An open letter to low-income students

Some students work for tuition, others, for alcohol

By Timothy Scalona, Collegian columnist

To low-income students of the UMass system and beyond,

I stand in solidarity with you, as a survivor of circumstances beyond my control and as both a fellow low-income and first-generation student at the University of Massachusetts. I recognize our existence as an ever-evolving form, of an umbrella of diverse perspectives and experiences. We, so long dehumanized by those with the privilege to accept the status quo, are seen to be nothing more than cannon fodder in cyclical political games. They—those with privilege by virtue of birth or chance and ignorant to this privilege, in all walks of life and positions of power—shape us in the image of complacency, calling our socioeconomic status and impoverished state a “choice,” rather than a symptom of increasing inequality. They delegitimize our successes and brand us in their misguided image of poverty, compounded by an American Dream that is no longer rooted in reality. They, both passive and direct in our oppression, compound the underlying systemic inequalities. As we fight for equal opportunity—for the mere chance to climb the social ladder—they deny our right to persist from their ivory tower of advantage.

We are told that education is a means of social mobility: the supposed “great equalizer.” How can this be so, as impoverished students commit to a debt sentence and accumulate thousands of dollars of loans for the far-away promise of capital (a growing bait-and-switch)? As higher education becomes increasingly inaccessible and unaffordable, this tool of class transcendence becomes a source of perpetual imprisonment.

To the poor individual, there is no choice—education is the key. As costs increase and access is limited to those with resources, class divisions arise. At UMass, there are not many students in our situation; 46 percent of students are from the top 20 percent income bracket, whereas only 5.8 percent of students are of the bottom 20 percent. We walk marginalized and invisible, with our numbers dwindling. We are told to transfer universities because of the lack of affordability, and classism and microaggressions become the norm. Cancún spring break trips and pleas for food assistance are so often juxtaposed, in an irreconcilable clash of opposites, between a polarized spectrum of students who are “haves and have-nots.”

Some students work for tuition, others for alcohol. Some students forego meals with sleep, starving for a chance; others enjoy a so-called unlimited meal plan.

College affordability, food insecurity and disparate representation affect the experiences of low-income students like ourselves and the intersectional experiences within. My story is one that extends to a time six years ago, of another world. Thrust into homelessness as the oldest of my six siblings, I fought in an elementary and secondary education system that saw my family and me as a waste of resources. I understand that feeling of alienation, one that permeates the self-worth of the individual and shapes them into the “other,” as one is surrounded by those of often privileged backgrounds. I understand how students like us are forced to push ourselves to the brink to compete with our less-afflicted peers— through testing, extracurriculars and work—amidst exposure to the stress of poverty, discrimination and unmet need.

Higher education should act as an equalizing mechanism, to recruit, retain and empower marginalized communities, providing balance to rising wealth inequality. Instead, it has become a catalyst of this inequality, limiting access and representation. I am grateful for my opportunities and experiences here at UMass, for they have pushed me to grow beyond the cycle of survival. Regardless, I struggle with tuition payments each year and work to alleviate a growing burden. As I attempt to find community in a space that is not always conducive to the support of first-generation and low-income students, I devolve further into my history. It is always on my mind, but I try to forget.

But I do not want to forget anymore.

And yet, here I smile. I see in our community a chance to bring real change to our campus and beyond, if students like us demand that our existence and opportunity to succeed be validated. Visibility is an option, but not a requirement. Know that students like ourselves are united by experience, kept isolated by society yet linked by vision. I talk of my experiences to be an active advocate, and in whatever capacity you are comfortable, I encourage you to do the same. We are more than our socioeconomic status, our experiences and humanity far greater than inherent stratification. We belong here and beyond, and we can pave this new world of accessibility, opportunity, inclusion and support.

We exist; as survivors of experience, circumstance and society, we deserve to thrive.

Timothy Scalona