Javier Suárez

Today, I came across a Boston Globe article from almost a year ago that highlighted the challenges many low-income students at Ivy League colleges face. The article’s title emphasized the students’ economic status: “What is it like to be poor at an Ivy League school?” But after reading it a few times, and after exchanging ideas on social media with a few people, I realized why the article was misleading readers into feeling sorry for these students.

“Once on campus, students report feelings of loneliness, alienation, and plummeting self-confidence,” reads the article. Guess what, Ivy Leaguers? This is not new. This lack of self-confidence has been part of the low-income, first-generation college experience for generations—especially for students of color.

Since Ivy League colleges began “zero family contribution” programs—programs that give full scholarships at Princeton, Yale, Harvard, and other elite colleges for incoming students whose families make under $65,000—first-generation struggle has gotten more attention.

I read in the article about a student who opted for a single dorm room her freshman year to avoid uncomfortable living quarters with someone from a privileged background and thought, “She’s ostracizing herself in some comfortable accommodations.” These students cannot separate themselves intentionally and then complain about not being included.

What’s really happening for most of these students is that this is the first time they confront the uncomfortable fear that accompanies a reality where one is not at the top of the class, not the one everyone admires, not the one everyone believes. As more and more high-achieving, low-income students (mostly of color) enter the upper echelons of academia, these students learn what fewer of us learned when we started college: not everyone is going to think we’re extraordinary.

What no lonely Ivy Leaguer mentioned in the article is academic struggling. No one mentioned academic failure. In fact, the article mentions that “at Harvard and Yale, ninety-eight percent of students from minority groups underrepresented in college will graduate with a four-year degree within six years; at Brown, it’s ninety-one percent.”

So the students’ struggle is not intellectual—they got into these schools. The struggle is social; it’s emotional.

Maybe high schools are to blame. Perhaps we praise our extraordinary students too much. Perhaps, as one former student told me, we tell them what they do right but we don’t tell them enough what they do wrong. So when they get to college campus, when they get a C, when someone says their ideas are ill founded, they’re shocked. These students need to remember that they’ve gained admission into an elite college—and into the real world.

I don’t have sympathy for the students in the article who feel ostracized because she had “peers who talked about buying $200 shirts or planning exotic spring break vacations.”

I understand that “having grant money for tuition and fees and holding down jobs…doesn’t translate to having the pocket money to keep up with free-spending peers,” as the article also states. But guess what? This never equaled up for any low-income, first-generation college student. And some of these students seem to want the privileged reality of not working.

I do admire the Ivy League students who advocated so they did not have to pick up free tickets to school events in a separate line, for example. They should fight against carrying the label of “the low-income kid.” But wallowing in the isolation, the guilt, and the self-doubt might only contribute to this label.

I didn’t go to an Ivy League school, and people will discredit my opinion because I don’t know their reality. When I was fifteen, I wanted to go to Princeton. But I didn’t know how. When I was seventeen, I had the application to the University of Chicago in my hand. The essay topic that year was something like, “Tell us about your neighborhood.” I still envision what I could have written. But I had no mentors. Out of my entire graduating class of over two hundred students at a neighborhood high school, I earned admission to DePaul in 1990—still one of my proudest achievements.

So I do know what it’s like to be one of the only brown faces on campus, or the only brown face in a philosophy class. I do know what it feels like to feel lost. I do know what it’s like to pay my own tuition (and the mortgage, and the light bill, and the gas bill) and not have money for books. I do know what it’s like to work thirteen hours a week and go to school full time. I know what it’s like to want help but not know how or whom to ask.

The struggle of the students at elite colleges reminds me of a conversation with my mentor, a Latino in his fifties who earned his PhD at UofC. He told me that many Latinos reaching for self-transformation struggle so much, fear the unknown so intensely, that when we reach the threshold of becoming who we aim to be, we freak out and revert to self-preservation. This is what I think happens to so many brilliant young people who earn coveted spots at top universities.

Sadly, I see this fear in the eyes of my most promising students when I give them a compliment about their writing. They look at me and don’t know what to say or do.

To break up the awkward silence, I tell them. “You need to accept your intellectual ability.” Then I walk away. When their paragraphs do not work, however, I make sure to tell them exactly why the writing fails. “I’ll never belittle you,” I tell them. “But I won’t BS you either.”
I hope comments like this help them do what one of my brilliant former students Evelyn Hernandez—who attended Parsons School of Design—says we must do: “Redirect that lucha energy into persevering in a new kind of social adversity, beyond the monetary one we’re accustomed to expect.”

By following Evelyn’s advice, I hope these Ivy League students realize soon what so many of us wish we would have learned earlier in life: sometimes our biggest obstacles are the ones we create for ourselves.

This column was first published on Ray’s blog, The White Rhino (www.chicagonow.com/white-rhino/) on March 1.

Since 1995, Ray Salazar has been an English teacher in Chicago Public Schools and is a National Board Certified teacher. He started writing The White Rhino about education and Latino issues in 2011. Ray lives on the Southwest Side. Follow him on Twitter @WhiteRhinoRay

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