In his first address to Yale first years as president, University President Peter Salovey spoke movingly of the upward mobility that his family has enjoyed thanks to American higher education. His father was born to working-class immigrants in New York. Growing up, he was encouraged by his immigrant parents to study and work hard, and he was able to attend City College, then Harvard for a doctorate. “All of this education — all of it! — was without financial cost to my father’s family,” noted President Salovey.
I was told Yale would be the same way for me. Like President Salovey’s father, I’m the child of immigrants who taught me to work hard. My mother is a scrub nurse in a hospital and is the sole earner in my family — my dad’s body can’t take working anymore after years of restaurant jobs. So when I applied to college, my mom pushed me to apply to Yale. She knew I’d get the best financial aid at institutions like this one. (The days of free public college like the one President Salovey’s dad enjoyed are, of course, long gone.) Yale even waived the application fee — that seemed like a good sign.
But Yale is not the financial open door it presents itself as to students. I work three jobs here right now; at other times, I’ve worked up to four. This is because of Yale’s policies.
Although I’m on full financial aid, like many students from working- and middle-class backgrounds here, I have to pay the Student Income Contribution. It’s thousands of dollars each year, and it’s only expected of those of us on financial aid — it’s supposed to be our skin in the game. Yale, in other words, isn’t actually like the City College that President Salovey’s father attended; At that institution, fees were nominal to nonexistent, low enough that you could easily work them off if you had to pay them at all. The SIC, though, is a different story: It’s a story of how social inequality isn’t just something happening out there, in New Haven or all of America. It’s happening inside Yale’s walls. Yale has designed a fee to single out the people who couldn’t be here without the University’s generosity, to make sure we know who we are.
When I got to Yale, I didn’t have any income at all. Buying textbooks was a huge source of stress because I had a little money in my bank account and no way of replenishing it. Sometimes my friends would go out to eat or on a trip and I couldn’t join them.
I started doing data entry work at the Peabody Museum in my first spring at Yale and kept at that for a year. But then the SIC went up and I realized I had years more of these fees to pay. So I started getting more jobs. I’m a peer liaison at the LGBTQ Center, which I also work to staff. I have a job in a lab, thanks to a science professor who advocated for me. And I work at the sustainability office, where — more or less — I sort through trash.
There’s a cap on how many hours I’m allowed to work, and I stress a lot about it. I need the money, so I want to work as many hours as I can. But it takes a toll on my ability to be a regular Yale student. I’ve had to scale back my involvement in the LGBTQ Co-Op, Trans at Yale, Broad Recognition and immigration activism. Because it’s people from historically marginalized communities who are likelier to be on financial aid and thus responsible for the SIC, the policy has the effect of weakening community at Yale for those of us who need it most. In addition to extracurricular commitments, many people on financial aid need to be spending our money and time supporting financially precarious loved ones.
It also makes it hard to be the kind of student I want to be; sometimes I feel like I don’t even go to Yale. I can never go to office hours because I’m working during the day, which means I miss out on faculty support that I really need as an engineering major. I’ve noticed that, while I’m busy enough that I occasionally sleep through a class or miss an assignment, I’m always on time for work shifts. Because I’m tired, it takes me longer to get my work done, I stay up late finishing it, and the cycle repeats.
With the SIC, Yale is betraying the spirit that President Salovey hailed in his speech — the possibility of upward mobility through higher education. The fee is a roadblock in my path. I’ll work and I’ll get past it, but I want to pull it down for those coming after me.
Lane To is a junior in Pauli Murray College. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org .