Although Yale’s campus now is familiar to me, moving in still is disorienting. Surrounded by well-kept lawns and high-ceilinged dining halls, Longchamp bags and Apple laptops, I’m constantly reminded of the separation between this economic privilege and the home I’ve left behind. For many low-income students like me, returning to Yale presents the difficult navigation of class cues and wealth barriers.
Part of this is the institution. Yale professors often assume that students can afford expensive materials or small extras — it’s almost a cliché at this point, but $10 for you is not the same for me. The student income contribution, while a nonissue for some, burdens others with the additional concern of working to pay bills. Meanwhile, the Admissions Office annually selects a class that comes overwhelmingly from the top income quintile of America.
That being said, wealthy students themselves play a role in subtly reinforcing social barriers, either unaware or unwilling to recognize what they’ve inherited. In a place where the top 1 percent is dramatically overrepresented, Yalies in the top 10 percent become comfortably “middle-class,” mistakenly normalizing vacation homes and international travel at Yale.
That convenient amnesia is especially troubling at a time when those born upper-class Americans enjoy a remarkable safety net, only to perpetuate a cycle of self-segregation and solidifying of inequality later on in life. Compared to issues like race and gender, we’re much less likely to talk about the role that money has in shaping our worldview or to acknowledge the ways that the decisions and judgments we make on a daily basis are intricately tied to class.
The inability to acknowledge or speak openly about affluence directly contributes to a campus culture that creates obvious divides. Social situations come with a price tag — do you want to grab a $5 Blue State coffee or Venmo someone for a party? Can you afford to eat out for dinner as much as your friends? People speak with a cultural capital I’ve never acquired — whether that be the vocabulary of the traditional old boys’ club or the social currency of “woke” activist jargon often foreign to the very communities for which Yalies “advocate.” For low-income people of color, even cultural groups can feel unwelcome due to social indications of class.
This manifests concretely in students who move in alone next to families who accompany their child the first week, students who scrounge around to afford meals on campus during breaks while seeing their classmates’ Instagram pictures of a Caribbean beach. It looks like students wastefully throwing out furniture and textbooks at the end of the year, next to those who couldn’t buy them in the first place. As much as we make fun of them, Patagonia quarter zips and Canada Goose jackets I can’t afford still mark the transition between fall and winter.
More importantly, however, denial about being wealthy allows students to escape difficult questions about their place in increasing income inequality, their responsibility to society and to future kids like their low-income classmates. It’s true that many Yalies from affluent backgrounds probably gained their place here through stellar grades and shining extracurriculars. It’s likely also true that their affluent backgrounds made those grades and extracurriculars a possibility. When rich students paint themselves an illusion of middle-class meritocracy, they forget about the odds that were stacked overwhelmingly in their favor.
More than once, I’ve wondered about the extent to which my Yale experience is completely divorced from those of people born into resources, institutions and networks. Even if we occupy the same physical space on this campus, the opportunities we’ve had and the social circles we run in have been different — and still, to some extent, are. When I came here, it was with a clear understanding that I was studying not just for me, but for my family. It’s an understanding that has animated my drive to do well here and will ultimately shape my career decisions. It’s the daily reality that we do not have a safety net.
However, many, many students do. While poor students can’t afford to take that unpaid summer internship, wealthier students can. With increased wealth comes a freedom of choice and flexibility with regard to your aspirations, a greater margin to make mistakes and space to take risks and pursue your passions. This status carries with it a responsibility to use wealth and freedom wisely — ranging from current consumption decisions to future ones, what and whom to advocate for, and how to do so. Whom do you exclude from your networks? What status symbols do you perpetuate? Poor students climbing the ladder cannot create social mobility alone.
So to my wealthier classmates: Use this time to step outside your class comfort zone. Interrogate your actions, and truly understand your wealth, your status and your place amid tangibly increasing inequality. We can’t afford not to.
Liana Wang is a sophomore in Davenport College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .