Before I came to Northwestern, not once in my life did I feel like my family didn’t have enough money.
To be sure, there have been times in my family’s history when we didn’t. Immigration–especially moving between countries and continents four times in seven years like we did–does deplete one’s financial reserves. For the first few years of my life, I shared a bedroom with my brother, who is nine years older than me. I didn’t have a bed until we rented out our first single-family house when I was nine years old. Up until then, I’d slept on a mattress.
Even now, I prefer sleeping close to the floor.
But things got rapidly better after that. We bought our first house. We bought cars. We bought kitchen appliances, leather sofas, an exercise machine, a piano. We bought a futon for my older brother to use when he comes to visit. We bought nice jewelry for my mom and for me. We bought laptops, iPhones, Kindles.
We bought things that we wanted rather than needed, because they made life more comfortable and more fun.
Even through all of this, though, we were thrifty. The afghan rugs on our floors have been it the family for years. We recycle clothes and hand them down, and readily accept hand-me-downs from others. My mom and I shop mostly at T.J. Maxx, that lifesaving discount store that sells everything from perfume to purses to pots and pans. To put me through college, my parents used their own retirement savings rather than taking out new loans. The assumption was that a Northwestern education will one day provide me with enough income to finance my own parents’ retirement, in return for their having financed my education.
In our suburb in Ohio, almost everyone is middle-class. Some of my friends had a bit more money and some had a bit less, but there were rarely huge differences. All of us went on family road trips for vacation rather than flying to other countries. None of us wore designer clothes, because even if we could afford it, there aren’t any Prada or Gucci stores in Beavercreek, Ohio. There isn’t even an H&M.
The most my girlfriends or I would ever pay for a pair of jeans was $30.
Then I came to Northwestern. My freshman year roommate unpacked and took out a laundry hamper that looked like an authentic rice bag that one might buy at an Asian market. I asked her about it, assuming she’d brought it from her native Korea.
“Oh, this? It’s only $30 at Urban Outfitters. You should get one!”
I wasn’t getting a $30 hamper for my dirty underwear. I used a $2 mesh one I’d bought at Target. Up until that day, I didn’t realize anybody would do otherwise.
During the fall of my freshman year, there was a tiny protest in which some students help up signs to bring awareness to the plight of lower-income students at Northwestern. “I didn’t get into any of my top 3 sororities,” one said. “I can’t afford a North Face,” said another.
North Face is a brand of outerwear that I’d never even heard of before I came to Northwestern. Its logo is more pervasive on our campus than Northwestern’s own. At North Face, a knee-length down coat–the sort you really need in Chicago–costs $300. My own down coat cost about $70 at T.J. Maxx.
So I couldn’t afford North Face, either.
Was I poor?
Money–and the spending of it–pervade campus culture so thoroughly that nobody notices it. Within weeks of arriving on campus, I was expected to shell out for $20 club t-shirts, $20 restaurant dinners, to say nothing of $200 textbooks. While many students, including me, have a part-time job, many do not. I met many students who had been offered a work-study allowance as part of their financial aid package but chose not to use it.
These days, I usually have two jobs at a time and use the earnings to help pay my rent, which is twice my monthly income. I can’t save very much.
Financial aid doesn’t help much. Every year my dad sends them a personal letter explaining that we have aging grandparents oversees, two small children whose childcare must be paid for, that my mom lost her job last year (she has since found a new one), that we’re still paying off a mortgage, that my family’s retirement savings are being depleted, what have you.
Sometimes they sigh and toss us an extra thousand bucks.
Last year I decided to become an RA (or CA, as they call it at Northwestern). It would be good for my resume, it would be something I’d enjoy doing, and it would help me pay for school.
Or so I thought.
Once I was accepted as a CA and received my new financial aid statement to reflect my free room and board, I noticed something odd–I no longer had a work-study allowance, and my scholarship had decreased substantially. My family would be paying the exact same amount they had been paying before.
I asked the financial aid office what had happened. “Well,” they said, “since you no longer have to pay room and board, we decreased your aid so that your expected family contribution stays the same, because that’s what you’re able to afford according to our calculations.”
“But we can’t really afford that,” I said.
“Well, that’s your expected contribution.”
They told me that they were forced to keep my expected contribution the same due to “federal law.”
I asked my new supervisors in University Residential Life for help. They told me that, as a CA, I was only allowed 10 hours of non-academic time commitments per week, so if I wanted to continue working part-time, that would have to come out of those hours. “We’re willing to work with you to help you find a non-work study job,” they said, since I no longer had a work-study allowance and most campus jobs were work-study only.
I talked to a student who’d been a CA for several years. “Well,” he said, “I guess it doesn’t really make much sense for students on financial aid to become CAs.”
I did it anyway because I didn’t want money to hold me back from a valuable experience. But I always remembered the lesson I’d learned: Northwestern wasn’t going to expend any extra effort for its “students on financial aid,” like me.
I soon learned to dread being asked what I was doing for the upcoming break. Save for one memorable spring break when I’d asked my parents for a roundtrip ticket to New York City as a birthday present, I always do essentially the same thing: I go home to Ohio to babysit my siblings, making some much-needed extra money while making sure that they feel like I’m still part of their lives.
I like going home and babysitting. I miss my home a lot most of the time, and even though I have few people to see there aside from my family, I still feel the need to return regularly.
What I don’t like, though, is being obliged to ask the question in return: “And you?”
And they, usually, have capital-P Plans for their breaks. They go to Florida, California, or Las Vegas. They go to Spain, England, China, Argentina.
I had never felt this wanting before. I had always assumed that traveling to other countries was something people did once they finished their education and got jobs. I felt content with my break plans until I had to hear about those of my classmates.
Aside from traveling abroad on breaks, Northwestern students also love to study abroad. I would’ve loved to do it too, but I chose not to due to various financial and personal concerns. Yet, I often encounter students exhorting self-righteously how “everyone” should experience study abroad because it “changes your life” and “gives you perspective.”
Well, maybe it does. But everyone can’t do study abroad, because everyone can’t afford it. (Don’t talk to me about “financial aid”–I’ve already seen how that works as I attempt to finance my Northwestern education). So the rest of us will just have to get by without that particular life-changing source of perspective.
Although I felt envy and–at times, when confronted with $30 laundry hampers–disdain, what I never felt was shame. It never occurred to me to feel ashamed of something as unchangeable, as circumstantial as how much money I have. I still don’t understand why anybody would ever feel ashamed of a situation that they had no hand in creating.
But others taught me that my shamelessness was wrong. When asked to spend beyond my means, I had no problem telling people why I couldn’t. When asked where I bought an item of clothing, I never hesitated to say that it came from eBay or the local thrift store. But the reactions were inevitably quiet, embarrassed. They’d mumble, “Oh of course, sorry, you don’t have to come,” and walk away. When they found out where I’d gotten my clothes, their eyes would widen. “Oh!” they’d say. “I wouldn’t have even guessed.” As though stylish clothes can only come from Michigan Avenue.
Whenever I get this reaction, I try to analyze it. Are they embarrassed for me, because I don’t have the money? Or are they embarrassed for themselves, because they assumed that I did? Do they drop the conversation because they don’t want me to feel bad, or because they don’t really want to know why I can’t come with them?
There is a “Northwestern Uniform,” of course. Over the seasons, it includes the following: Longchamp bags, Ugg boots, North Face jackets, Hunter rainboots, anything from Urban Outfitters and American Apparel. Sorority and fraternity letters, naturally. I don’t like any of these things, so I wouldn’t buy them even if I could.
Over time, I learned not to care. I reminded myself that before college I’d never wanted for anything. I realized that the right clothing and spring break plans were never going to help me fit in at Northwestern anyway, because it’s not the sort of place where I can fit in. There might not even be a place in the world where I can fit in because I’m so weird, but since the jury’s still out, I’m still looking.
I found that there are, of course, plenty of students just like me at Northwestern. But they’re hard to see because they aren’t the ones inviting friends to restaurants, joining the Greek system (which students like me could never afford), or walking around looking like a page from Vogue.
Although it’s hard sometimes, I refuse to feel “poor.” I refuse to feel like I’m lacking anything. I refuse to feel that way because I know for a fact that, compared to most Americans, I have everything a young woman could ask for. But sometimes, I hate Northwestern for hiding that truth from us. We don’t have real diversity on this campus. If we did, I would feel rich.
I didn’t write this to get sympathy for not being able to afford restaurant dinners and North Face jackets. I wouldn’t want sympathy for that because, first of all, I don’t feel bad about it myself, and second, because other people can afford much less.
I wrote it because those protesters during my freshman year should’ve known better. They should’ve known that, statistically, not being able to afford North Face is normal. Being able to afford it is not.
I wrote it because I don’t feel ashamed to tell people that I spend my breaks at home with my family, and I hope that nobody else feels ashamed for that, either.
I wrote it because we don’t talk about it, and we should.