We’ve all seen out-of-touch sales promotions. “Check out our study area.” “2 shirts for $130!” Gant, one of the most expensive storefronts in The Shops at Yale, embodies what most people who are unfamiliar with Yale students think of us. However, this image does not accurately represent who most of us truly are. So why was I, a first-generation college student and QuestBridge scholar, standing at the checkout counter?
“Treat yourself,” the voice inside my head whispered. I obeyed. It helped that the shirt was 70 percent off.
Walking home, wondering if I had made a wrong choice, I thought about what it might feel like to have the freedom to make these kinds of purchases all the time, without guilt. Getting into a school like Yale can almost look like an instant ticket out of poverty. Yale students are well-known for living comfortable middle-class lives after graduation. Nonetheless, a large number of students are unable to live this comfortable lifestyle now. No matter how much I “look the part” of the successful career man I see myself as in ten years, no number of Gant shirts can erase the financial hardships that my family faces at this very moment.
When you’re as far away from home as I am, it can be easy to distance yourself from issues back home. We don’t try to forget about what our loved ones might be going through at home, but, with so much going on here, we often lose sight of where we came from. The truth is, my single mother still lost her job four years ago and was unemployed for eight months, leaving us reliant on the generosity of family members and the kind souls at our church for basic necessities. In the four years since, we’ve gotten back on our feet, and my mother is thriving at her new job, but the hard blow brought by her long-term unemployment left scars that I sometimes fear may be permanent. She has enough to eat and can make her house and car payments easily, but, after all she’s sacrificed for me, I want her to be able to go get her nails done and not worry about fitting it into her budget. Sometimes I feel guilty for frivolously spending the income from my student job on Gant shirts or food from Junzi when I hardly have any bills of my own to speak of.
I combat this guilt by knowing that my future is most likely financially stable. Like many Yale students who pursue lucrative careers, I am in a position to become fairly well-off at some point after leaving college. But I cannot and will not forget my mother or anyone else back home who is, in some way, responsible for my matriculation at Yale. I cannot and will not forget the school system that shaped my mind, the same school system that is still reeling from a $10 million budget deficit. You cannot and should not forget the people and places that made you who you are. Use your newfound opportunities to improve the lives of people in your life who don’t have access to them. This new place in society comes with a duty, the duty to give back.
So if this winter, you’ve found your head inside a fur-lined hood, pull it down for a moment. Pull it down and look back on your humble beginnings, the ones you’ve left back at home to pursue your dreams. Don’t feel guilty for using your hard-earned money to purchase an expensive winter coat, but I hope that, when you put it on, you’ll remember your mother who went without lunch for weeks so that she could afford to buy that pair of snow boots for you fifteen years ago. Infiltrate the ranks of those in power, and then use your unique perspective to create positive change today. Maybe corporate law could help to alleviate some of my family’s financial struggles, but it may not help with broader issues concerning unemployment. Perhaps instead of striving for a career in management consulting, consider a career in education reform. According to an article by Eduardo Porter in The New York Times, the achievement gap between rich and poor children is wider than ever. It’s clear that, when upwardly mobile students at places like Yale often think about their own legacies and resources at the expense of others, it only becomes more difficult for a person like me to come to a place like Yale. The possibility of having money after graduation doesn’t really do much for a broken hometown that needs you to fight for them right now. They’re counting on you. Don’t let them down.
Casey Ramsey is a sophomore in Pauli Murray College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .