In November, recipients of the Columbia Grant received an email inviting them to the Dean’s Scholarship Reception, a mid-February gala in Roone that paired financial aid recipients whose tuition was at least partially covered by the fund with donors who had contributed to the endowment. (The Columbia Grant is awarded in financial aid packages with no strings attached—it is anonymous, free money that need not be repaid upon graduation, like a loan would. The grant is the primary fund for financial aid.)
Suddenly, the Columbia Office of Alumni Affairs and Development was emailing financial aid recipients asking them to write letters to “their donor” expressing their gratitude for the opportunity to study at Columbia. The whole thing instantly felt icky to me.
My initial problem with being asked to say “thank you” for the financial aid I receive was that I couldn’t imagine anyone affording Columbia without it. The cost of attendance here is more than twice the median American income, which is a reality so unjust I wonder sometimes if it isn’t an artifice. The school consciously sports a ludicrous price tag, and when people struggle to cover tuition and fees, Columbia pays for everything and looks like a superhero. I didn’t understand how or why I needed to meet a random donor to thank them for covering the massive cost involved with attending Columbia in the first place.
But, deeper down, another issue stirred. I thought back to when I first “realized” I was a “low-income” student: first-year fall, when I started getting emails from offices notifying me of first-generation and low-income student-specific events I was personally eligible for. No one I knew growing up had much money, but that felt normal to me—and for at least a third of the country, struggling to live day-to-day in America is normal. In one fell swoop, however, those emails anointed me “low-income,” and I’ve been wearing the badge ever since.
The “low-income” label is a deeply destabilizing one. Over the years, I’ve come to despise it. The wealth at Columbia is so pervasive and extraordinary that the “low-income” goggles I put on my first year have intensified a “me-versus-them” mentality I subconsciously adopted toward my wealthier peers (which is, it seems, almost all of them).
And the label itself is ridiculous to me: On what planet could the average American financial situation become the marked low-income identity here? We poor people, with our multiple jobs and clearance-rack winter coats, represent a common financial reality for many Americans. And yet we don’t call our anomalously wealthy peers “high-income” in discourse. We enviously call them rich behind their backs, just like everyone else does, or we don’t call them anything, because they are the standard and we are not.
But, naturally, it’s impossible to unsee something, and once I realized a relatively typical experience of wealth in America (i.e. not having much) translates into a “low-income” sense of lacking at Columbia, my insecurity and inferiority practically nurtured each other. I never needed or wanted for anything as a child, but being suffocated by Columbia affluence can make anyone feel deprived. Watching friends go on weekend trips with the ski team made me confront a childhood not spent in snowboarding lessons during annual family vacations to Tahoe. Trying to find a summer internship reminded me that growing up a world apart from the industries and influences of the socioeconomic elite left me with approximately zero tappable connections (and, it sometimes feels, zero future).
I also fear the repercussions of painting “low-income” as such a broad stroke. Even if the financial aid office doesn’t think so, there is a big difference between being “low-income” (i.e. with an annual income less than $60,000) and living below the poverty line (in America in 2018, $12,140). Having such a one-dimensional view of poverty ignores greater complexities within and between the narratives.
Ultimately, I’m not interested in continuing to give what feels like the excuse of being a “poor person” as an explanation for things hundreds of millions—indeed, most of Americans—do outside of the Morningside Heights wealth pocket. Lots of people have jobs in college and over the summers. Lots of people budget grocery money and don’t buy things brand new and struggle to afford medical care. I recall an exchange I had with a classmate as we left Literature Humanities early our first year, as I was walking to my work-study job: “I’m going to work!” I told him. “Oh,” he paused, considering it. “Weird. Why?” I assure you—it’s not that weird. (Being able to afford eating out every day? That’s weird.)
I want a campus conversation that doesn’t portray a very average experience of American not-wealth as something abnormal and coupled with immense suffering. By doing so, we conflate nuanced, everyday realities of poverty with specifically elite Columbia concerns: There is a difference between a lack of Sweetgreen salads and Canada Geese and deep-rooted financial need.
Harmony is a Columbia College junior who may never learn to ski. She’s pretty sure she’ll survive anyway. Tell her how you really feel about this, that, and anything at email@example.com. Striking Chords runs alternate Tuesdays.
To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.