Culture Clash: On Being a Poor Kid at an Expensive College

When I filed my student aid application, we got audited because they didn’t believe it was possible for people to survive on so little money.
Publish date:
January 19, 2012
college, poor, wealth

One of the most shocking cultural adjustments for me when I went to college wasn’t the age difference or being far away from home.

It was the wealth gap.

I grew up poor. This is a term that can be nebulous in the United States, so let me clarify: I remember when we got electricity at our house. And I am not talking about our house in Greece. My father and I lived in an uninsulated tin building that used to be a garage until I left for college1. When I filed my student aid application, we got audited because they didn’t believe it was possible for people to survive on so little money.

My father, incidentally, was a college professor for much of my childhood2.

Mendocino is a district with a mix of children from quite wealthy backgrounds, middle class ones, and very poor ones – I was not the poorest child in school growing up and I was well aware of it. My father managed to keep food on the table and I got the medical care I needed, even if I couldn’t afford the school trips to Europe my friends took, only owned one pair of shoes, and used a Commodore 64 a friend gave my father until I got to high school.

Bennington, though, is a very expensive college. When I went, I believe it was among the top five most expensive colleges in the United States. I had, needless to say, a very large scholarship; I think someone in the financial aid office went “oooh, a poor person, how exciting!” and then proceeded to shower me with money. I’m a little hazy on the circumstances.

I arrived on campus with a backpack full of clothes, some sheets wedged into the top, and my battered, precious laptop that I had scrimped and saved for. There was nothing else. On move-in day, I watched people fill their rooms with refrigerators and technology and piles and piles of things and my roommate sighed with relief when I said no, I didn’t have anything to put in the closet, sure, she could use the whole thing if she wanted to. I filled one drawer in my dresser.

Being among wealthy people, extremely wealthy people, can create a profound sense of culture clash. I wasn’t the only poor person on campus, and there were a few middle class people as well, but many of the people I associated with had multiple names ending in “the Third” or “the Fifth.” They had access to private planes and in some cases were pilots. They had summer houses and grew up wrapped in wealth and the privileges it brings.

They had large and extensive wardrobes. They owned lots of nice things. They thought nothing of dropping substantial sums of money, sums that seemed boggling to me, on basically nothing. Meanwhile, I wore shabby, tattered garments and shuffled around in my Doc Martens, an investment I made shortly before college when I was tired of my cheap shoes falling apart at inopportune moments. The woman at the shoe store gave me a discount for a nonexistent scuff. That was the kind of poor I was.

Thrusting someone from a very poor background into a school filled with very rich people can have interesting effects. The thing about being poor, as Brittany recently mentioned, is that it is something that lingers with you.

You never shake it off, even when you are, as I am now, comparably comfortable; I still live in constant fear that there will never be enough money, I still hoard things, I continue to be shocked and appalled by the fact that I have a shoe collection. Or that I buy cashmere sweaters. These are things that I associate with rich people, not with my childhood. I don’t think of myself as a rich person, and I’m not. But I’m not poor anymore either.

At Bennington, I was still poor, and kind of reeling from it all. I used to joke with an old friend from Mendo when we hiked up to the financial office – he was there to pay his tuition. In cash. I was there to pick up my financial aid disbursement check. It was the little things like that that reminded me I was different than the people around me.

I was never made to feel unwelcome, precisely, but it was also clear that I didn’t quite belong. I didn’t have the mannerisms, the tics, the ability to fit in to that environment. I stood out with my crudeness, my bluntness, my clumsiness, my gawking at price tags. Sometimes I felt like a total outsider in this world I realized I could never penetrate.

Oddly, though, my time at Bennington was also marked by strange acts of loving kindness from wealthy students. One, whose name I still remember after all these years but I won’t write here because I would flush hot pink if he Googled himself and found this, somehow fell into acquaintance with me and made me lovely handmade truffles for Christmas. He accompanied me to student health once when things were Not Going Well, and made absolutely no fuss about it at all. His kindness lingers with me all these years.

It was strange, to think that this flock of people I largely knew as cold, terrifying aliens could occasionally muster great gentleness and sensitivity. Some people might call that breeding or old money or any number of other things. I call it humanity, and a reminder that the faceless “rich” were much more multi-faceted than I’d realized.

1. We called it The Tin Palace. Return

2. Absurdly, people always assumed we had a lot of money because of my father’s job. And I was all like, “seriously?! You know nothing about higher education, apparently.” Return