I’m not shy about being a first-generation, low-income college student. I will tell anyone who asks that I couldn’t go to Yale if it weren’t for an incredibly generous full ride I receive as a QuestBridge Match Scholar. And, confusingly for some, I also really love to eat out and buy nice clothes for myself.
I work around 32 hours per week and 19 of those in my paid on-campus job. I’ve earned everything I have, so regardless of what I might look like, I can and do still consider myself a member of the first-generation, low-income community because I share the experiences that define our community. However, occasionally in both first-generation, low-income spaces and the general Yale community, I’ve felt ostracized because I’ve outwardly let go of the limitations I once put on myself because of my background.
Being here bestowed on me an empowering new level of confidence; I don’t feel that my background holds me back at all, and I try to let that show. Not many people have been openly hostile toward me, but I’ve been subjected to passive-aggression from people who think I don’t “act poor” enough, and plenty of people have asked me incredulously, “Wait, YOU’RE QuestBridge?” I’ve even had people speculate that I’m not truly low-income and that I lied about my family’s financial status on my Free Application for Federal Student Aid and College Scholarship Service Profile, a reprehensible action that I would have never even considered. Those accusations discredit my experiences as a small-town kid from Georgia who had to find my own resources to be able to apply to college at all, let alone Ivy League schools. The way I present myself has nothing to do with the fact that I’m the first person in my family to go to a four-year institution.
On the other end of the spectrum, many of my first-generation, low-income friends and colleagues seem to wear their status more like a weight around their neck than a badge of honor. I occasionally hear friends talk about how they don’t feel as qualified to be here among the super wealthy or how they don’t feel that they fit in with the greater Yale community. But why? None of us would have made it past admissions if we were not the best of the best. Sure, maybe you didn’t have as many resources coming into college as other people did, but now — and even more-so after graduation — the playing field is much more level. You can apply to the same internships as everyone else (and get them!). You can do amazing research and win awards! Let your unique experiences shape you, but don’t put yourself in a box because you think that only first-generation, low-income students will accept you. If you didn’t tell people about your past (not that you should ever hide it), nine times out of 10, no one would be able to guess who you were before you got here.
And so, my fellow first-generation, low-income students, we are not destined to become products of the disadvantaged environments we came from. We can choose to take advantage of the opportunities here to make it out of generational poverty and run forward into our new lives with zeal. As evidenced by a post on Overheard at Yale from a few days ago, there are more than just a few first-generation, low-income students at Yale, but most people wouldn’t know it, because the majority of us don’t lower our self-esteem to try to fit a certain narrative of what low-income student “look” like. We can’t become better without trying to overcome our pasts. Don’t forget where you came from, but by virtue of going to this institution you are not that helpless person anymore. As much as you might not want to, you must accept the fact that you are no longer on the outside and are now a member of the “privileged,” at least in one area. As first-generation, low-income students on financial aid, we have free or nearly free room and board. We have opportunities not many from our backgrounds have. We wouldn’t have gotten in if we weren’t just as smart and capable as everyone else. We are privileged to be here. I am privileged to be here, and I’m going to embrace it. You can choose to dwell on the past and try to cling to who you used to be, but I’m not the poor kid I was two years ago, and I choose to look only to the future and act like I’m already in it. I hope you’ll join me.
Casey Ramsey is a junior in Pauli Murray College. Contact him at email@example.com.