“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.” – Rawda Fawaz
“I was a high school drop out at age 15 and went back to get my GED when I was 17 years old. My mom was a single mother who lost her job when the economy crashed. She eventually found other work but had to quit to take care of my grandmother who had alzheimers. My grandfather died of pancreatic cancer and a year later my grandmother was put into a nursing home because she was to the point we couldn’t take care of her any longer. My mother and I lived with my grandparents in their house which was foreclosed on when my grandma was put into a nursing home which left my mom and me homeless. This is definitely the time of my life that I was most aware of my SES. It is crazy to think that all of this happened only 4 years ago. We moved probably 7 times before I finally got a decent paying job and I also attended community college full time and graduated with an associates degree with a 4.0 GPA. I applied to my dream college, UVA and saved up enough money to move to Charlottesville. I am so happy that UVA gave me a chance and provided me with so many academic opportunities I otherwise would have never had but it hasn’t been without many challenges. It is still hard for me to believe how far I’ve come despite the adversity I have faced in my life. I will be graduating in May and I am currently applying to grad schools which is a position that I never dreamed I would be in. My time at UVA has been financially challenging and I am afraid of where I will live when I graduate college in May. My goal is to find a job where I can work for the summer before grad school but I have definitely felt that my financial challenges have added a tremendous amount of stress to my life that I feel most other students don’t have to worry about. I always think, I should be excited about graduating but I am terrified because I don’t ever want to be homeless again for any amount of time! I feel my experiences have set me apart from a lot of students here and feel like I have experienced a lot of things in life many other students here have never known and will never know what it’s like to experience. It makes it difficult to relate to others at times and sometimes it feel as though others are unappreciative of the little things in life that they take for granted every single day.” – Anonymous
“In high school, I was relatively dependent on my parents, and so outside of my regular babysitting job which funded eating out with friends, I didn’t think too much about money. I noticed that my family lived in a home generally bigger than some of the other kids at my school, but in general I didn’t see myself as way better or worse off than anyone else.
My first month at UVA was a shocker. I became aware of clothing items I didn’t own and the labels I didn’t wear and the European vacations my family never took. The older I got, the more I felt this pressing financial responsibility thrust upon me. My parents paid for tuition, but apart from that, I was on my own. Moving into an off-grounds home, driving a car, and entering into the seemingly adult world meant more money required out of me pocket. As a busy student heavily involved in extracurricular activities, time for work seemed nearly impossible. So far, I’m still figuring things out, and have made a number of paychecks working as babysitter, personal care giver, or other odd jobs, but it is still kind of scary as I realize all the money that goes into being a part of the real world. If anything, i’m learning to make sacrifices, and I think one day, when I get a little more stability, this learning process will be worth it.” – Anonymous
“Although I knew I grew up with food and financial insecurities, I never saw myself as “poor” or ‘low income’ until I came to UVA. I never felt I didn’t have a lot until I looked around. When you grow up in a certain environment–you don’t miss what you don’t have. Coming here, I saw expensive clothes, people with supportive networks, and people who never knew hunger or experienced pushback about getting a college education. My first and second years, I spent all of my money on things that felt I needed to fit in. I would run out of grocery money–and I knew I shouldn’t call home for more. I was taught that “things” don’t matter. Somehow it feels like they can be an integral part of your experience here. Learning that other students face similar insecurities was an integral part of my feeling like I can finally fit in at UVA–not through things, but personal relationships and connections.” – Melanie
“Socioeconomic status was influential before I stepped foot at the University. I don’t feel pressured to come from low income; I feel blessed. Everyday I seek to benefit the most of my opportunities given to attend UVA. I didn’t receive my federal and state aid to perform poorly; I’m here to go above and beyond my limits.
My SES has motivated me to prove that I can make a difference. While my family has not had high capital, I’m making the best of my education to repay them the support they’ve given me for years.” – Chi Chan
“I have to say that I am constantly aware of my socioeconomic status. Everyone thinks that just because someone is granted nearly full financial aid means that everything is taken care of, which is not true in my case or most cases for that matter. I assumed the same when I was granted financial aid. When I lived on grounds last year, my financial aid did not cover my cost of living, my meal plan, or any other additional fees, only my out-of- state tuition (the cost of attending UVA). Thankfully, I earned small external scholarships. However, that didn’t alleviate me from having to take out loans or work twenty hours a week. I must have to say that I am most aware of my socioeconomic status when I have to send half of my pay check home to my family. I am also aware of my socioeconomic status when I can’t join my friends to constant dinner parties or shopping trips. It can be really hard attending this school without the financial support of your family. I constantly have to work to maintain my grades so my financial aid remains in place. This is not an attempt to paint a negative picture. I am very grateful that I am allowed the opportunity to attend UVA. I’ve met a variety of people with different backgrounds. Although we come from different backgrounds, we all want to achieve the same goals. For example, graduating and building our future careers is important to each and every one of us. Attending UVA has reassured me that my socioeconomic status does not define me. I work just as hard, if not harder, than any other UVA student to remain here.” -Tyneeka Dyson
“Where I come from people don’t strive to do much. People do not have goals or aspirations. When I said that I wanted to go to UVA, it was a big deal. If you went to college, you went to local college or community college. I wanted to do something greater. I wanted to be able to make my mother not have to worry anymore. She raised my sister and I on her own and worked so hard. I just want to be able to give. I was fortunate enough to get the money to be able to afford to attend UVA through financial aid. Once I got pass the tuition aspect i thought I was set. Coming to UVA where the majority of people come from money and feeling as though you are being looked down upon because you are not as smart or do not have enough money. It is hard at times and i know it will be a constant struggle, but i take everything that i’ve been through and just use it to drive me to be great.” – Cameron Stokes
I dedicate this post to my selfless parents.
One of my most powerful, vivid memories growing up is of an experience I had when I was about ten years old. I don’t know if other families do this, but my family had “meetings” on the weekends when my parents would impart words of wisdom on my sister and me. One meeting stands out, though. My dad decided to explain to us what his experience was like growing up in poverty in Colombia. He told us of a time when he and his four siblings were getting ready one morning and gathered around the table, expecting breakfast before heading off to elementary school. His mom, however, was sobbing as she apologized for being unable to feed them that morning. My dad reassured her that it was okay that she couldn’t feed them and went so far as to promise her that one day he would fill the family’s refrigerator.
What stood out to me the most was how emotional he got as he recounted this story. To this day, I think that this was the only time I have ever seen my father cry, and boy was he crying. He expressed his frustration and his disappointment at himself for being unable to fulfill his promise to his mother. As a then forty-something immigrant in the United States working as a painter, a factory worker, a janitor… in his eyes, he had failed his mother, and was now failing his wife and his children.
To this day, I am profoundly affected by my parents’ struggles growing up and as immigrants in the United States. I constantly think of the massive sacrifices that they have made in order to provide me with an opportunity to succeed. I think of the houses they have painted, the toilets they have scrubbed, and the work-related burns, cuts, and bruises on their bodies. It is because of these reminders of the pain and difficulties my parents have endured and continue to face that I strive to excel.
In this way, my socioeconomic status growing up has defined me. I live day-to-day in the hopes of striking a balance between respecting my own dreams and desires and justifying my parents’ sacrifices. This immense pressure to make my parents proud has had a powerful impact on me as a person—I stress out over minor failures, I feel an implicit sense of indebtedness to my family, and I question if I am solely motivated by monetary success.
Ultimately, however, I think that my experience as a lower-income immigrant has made me compassionate, resourceful, and strong. My parents’ love and support in the face of seemingly insurmountable adversity challenges and inspires me to strive for a better life. But “better” only in the financial sense because, in spite of the hardships my family has faced, my parents made sure I had a happy childhood—one in which fond memories of family time, birthday parties, and summer camp outnumber memories of dire financial straits. For that, and for so many other things, I will forever be grateful. – Santiago Naranjo
“I am privileged many ways, one of which is having a supportive family who values education and celebrates my accomplishments. To give me opportunities, my dad worked on construction sites around the Southeast for his entire career, living on campgrounds and only coming home every couple of weeks. On many occasions, he worked a seventy hour week, then drove overnight just to see us for a day or two. He does not have a college degree, despite being one of the best historians I know, because every dollar he earns goes directly to supporting my family. To give us opportunities, my mom works a full time job and has still always managed to construct a home in which love is primary. My parents work so that my brothers and I can live and experience all we want to. They sacrifice so that we can do the things we want to do with our lives, and they expect nothing in return. They deserve to pursue their own passions and live own their lives, but their ability to do so in the future relies in large part on the choice I am making in college. The privilege of having parents who work tirelessly for my brothers and I also comes with a lot of pressure, because if I fail, I am failing not only myself, but also the people who love me most in this world and who will rely on me when they can no longer work.
The idea of being low income is not always a comfortable one. It is not something you are supposed to be proud of, but rather, it is something you are trying to overcome. It is hard to accept something as a part of your background and accept the ways in which it has formed your identity if it is something you are supposed to change. Watching my parents give all they are in order to give me all they can has defined who I am and who I strive to become.” – Emily Dennan
“I was most aware of my SES when choosing an apartment to live in for next year with four of my close friends. I am paying for everything in college, taking out loans and spending my own earned money to put myself through school. My parents support me in my quest, but not at all financially because they simply do not have the money. My friends wanted to find an apartment that was close to Grounds and nice inside. We had several options, but as we went through them, my friends gradually eliminated the less expensive options and I eventually felt pressured to go along with them and choose an expensive place. It causes me so much anxiety to think about paying off all these loans, and I feel like there’s a divide between my friends and me, because all of their parents are paying for a significant amount of their college tuition, if not all of it.” – Anonymous
My parents split up right before I started college. My parents were pretty well off together, but my father carried most of that weight. I decided to stay with my mother, but my father still supported me just a bit financially. It wasn’t that bad my first year. While my parents weren’t together, my father helped pay for my necessities and I worked a small job to cover entertainment costs.
My second year, I decided to join a sorority. Basically, my bills went from none at all to actually be somewhat of a task for me to handle. That same semester, I cut off all contact with my father. It was a decision I regretted, but for selfish reasons. I couldn’t handle the costs nor did I want to be that person begging their daddy for money. So I sucked it up and got another job. It helped, but I began to work more than my GPA could keep up with, but I felt that need to work because in Greek Life, you soon realize that a lot of people are well off and a few aren’t afraid to show it off. It was the first time I felt uncomfortable about my SES. I thought about contacting my father, leaving my mother for money, and just thinking of making horrible decision all because of my SES.
I decided against all of it. My SES was a struggle, but I could not let it make such major decisions for me and so selfishly at that. I found a balance. That balance did not come until the end of my third year after my GPA suffered and after I found comfort in my SES, but I don’t regret any of what happened. It made me stronger and actually, as cheesy as this sounds, made me a better person. It took my struggle, all because of my SES to realize that I was more than my parent’s income, more than the money I made to support myself, and even more than my GPA. All of those were just simple numbers that don’t even being to add up to my worth as a person. – Anonymous
“I consider myself financially fortunate. It looks as though I can finish my undergraduate years debt free, but this did not come without sacrifice. People, fellow students, often laugh or think I’m joking when I tell them what I did or better yet was not able to do as a child. My parents gave up so much to provide for their children’s needs that my forfeiture of a few activities, at an age where participation was just a way to stay entertained, was inconsequential. I found other, cheaper, ways to entertain myself while my parents worked seemingly endless hours. Even now, giving up allowances and some luxuries at holidays pales in comparison. Dealing with the unintentionally hurtful giggles and gasps is something I am willing to do if it means I can work hard and pay my parents back the dedication they have showed me. Peers here at UVA, indirectly and directly, jest about the stereotypes of Asians and academics. It’s painful and it’s wrong, but I refuse to let these microaggressions deter me, even the ones from close friends.” – Anonymous
“Coming from a poor family in a poor, rural community and attending a prestigious university where the majority are largely affluent and from the north is intimidating at times. You walk around and see others dressed in clothes that you cannot afford, but wish you sometimes had, even if it was just one outfit. Everything they own is name brand and of the highest quality. I have seen people wear types of clothing that I never knew even existed. For instance, I have never been exposed to Chinos in my life, but here they are a norm to wear. It’s not only clothing that makes you feel separate, but also their culture and attitudes. I am often given looks for not understanding commonly used expressions and idioms, or even knowledge of certain celebrities, fashion brands, musicians, or other forms of culture. What’s weird is that I feel I belong here academically and do very well in my classes, it’s socially that I don’t feel that I fit in. I try to approach others and am given crude looks. I often wonder if is my appearance or my mannerisms. Why do people shake my hand, even though they clearly are not fond of me? That’s just one aspect of feeling different here. I feel ashamed that I cannot go out with friends for meals on the corner or downtown because I have very little to no money. I am here on a scholarship and they do give me a stipend to live off of but I spent almost half of it on books for classes. I only have 6 classes, but I had to buy 18 books. Why so many books? I tried shopping around to save some money, like amazon, or buying used books or even renting them. I still saved very little money. The other half I gave to help my parents for expenses like food and electricity. I knew they were going to ask as soon I received money, I was just hoping it wouldn’t happen. Now I am stuck with very little money. I can’t do anything and I haven’t even bought a single item I have wanted, like maybe a nice shirt, or maybe a pair of new pants. I have to depend on my parents to send me supplies, like shampoo, toothpaste, medicine and deodorant. I am afraid to go see a doctor because even though I have insurance here through the university, I still don’t have the money to pay copays or coinsurance. I hope I don’t get majorly sick because I would only be able to take over the counter medicine that my parents could afford to send me. My parents gave me their food stamp card, so once a month I can go buy $60 worth of groceries to share with my roommate. My mom sends me $50 a month for basic necessities such as laundry, or the occasional ticket to see a movie or show in Newcomb. I would have had more money if financial aid had given me an outside scholarship that I also received. I know the policy says that they are supposed to take it, but I was assured by officials that they would distribute the money to me. It would have really helped buy some other supplies or pay for some club dues. It’s not like the university needs the money. While all of these are frustrating, I don’t want to get a job because I used to work in high school. At one time, I was working 2 jobs and going to school and I don’t want that stress while here. I want to focus on my academics and on myself. I want to achieve academic goals and participate in clubs, not working. While I am reminded of my social class status everyday by those around, me I am also aware of others that I empathize with. I see various workers here that work hard for their families and make very little still. It’s hard and very few students understand that here. I don’t know why so many people think the poor are lazy? I have had to work for everything I have wanted and so has everyone in my family. These workers often work overtime, seldom take breaks and even have a 2nd or 3rd job just to put food on the table. Still, very few students care. Even worse, they cite theories they learn in the economics or finance classes that it would be detrimental to pay workers more or to have workers unions. If only they could spend a day doing what these workers do and see what they go through on a daily basis. If they just knew these workers backgrounds, they might be more willing to change their opinions. I really wish I could do more to help them. I don’t like being the exception here because the truth is that I was lucky in many ways. There are others worse off than me and who did not have the rare opportunities available to them like I did to help get out. Even though I am considered the exception, I still struggle. No one considers that even if you do escape the poverty of where your from that you are still in poverty where you currently are. I am lucky to have a scholarship that pays for housing and food, but I still have to find sources to pay for clothing, supplies like shampoo, and yes even a phone. My phone is probably my most expensive possession and I use it for everything. I use it to text other classmates to collaborate on assignments, keep track of things to do and assignments to turn in on my calendar, talk to my parents in case I need something, or look up information like directions to places I’ve never been before. I want to focus on myself here, but I also feel an obligation to still help my family out. How can I do that 100 miles away? How do I give them money I don’t have? I feel bad for not working and I feel worse if I do try to go out and have fun. I never let that interfere with my mission here. I am here for an education, not to have fun. I want to improve myself so I can get a job and break the vicious cycle of poverty. While I constantly feel alone here, I just remember that things will get better if I work hard enough. My reward is long term and seems far away, but then again so was college to me when I was in high school and look where I am now. I hope my 4 siblings will follow in my footsteps and I do hope that one day I can live comfortably like everyone else here. But most of all, I hope one day I can make a difference in others who are in the same situation as I am. I hope I can inspire others to graduate and go to college. When I am discouraged, this is what I think of to motivate me to keep going.” – Anonymous
I’m a third year student new to UVA, and although I had friends who had attended UVA and warned me of the propensity of the students here to be wealthy and ostentatious about it, I didn’t think it would affect me greatly. It wasn’t until I arrived and experienced the campus culture unique to UVA itself did I start realizing the harsh truths of their warnings. I began to notice that I didn’t have the same amenities and access that my fellow peers did – that I couldn’t just buy a brand new suit for an on-grounds interview and then celebrate with friends on the Corner. In fact, I couldn’t even eat out or participate in social bonding over food because I couldn’t afford to pay for my meals off-grounds. This realization coupled with my sensitivity to the fact that I was already different led me to feel despondent over my situation and caused me to feel alone here. I often find myself wishing that I did have more financial support from my family and that peer pressure has evolved from its usual form in high school to take on a new shape in college. Nowadays I feel pressured to dress in Vineyard Vines and dine out regularly. And unfortunately these pressures will only end on the day I graduate from here. – Anonymous
I don’t want to overgeneralize, but I have a feeling the average UVA student doesn’t know what it feels like to have more money in the bank than their parents – savings made up of grants, loans, and money from various summer jobs. If that’s the case, then the average student probably also doesn’t know that there is consequently a guilt that comes with spending money, money that could be used to ease your family’s burdens. The presence of this guilt, for me, has a become both a source of motivation and a hinderance, pushing me to value education but also tempting me to worry about my family’s well-being when I am away at college…
I am fortunate, however, to have found a loving community at UVa that allows me to be truly open about who I am and the background from which I come. As a fourth year, I can look back and see that it’s made a world of difference in my college experience to be able to have friends that share in my struggles and can empathize with my situation.
Therefore, although the majority of the student body may not understand, I encourage those who can relate to reach out to a supportive and encouraging community and realize that sometimes what we view as weaknesses or struggles can actually be blessings in disguise. – Veronica Duong