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The Struggle of the Poor College Student

Image from Original Article (Credit: Joanna Neborsky)

This is the first in a series of posts hoping to clear out a bunch of interesting articles that I’ve read lately but haven’t had time to blog about here. Today’s post is based on a September article by Vicki Madden in the NY Times about poor students. For me, it came at a good time: the first month of the semester. Still, this piece is a good reminder in the busyness of the middle of the semester as well. Here at Messiah College, we are about to think about Spring semester registration, and issues of retention are always front and center. The post from the NY Times talks about the culture clash that exists for our poor students. They are capable of surviving the academic rigor of college, and even graduate school in some cases, but to do this is in some ways to turn their back on the culture or their home and family. While the piece is not directly about race, the correlation between race and poverty in America certainly makes that an underlying part of the whole discussion of socio-economic status in the United States. Here is a taste of the piece (but you should check out the whole think at the link above):

Urban students face different slights but ones with a more dangerous edge. One former student was told by multiple people in his small Pennsylvania college town not to wear a hoodie at night, because it made him look “sketchy.” Standing out like that — being himself — could put him at risk.

To stay four years and graduate, students have to come to terms with the unspoken transaction: exchanging your old world for a new world, one that doesn’t seem to value where you came from. The transition is not just about getting a degree and making more money. If that was all socioeconomics signified, it would not be such a strong predictor of everything from SAT scores and parenting practices to health and longevity.

In college, I read Richard Rodriguez’s memoir, “Hunger of Memory,” in which he depicts his alienation from his family because of his education, painting a picture of the scholarship boy returned home to face his parents and finding only silence. Being young, I didn’t understand, believing myself immune to the idea that any gain might entail a corresponding loss. I was keen to exchange my Western hardscrabble life for the chance to be a New York City middle-class museumgoer. I’ve paid a price in estrangement from my own people, but I was willing. Not every 18-year-old will make that same choice, especially when race is factored in as well as class.

As the income gap widens and hardens, changing class means a bigger difference between where you came from and where you are going. Teachers like me can help prepare students academically for college work. College counselors can help with the choices, the federal financial aid application and all the bureaucratic details. But how can we help our students prepare for the tug of war in their souls?

I take this as a serious challenge as a faculty member at a small, private, Christian liberal-arts college. We are mostly white, and surrounded by an even more white, middle-class dominated area. We are about 10 miles from the city of Harrisburg, but the Susquehanna River which separates the “West Shore” suburbs from the city on the “East Shore” insulates us from the connection to the communities in which poor students from Urban contexts might feel more at home. Poor white students can feel the isolation from their middle-class and above white classmates given the difference in access to style and technology, just to name two obvious examples. Poor students of color face an even more obvious disconnect from the majority of the student body. If they also face family and friends at home accusing them of turning their back on their heritage and roots, life gets so much harder.

How can we help? There are no easy answers. Certainly, those of us working in this world need to be aware of the situation. While we cannot ask students about their background and income, etc., we can be aware of our students. We need to be looking for those who look disconnected from their classmates. Those who seem reticent to talk to other students are likely to be wary about approaching us as well. We must be proactive and reach out to such students to bridge the gap and support them. We must also ensure that we don’t make the problem worse by the way we speak. Offering encouraging words of support in their struggle can help, but not if done in ways that reinforce the separation they already feel so acutely.

Otherwise, I admit that I need help. While my immediate family was never very wealthy (my dad is a pastor), we were educated. Both of my parents have college degrees, and I have an aunt with a PhD. College was always expected, and I never felt any of this pull from my own family of origin. This leaves me in need of advice and in a position to learn from those like Ms. Madden who have felt this pull and can shed light on this for me. I need to come to this with humility and admit how little I know. I cannot come in and deny the experience of the poor students in my classes, or act as if I am going to “save” them from this struggle by my intervention. Still, I can listen, learn, and support them.

Do you have any experience personally, or with friends or students that you’d like to share? Feel free to comment below!

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