driver in creating the group.

Student efforts have recently been mirrored in the administration. University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 has recently attended a White House summit for increasing college opportunity for low-income and first-generation students. Several faculty members, such as Vice President for Campus Life Cynthia Cherrey, Dean of the College Valerie Smith, Associate Dean of the College Diane McKay and Deputy Dean of Undergraduate Students Thomas Dunne have been very supportive of these student initiatives and making campus a generally better place for low-income students. They are open and extremely responsive to suggestions and criticisms we have had and have even been active participants in our respective organizations. This past weekend, the treasurer and the community service chair of PUQSN, Dallas Nan ’16 and Ana Maldonado ’16, attended the second annual First Generation College Student Summit at Amherst College in Massachusetts. On speaking about the importance of the PHMC, Nan says, “Establishing a foundation from the moment students enter this campus, making it safe for students to express this facet of themselves, is paramount. We can’t successfully get to the root of the problem if we don’t stop the faux pas associated with the identity at the beginning.”

This problem of perception, though, only applies to low-income students who make it to campus at all.  It still remains that low-income students are not properly represented in the student demographic. As Bennett McIntosh wrote in his column, “In the service of the nation’s students,” Princeton students in the lowest university bracket, $60,000 and below, only comprise 15.8 percent of the population, while the median income for U.S. families in 2012 was $51,371. The discrepancy is overwhelmingly vast. Princeton remains responsible in shifting recruitment and admissions policy to get low-income students on campus initially.

While Princeton awaits this change in admissions policy, student groups are joining forces to reshape the way we look at the low-income experience and create a sustained base of understanding and support. The University is actively advocating these efforts, and nationally actions are being taken to support low-income students, including both prospective and current undergraduates. The experience of what Princeton would consider a low-income family is far from unusual in the United States. Hopefully, as the University dedicates itself to a more accurate demographic representation of society, the lives and experiences of students on campus will come to better reflect those of young adults across the nation.

Lea Trusty is a sophomore from Saint Rose, La. She can reached at ltrusty@princeton.edu.

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