Before coming to Columbia, I never had my own room. Even now, I spend holidays back home sleeping anywhere I can find space. Most mornings, my baby sister will slip away from my mom soon after sunrise and cuddle up with me on the couch in our living room. No matter the circumstances, I doubt there is a happier way to wake up every morning.
I have always recognized that my situation is atypical. Up until the moment I moved into my 112-square-foot John Jay single, I wanted nothing more than a space where I could unabashedly screech along to my favorite songs without worrying about disrupting my mom. I thought of curling up on my bed, popping on my favorite movie, and sobbing at the sad parts without shame. Even more simply, I imagined a desk housing mountains of textbooks and review packets—a space, exclusively mine, in which to study. My tiny single became a sort of symbol to me. For once, there was space for me, somewhere.
Cloaked in this dreaminess, I forgot the degree to which my classmates could not relate. A casual conversation in my floor lounge one night began with a floormate admitting that back home, his bed alone was the size of his dorm. The room filled with exclamations of “Same!” or “Oh my gosh, right?” I stood near the door, feeling foolish for believing that the tiny space I occupied held any significance at this university.
But, somehow, it was still so significant. Because it was mine.
I did not love my space any less after this incident, but I did feel as though that space existed in constant flux—sometimes meaning a whole world, sometimes swallowed up by the people all around me who this space was really “for.” I realized this back-and-forth extended to my low-income identity as a whole. Sometimes the grit and diligence that got me to Columbia made me feel like an untouchable and rare force on this campus. Just as easily, my identity could be swallowed up by the overwhelming presence of affluence.
It is not rare to hear groups on campus challenging administration over a lack of space, whether it’s a failed Thursday-night club meeting at Lerner or a dance group’s makeshift practice in the Wien lounge. But for these groups, finding space is a hassle—it is not dire. In my first year—living on a floor almost entirely comprised of students whose parents were affiliated with the school or flagrantly displaying their wealth—things began to feel dire. Where could I go to find people like me? I became lost between discovering the lending library for low-income students in Butler, attempting to keep up with FLIP and QuestBridge club meetings, and attempting to keep track of the administrative sub-levels meant to help low-income students transition to Columbia.
I realized my identity was fragmented throughout this campus, with no designated space for people who felt like me.
This semester, two new spaces will open up on campus: one acting as a space for LGBTQ+ students and the other for students of color. In the same spirit, Columbia needs a space for low-income students to find resources and mentorship within our community. I challenge you to consider how our identity has made it so difficult for us to find space on this campus and in our lives. This identity is not one we wear on our sleeves, even if it feels that way sometimes. Us low-income students default to assuming every person surrounding us in our classes is affluent. Sometimes we’re right. But in any case, our identities find a way to alienate us by leaving us feeling like we are the odd ones out, always. And there is no space for the odd ones out. I challenge you to consider how that feeling of lacking space can bring us right back to the situations we come from, whether that be a severely cramped home, or perhaps even homelessness. I want you to consider the mental toll of feeling as though there is no space for you, anywhere.
But more importantly, I question why the low-income community has not come together to demand this space. Has having rooms of our own for once in our lives pacified us? Are we so grateful to this university, which promises to save us from our poverty, that we do not dare challenge it? Or are we so busy trying to find our place in the student body that we tuck our identities neatly away, never brave enough to look that alienation in the eye? Do we continue to ignore that wish to be among people like ourselves because we do not even want to be like ourselves?
Whatever your answer, I’d like to remind you that this space is for you, too—for you to sing unabashedly, cry gracelessly, and study in, maybe.
Take up as much as you need.
Alexa Roman is a sophomore in Columbia College studying neuroscience and behavior. She works with the First-Generation Student Advisory Board to address prominent issues in the low-income community on campus. 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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