My family spent a lot of time in debt, living in a run down building in Astoria Queens, New York. My parents always refused to apply for food stamps and never asked for help; they were ashamed to do so. I remember staring at the town houses a couple streets down in front of the East River and wondering how luxurious it must be to have stairs in your house. I don’t think people truly understand what it means to live by the penny unless they’ve experienced it; you learn not to ask for anything, whether it is a 99 cent ring pop or brand name ice cream. But my parents always provided books; looking back I know how hard it was to do that, but they valued education above everything. Now that I am at UVA I am so thankful for that, I was able to develop intellectual skills that kids growing in Astoria usually didn’t. But I sometimes feel so out of place, because even though our socioeconomic status has changed in the past 5 years, the identity and culture of preservation and appreciation of every little thing remains. I still pause in awe when I have the luxury to eat out with a friend or buy an extra pair of shoes. At UVA, I often hear somewhat flippant comments about expenses made by professors, CIOs in emails, and students; I understand it is hard to monitor everything said, but to someone who knows economic struggle, it can be a painful sting and reminder of their seemingly abberational situation.
The swathes of seersucker, Polo button downs and Barbour jackets that I saw when I first came to the university were jarring. The raggedy Vans and ripped flannels that I had thought nothing of for years suddenly became a mark of shame, and in my desire to fit in I began browsing online retailers for these clothes that seemed to be mandatory school uniforms. The price tags were shocking, to say the least, and I was confronted with the full weight of what privilege meant. Still, I felt too ostracized to continue on with the clothes that I wore. The money that I received from my financial aid refund- a sum that I should have used to pay for my books- was instead spent on eBay. In my attempt to camouflage my way into acceptance, I ended up having to forgo books for some of my courses and take the grade hits that came with them. This decision wasn’t one made trivially, the way I dressed seriously impacted the way that people interacted with me. My shirt was more than a shirt, it was a badge of either privilege or disadvantage, the result of which determined whether or not I could be a “real” UVA student.