As someone from a low-income family, I knew that my desire to achieve higher education would be challenging. To overcome my family’s poverty, I knew I would have to work not only in high school, where I worked 25 hours a week at my local movie theater, but also in college, where I expected to do the same. I would go to school for most of the day, work most of the night and repeat the process. That would be my life, and at the end of it, I could say that I had worked my way through college. I could fulfill the American Dream — with hard work, I could accomplish anything.
Speaking with other people I had known who had gone to college in my home state of Texas, their entire life involved going to their part-time job and maybe — if they had time — going to class. But when I got to Yale, I found that the university cultivates an environment where there is an unspoken expectation to involve yourself in extracurricular activities as if they were your campus job. This expectation — coupled with Yale’s student income contribution — reflects a class-based contradiction: Students expected to work on campus do not have time to dedicate to extensive extracurriculars.
When I got into Yale, I noted that my financial aid package had a student income contribution. At first, I thought that a $1,600-per-semester contribution seemed like nothing when compared to paying Yale’s full tuition, which I had been graciously told I was too poor to afford. After imagining college loan horror stories, $1,600 felt like I was getting off easy.
It took about a week of being at Yale in my first year to realize the effect that the student income contribution would have on my time here. I had come from a place where no one went to college. Now, I found myself surrounded by people wanting more: more involvement, more extracurriculars, more impact beyond just getting a degree. I had assumed that the whole challenge was getting into Yale — that once I was in, I just had to keep my head down, keep my grades up and work. And that would have been my experience if I had gone to any school that wasn’t Yale.
But Yale is different. Yale encourages its students to pursue our passions. We are encouraged to get involved in activities outside of class and to devote our time, energy and excellence to these causes. Yale is an environment that constantly shows me, constantly expects me, to put other things before having a paying job. And yet, my student income contribution demands that I work 19 hours per week — how can I have time to do both?
It’s a very common conversation at Yale for someone, when they first meet you, to ask your name, your major and what student groups you’re involved in. It’s a way people connect with each other — and it’s a way that I, and every other student affected by the student income contribution, is excluded from Yale culture.
Every time a fellow student asks me this question, I awkwardly smile and respond with the one organization I have time for outside of my nearly 20 hours of work and my 5.5 credit course load. Understandably, the student counters, “Oh what else?” I respond again with one of those same smiles. I am uncomfortable because I have nothing else to share. Usually, I say, “Oh, I work,” and smile again. I do not explain that I work in the dining hall because it is one of the best paying jobs on campus, that I have a second — and at times, a third and fourth — job, so I can get the hours I need to make the money I need. Instead, I stay silent.
The student income contribution embodies this unspoken understanding that students on financial aid are not given an equal opportunity to take advantage of Yale’s rich and diverse nonacademic offerings, even as we are expected, like the rest of Yale’s students, to do so. The contribution is a reminder that we are here, surrounded by opportunity, but still prevented by our socioeconomic background from taking part in it. We are asked about our extracurriculars and then left to smile that knowing smile and act like the question doesn’t bother us.
But the question does bother us, as it should. Anytime someone asks me about my extracurriculars, I am reminded that I must put money instead of my passions first.
As a low-income student with no familial financial support, I must work multiple jobs on campus to have money. I do not have time to be involved, to explore my interests or express my talents or passions. I choose what pays.
LYDIA BURLESON is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .