My unspoken debt

Addressing the stigma of financing and belonging at a private college


I was supposed to write this article three weeks ago. But every time I sat down to write it, I would be enveloped by intense fear. I am a pretty open book; in the first five minutes of meeting me, I’ll probably already tell you that I’m gay, I am way too excited over any animal, I get anxious if I don’t know somebody’s name and I’m really damn passionate about education. But there is a part of me that I have kept hidden since I stepped foot on this campus. I am a low-income student and the odds were against me going to college. My parents separated my freshman year of high school and my mother was the only financial support for me and my brother for the past five years. She raised us and supported us on her own.

I remember the moment my mom told me. I was sitting at our kitchen table the summer before senior year, planning my first college visit. She came over and sighed and, refusing to look me in the eye, told me that she did not want me to get my hopes up, so I shouldn’t apply to college. Community college was the best we could do.

I shook my head and sobbed and begged her to let me try. I spent hours every day applying to scholarships and emailing schools and writing essays and filling out FAFSA.

When I got enough financial aid to go to Muhlenberg, I was naive enough to think that that was it, that I would go to college and my low-income status would stay at home. As the girls on my floor got Brandy Melville packages and talked about their summer homes, I realized there were not many of me, or at least not many that talked about it.

I would bike to babysitting gigs and dog-walking jobs. People would ask, how did you find them? And I’d shrug and smile because I didn’t want to say the truth; I didn’t want anyone to know that I put flyers in mailboxes and asked local families so I could have money to pay for books, clothes and to go out with friends.

I became comfortable conveniently not mentioning my situation, until it got to the point where even my closest friends didn’t know.

But the secret slowly suffocated me. The amount of side gigs I did started to get people wondering and other things slipped too. I remember one day last year, I told a friend I was going to get a haircut at the Mastercuts in the mall. She laughed in my face and said with exaggeration, “The mall? You’re gonna get a haircut at the mall? Ha! Go to a salon.” She meant well but her comment hit me like a bullet. I couldn’t afford anything more than the $23 ‘Wash, Cut and Dry’ Special and I wanted so badly to tell her, but I swallowed my shame and stayed silent.

As the year went on, I realized I could not spend my college career with my low-income status as the man behind the curtain that no one saw. I slowly started telling my friends and even became open with professors, and I started to find others. Friends shared that they too were juggling jobs or paying their own tuition checks, here on financial aid and still struggling. The more I talked to others, the more the stigma of low-income status at Muhlenberg and so many other college campuses became apparent.

A female student who wishes to remain anonymous shared, “As I was applying to college I was not sure exactly what to do, while my friends were visiting 20 or 30 colleges across the northeast. I visited about five colleges and two of them, I only visited the week that my decision had to be made. I wanted to apply to some colleges and couldn’t because they required SAT subject tests that I couldn’t afford to take.”

“Now that I am in college it is very difficult because I work two jobs, one campus and one off campus, while trying to maintain good grades, a social life and participate in clubs and other activities. Also, despite working these jobs, it doesn’t even begin to cover the costs of college. When I graduate from Muhlenberg, I will be at least $100,000 in debt. Instead, this money allows me to buy clothing and go to the movies with my friends.”

Deep in the American dream myth, the belief that education is the entry for socioeconomic mobility echoes. In spite of this, colleges now are more divided by wealth than ever.

As the student continues, “Most of the students here do not have to make decisions about post-grad based off of money; instead people can make their decisions based off of what they want to do. Sometimes I lay in bed at night and feel like I might throw up because of how much money I owe.”

When low-income students begin their college career, they often struggle to finish for many reasons, but social isolation and alienation can be big factors. The pressure to succeed on the first try feels like a monster under the bed, whispering to you that you don’t get a second chance, you better get this right.

“At the end of the day, it is just hard because I fear that if I do not do well, I will not be able to afford life after graduation. Honestly, that is the scariest thing for me.”

Although social isolation and alienation are usually the two main obstacles, they are stemmed from the subtler things; the statements of “who they are and where they come from,” that challenge the very identity, comfort and right to be here.

If you are a low-income student reading this, I want you to know something: there will be times throughout your years here where you feel like you do not belong. You do.


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