I am not fucking stupid.
I shouldn’t have to convince you of this fact as a student admitted to one of the nation’s most selective schools. My classmates, even those admitted after centuries of a family legacy attending Columbia, haven’t had to write it out for you. But somehow, when I tell people I attended an otherwise average public high school just outside of Chicago, the question is on the table. When I admit that I am a Pell grant recipient on a full scholarship, I know I’ve got some explaining ahead of me.
Sure, no one has ever point-blank called me stupid. But I can hear it when I’m asked what I really had to score on the ACT to get into Columbia. I can hear it when I’m told to look up Affirmative Action acceptance rates for graduate programs for a more accurate idea of what I should be capable of. I can hear it when I’m told that Columbia has to “thoroughly contextualize my academic records with my socioeconomic background,” “relaxing” acceptance standards for a student like me.
After a while, it becomes exhausting to convince people that somehow, even with only half of the resources most of my peers had, my application packed just as much of a punch as theirs. As a QuestBridge scholar, I was among the first 27 students admitted to the class of 2020. If they are so busy contextualizing applications, I’d imagine that the admissions team would don frowns of disappointment reading the applications following those 27 students’. Why is it that after consuming resource after resource directly provided to you, you have still only achieved as much as us, who had so little? Do not tell me to prove myself to you when I’ve achieved everything that you have with one hand tied behind my back.
Columbia’s willingness to accept the low-income student into the “elite” sphere can only go as far as the ego will allow, and based on my having to spend a semester writing about the struggles of low-income students on campus, that is not very far at all. At Columbia, attitudes towards low-income students must always look more like, “Let us be charitable to the underprivileged” than the more accurate, “This student has demonstrated the tenacity it takes to do well at a school like Columbia.” That is, it must always feel more like, “I am still better.”
If it is time to start accepting reality, it is time that the privileged acknowledge that their own spots at this university were no accident. If it is time to start accepting reality, we must start with acknowledging the ways in which most of my peers had their foot in the door before I had even heard the name Columbia.
Poor kids are vilified under the guise of “reality,” but somehow we are expected to find cozy spots in our hearts for those who had their seats at an Ivy reserved and waiting for them thanks to centuries of legacy, years of expensive boarding schools, and immaculate networks crafted by high-up parents. We are allowed to humanize these oh-so-unfortunately fortunate, but question the integrity of what it means to make it to an Ivy League with only a half-developed picture of what college may be like and enough hope to think you can make it at one.
Stop making me beg for your respect. Actually, stop making me beg for my humanity. I am not your poverty porn, virtuous poor pin-up here to meet a quota. I am among the best, and I’ve proven that more than anyone should have to just by being here.
Alexa Roman is a sophomore in Columbia College studying neuroscience. She works with the First-Generation 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 alternate Mondays.
To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.