For Toni Airaksinen, BC '18, a class discussion on art in her first-year English class turned into a reminder of the challenges she faced as a low-income student.
"Until New York, I had never been out of Cleveland because there's no way I could afford a plane ticket," Airaksinen said. So when the class began to discuss their favorite exhibits at the Louvre Museum in France, Airaksinen felt the disconnect.
"I was really confused so I raised my hand and asked, 'What's the Louvre?' and my professor said, 'What do you mean you don't know what the Louvre is?,'" she said.
"This was my second week of class in New York, and I just didn't know yet," she said. "And I felt the whole class turn to face me, which was mortifying because I'd basically outed myself as the lower-income, unprivileged, uncultured student in the classroom."
Airaksinen later channeled those feelings into Columbia University Class Confessions, an open and anonymous platform on Facebook that allows low-income and first-generation students to share their experiences. The page, which launched on March 22, has already received more than 411 student submissions on topics including homelessness, debt, and feelings of anger, depression, and guilt, along with over 3,373 likes.
Airaksinen, who is a member of Columbia First-Generation Low-Income Partnership, said she was inspired to create the page after attending the First-Generation Ivy League Students Conference at Brown University, where she learned about Stanford University and the University of Chicago's Class Confessions pages.
"We launched the page, and my goal for the page was to just create awareness but we ended up getting over 1,000 likes in under 24 hours and we've gotten a lot of media coverage," Airaksinen said. "A lot of students send in confessions and say, 'I don't want you to publish this but I want to tell you guys anyways,' and a lot send in messages saying, 'This page makes me feel less alone.'"
Columbia Class Confessions comes after a number of efforts from FLIP, which was recognized as a formal student group earlier this semester, to provide a community and support for low-income and first-generation students, including a textbook swap and a cap-and-gown share.
And its newest initiative, which launched on Sunday, is CU Meal Share, in which students with extra meals can swipe classmates into dining halls. FLIP is also working on a proposal to keep dining halls open over break.
"I think class and first-generation identities have been taboo and controversial to talk about. Even first generation people who identify as such don't like to talk about it," Mandeep Singh, CC '15 and the president of FLIP, said. "This has been a way to help make this identity more open on campus, so people who don't have these challenges can realize that it's a whole different ballgame for students who identify as such."
But while Class Confessions is one of the first public forums to air the challenges of low-income students, some students say that they've been dealing with these issues since before they even stepped onto campus.
Jordan Franks, BC '18, said that even simple coffee-date invitations from friends can lead to feelings of social isolation.
"There's always the assumption this won't be a big deal," Franks said. "But maybe $10 isn't a big deal for you, but for the last three weeks I've had 91 cents in my bank account consistently, no change. It's things like that that get to you."
Chris Sinclair, GS '16 and a member of FLIP, said it's difficult to support himself when he also has to provide extra support for his family.
"The first-generation aspect is that you don't really have parents to be like, 'I'm going to call my dad and ask what he thinks about this,' because your dad doesn't know. Your dad's never been to college. Your parents are immigrants and came to this country and worked their tails off so you could be in a place like this," Sinclair said. "And then on top of that I'm not looking to my parents for help, my parents are looking to me for help. I'm the retirement plan."
Sinclair said that CU Meal Share was a particularly welcome addition to campus, as many of the confessions have been focused on food insecurity.
"Many students on campus are constantly worried about where their next meal is coming from, which makes it difficult to focus on schoolwork at the most rigorous institution of higher learning in the country," he said. "FLIP decided that with countless meals going unused by students with meal plans, we should have a way of connecting those who are struggling to feed themselves with people who have extra meals and are willing to share them with those who may need them more than they do."
Low-income and first-generation students interviewed said that they felt these challenges often left them feeling disadvantaged while navigating the academic environment at Columbia.
"It's been a struggle," Sinclair said. "It's been distracting from the reason why I'm actually here, which is to be in school."
Singh and Sinclair both said that first-generation, low-income students are often not equipped with the same academic foundations and resources as their more privileged peers, which makes it more difficult to succeed academically.
"It's kind of understood that, 'Hey, you're in Columbia you should know this,' but because you come from a school where you go through a metal detector before you enter the building, they're not really geared towards enriching your education, it's more about making sure you don't kill each other," Sinclair said.
Franks said this academic disparity prevented her from being able to afford the resources she needed for classes.
"I still haven't gotten all my textbooks for this semester. I didn't get all of them last semester. I bought them the week after fall break, and that was after all my midterms, so you're going in at a significant disadvantage—I couldn't have done any of the readings," Franks said.
Airaksinen said that she hopes that the popularity of the Columbia Class Confessions page will help bring to light the multiple, often unrecognized issues faced by her low-income, first-generation peers.
"We're taking the support and momentum that the Facebook group has received and turning it into something constructive," she said.
Photos by Millie Christie-Dervaux, via Class Confessions Facebook page