After a couple weeks of opening my door to knocks from students asking for “just a moment of my day” and my Facebook timeline being flooded with kids in suits, my first student council election cycle at Columbia came to a close. Among calls for fall Bacchanals and open lawns, I noticed a major gap in the candidates’ platforms.
As a low-income student attending Columbia on full financial aid, I often worry about what my financial situation will look like from year to year. From experience, I understand this to be the situation for most low-income students at Columbia. Given that it is an issue affecting a sizable group on campus, I expected the Columbia College Student Council to address financial security as an urgent issue. However, after dissecting platform after platform, I found that even among the plethora of positions open on student council, I could count the number of candidates who put financial security at the forefront of their campaigns on one hand.
But was I necessarily shocked to find that fall Bacchanal is considered by some students to be a more feasible and wise financial investment than support for low-income students? No. At a school where 13.4 percent of students come from the top 1 percent (as compared to 16 percent of students who receive the Pell Grant, considered the “highest need” students), it is easy to forget that there are those among us for whom the question of money lingers indefinitely.
Though Columbia students frequently don the title of advocates for the marginalized, I have noticed an overwhelming blind spot surrounding the issue of class. I’m not satisfied with the assumption that class issues are not being addressed or discussed at Columbia simply because low-income students are a minority on campus. I recall a protest on Low Steps after the election season in support of DACA students that made me proud to be a part of the Latinx community on campus—Columbia students are not shy to mobilize for underrepresented groups, even when the identity does not necessarily fit their own. Yet in discussions I’ve had about class, I have noticed that my peers cannot avoid feeling personally attacked because of their privileges, and thus seem to avoid such conversations altogether. When I describe the additional difficulties I faced on the path to Columbia, my peers condemn me for insinuating that their accomplishments are not worthwhile, listing off high-up internships and hours spent studying for AP tests. Most painfully, while sharing details of the circumstances I endured growing up poor, I am often told that because I am now at Columbia, none of that matters.
Their message, which comes across loud and clear, is that I’m now just as privileged as they are.
Many Columbia students are completely disconnected from the experiences of low-income students, and existing caricatures assume that our trials end at the 116th Street gates. This disconnect is not necessarily their fault. A person who has not lived through poverty cannot possibly understand how the effects of poverty snowball, making it impossible for a low-income person to detach themselves from their circumstances, even when living in a bubble of affluence such as Morningside Heights. They cannot understand that even after a low-income person has made it to Columbia, there is still no sense of security; should finances back home falter even slightly, an elite education will likely not come before feeding the family or paying rent.
For a low-income student, campus issues are more complex than early South Lawn access after a long winter. We exist in constant anxiety about our place at this university. But without experiencing this anxiety, or perhaps even having it outright detailed to them in a way that makes it feel tangible, I understand why so many students are forced to draw assumptions about low-income students.
This need for assumptions is precisely why low-income students need a voice on campus. More than that, we need for our calls to fall on empathetic ears. Low-income students are not against you, but we need you to be for us.
The low-income community on campus, though one composed of extremely strong students, should not bear the weight of having to shout over a dominant majority. We cannot be left off of student council platforms because our cause is considered “too specialized” by a candidacy comprised of five financially secure students. The tension created by the subject of class cannot cancel out the urgency to support your low-income peers.
This column will explore the culture surrounding low-income students at Columbia with the goal of creating a campus of champions for the underprivileged.
So give us a moment of your day.
Alexa Roman is a sophomore in Columbia College studying neuroscience. Outside of her work, Alexa hopes to someday become the mascot for Koronet. Alexa invites any low-income students to reach out to her for help navigating Columbia. You’re Not Middle Class runs every alternate Monday.
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