#PoorAtAPrivateUniversity-Examining Inclusion, Allyship, and Visibility
This summer, a friend of mine and I embarked on a small scale hashtag campaign to draw attention to a set of attitudes that we faced as low income students in attendance at a private university.
This was instigated by an event in which fees were added to a set of courses that we intended to take during our time as students at Boston University. While we both understood the reason for these fees being necessary, since they hadn’t existed prior to this moment, we had no way of accounting for them in our previously conceived budgets and financial plans for our education.
What this means is that our ability to take these courses is in danger-because we straight up might not be able to afford them.
I’m personally very much of the belief that I should be doing whatever I want with my education-customizing it however I’m able, finding ways to engage with all the different and varied things I want to learn about. I’m a person who’s driven by my passions-it’s difficult for me to learn about things that don’t interest me, regardless of their “practicality,” or whatever personally (for me) non-desire fulfilling merit they have, so I enjoy having the freedom to pursue the things that do hold my attention. Boston University is a place that allows me to do that. It’s a major part of why I love college so damn much. With all that in mind however, learning that I may not be able to take a series of courses that really interest me as an artist and as a person simply because I wouldn’t be able to afford them was a very worrisome bit of news.
In an attempt to receive support and advice on how to handle the situation, I spoke with a few of my friends and family members, venting my frustrations and expressing my concern, trying to figure out a way to make things work. I got useful suggestions like reaching out to faculty and administration to see what help I could receive as well as solidarity from those of my peers who found themselves in a similar position to mine.
But not everything I was received was positive, intent notwithstanding.
These were just some of the well-intended yet ultimately still hurtful attitudes I encountered. For lack of a better way to describe them, they felt like class based microaggresions to me. My reality as a low income individual in college with only federal work-study as a source of income is that I’m in an economic situation that I have no control over. And since work-study is a fixed amount of potentially earnable income (classes come first, you’re still at school for school) which is only intended to supplement education costs, I have no way of promoting any kind of economic mobility for myself.
I’m poor. And I’m at a private institution, attempting to receive the education I’ve been told is necessary for me to have any hope of making the money I need to remove myself from my low income situation. But what’s important to recognize here is that that’s not something I’m able to do without sacrifice. I’m accomplishing this with a generous amount of Boston University grant money that I am more than grateful for, but also through the use of federal student loans that have already put me more than $5000 in debt at the end of my freshman year. Of course, tuition increases yearly, so this debt will accrue in response, and then there’s interest!
I’ve inherited a situation that leaves me relatively helpless. And I’m marginalized for it. This is something that many familiar with the conversation about privilege are aware of. But at a private university, this intersects with what I find to be a relatively commonly held assumption about its students: that because private universities are expensive, most students are those who are able to comfortably afford attendance. In my experience actually attending BU, I can say that this is not entirely false, but not wholly true either.
Statistically speaking, the majority (on a single race/ethnic background basis) of BU’s population is made up of white, middle- to upper-class students. This, when viewed in a vacuum, can understandably be used to draw the conclusion that most of BU’s attendees can comfortably afford the school. But when this is compared with the university’s majority nonwhite population, who are statistically less likely to make the same kind of money as their white counterparts, it becomes clear that the aforementioned assumption is very generalizing. And that’s not even factoring in any exceptions to the trend on either sides of the equation.
But what’s the problem here? What’s the issue that I’m taking the time to engage with in this blog post?
After seeing some of these less sensitive responses to my concerns, I realized that a lot of the problems I face as a low income student at Boston University are relatively unseen and unheard. And that’s largely a result of the shame our society has cultivated surrounding the topic of poverty. There’s also the fact that a lot of my struggles overlap with those associated with the stereotype of the #brokecollegestudent, causing many of the very real and very big difficulties I face to be likened to cheeky, “#sooooooorelatable” jokes. Those memes are funny and I’d be lying if I told you they didn’t amuse me in some capacity, but I am not the ramen noodles and cheap vodka broke college student you read about on BuzzFeed, Huffington Post, or HerCampus.
Of course, I’m not homeless either, and I’m very much aware of the privileges I have as someone who is able to receive a private education despite being of low income.
So, I decided to exercise these privileges and attempt to increase social awareness of my struggles and the struggles of similar individuals through the only platform I have-social media.
Now, this was not met without any… controversy.
For all the support I did receive while using the hashtag-likes, shares, comments of “same,” and “too real,” etc., I was also met with responses that followed a general trend of “this does not include X,” or “this excludes X group of people.”
And that gave me pause. As someone who tries to be an active ally for marginalized people, I stopped and wondered-“has this campaign turned into an example of more-harmful-than-helpful activism?” “Is this the class based version of white feminism?”
“Am I contributing to the problem?”
People told me that by using the phrase “private university,” within the tag, I was excluding those who faced similar problems at public universities. People also told me that some of the struggles I talked about were not specific or exclusive to being a person of low income. Although it took some thought and some reexamination of my work, I eventually was able to understand why people would have such responses to the campaign.
But, I wasn’t trying to suppress anybody’s voices on the issue, in fact, I had taken specific measure to ensure the opposite of that outcome.
The phrasing of the hashtag is very specific, referring to the experience of a specific community of individuals. And I’m therefore trying to speak to that experience, which I share in by virtue of being part of the community I’m talking about. I’m representing my truth as I’ve experienced it as a person of low income at a private university.
But what about students of low income at public universities? What about private university students who aren’t necessarily of low income but find themselves in similar situations? Don’t they have struggles that are valid and real and deserve the same visibility as low income students at private universities?
But those problems don’t exist within the same systems as the problems I face. And I have no experience with those systems, so it’s not my place to be speaking over those with voices who experience those problems within the context of those systems.
Anyone can create a valid response hashtag that adds to the conversation being had-Look at #BlackLivesMatter and #SayHerName.
Anyone can also create an invalid response hashtag that derails the conversation being had-Look at #BlackLivesMatter and #AllLivesMatter.
Am I being a bad ally if I’m not speaking for people who aren’t in my exact situation but share experiences with me?
No. I’m not.
I’ve recently come to define the term “ally,” according to a concept I encountered while reading an article by Andrew David Thaler as part of a unit on race and privilege for a dramatic literature class I took last semester.
“If you are a person of privilege who recognizes the reality of this imbalance and strives to make your community a more accessible and welcoming place to those who aren’t as privileged, you might identify yourself as an ally.
You are wrong.
Being an ally is not something you are, it’s something you do. “Ally” is not an identity, it is a set of behaviors that help acknowledge and promote underprivileged members of your community.”
Being inclusive by way of speaking about an experience that is not mine does not fit with this definition-because it requires me to speak over those actually experiencing life as someone who is marginalized in their specific way-with all of the intersections that accompany that. That’s not how I define “[promoting] underprivileged members of [my] community.” The experience I’m talking about and the experience someone else has that might not be included within my hashtag are different. I don’t mean this on a personal level, I mean this on a large-scale, systemic level. And to not acknowledge that nuance by blending the experiences would be erasure.
It’s also not active in any way. Here’s an active and legitimate act of allyship one could engage in to support students of low income (or really all income levels) at public universities without speaking for them or over them-voting for people who work in our political sector that support legislation that would make tuition at public universities free.
Now, I’m about to make use of a very strange metaphor to explain why I think it’s okay for similar struggles and experiences to overlap among members of different communities, without members of either community needing to speak over individuals in the other, so bear with me.
So, Beyoncé’s Formation (yassss kweeennn slayyy mama QUEEEEEEN BEEEEEEYYYYYY-Alright I’m good).
When it first dropped, there was serious debate about who the song’s audience was. At this point, many white listeners have accepted that it’s not for them, acknowledging that Beyoncé’s speaking about her experience as a black female. That doesn’t mean that white members of her audience can’t relate to certain parts of the song.
After all, thematic universality makes things more accessible to a wider audience.
Learning to love ones body isn’t just a black thing, in fact that’s something pretty much anyone can relate to. But through Beyoncé’s specificity of language, we can see that that is part of the story she’s trying to tell about her truth as a black woman.
My argument here is that I’m employing the same specificity. Though there can be and is overlap between my experience and my struggles as a student of low income at a private university and that of a student of low income at a public university or that of a student of a different income status at a private (or public) university, through the specificity of the hashtag one can see that that is part of the story I’m trying to tell about my truth as a low income student at a private university.
Of course, one could also say that in the pursuit of creating a viral or trending hashtag campaign, relatability and inclusivity should be paramount. But that was not the goal or intention for the hashtag.
As both my friend and I articulate in the post pictured above, the hashtag was created for the purpose of visibility-giving those with similar experiences whom we could reach through our social media a platform to speak about the problems we face. And it’s visibility we need-because they’re problems many of us don’t feel comfortable expressing because of the shame our society has connected to being poor.
We’ve gotta get rid of that shame and challenge the attitudes it breeds if we’re gonna make things any more equitable.
Further reading on #poorataprivateuniversity
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