The value of college for a low-income student

BY CHLOE JENSEN ’20

“As a low-income student, I see every step I take here as an opportunity to advance from where I came from,” Izabella Czejdo ’20 says. She has taken the time out of her busy schedule as a full time student, international relations liaison, dining hall worker and intern for the Naruna Center for Peacebuilding located in Amherst to speak with me. Growing up in a lower-income household, she feels, has taught her the true value of what it means to take advantage of opportunities that Mount Holyoke gives her, since she did not grow up with them at her disposal. 

After writing this column for an entire semester and after discussing classism in a variety of different ways with several students, one theme that I noticed again and again was the value of college to a low-income student. Whether I was writing about the experiences of first-generation students, work study or classist microaggressions, many student observations came back to the core idea that by enrolling at Mount Holyoke, a prestigious and elite college, students felt that they had to use every advantage that they had now been given.

For a low-income student, everything is an opportunity to advance, and there is an unspoken expectation that low-income students will use their opportunities here to make connections and progress, through stellar grades, great internships through Lynk and, down the road, a world of open doors and career paths to greet us.

 In addition to the stress and overachieving attitude that permeates Mount Holyoke’s campus, low-income students, myself included, often feel that if they are not doing the most — taking every class available to them, studying every free moment of the day, joining as many clubs, working as many hours or attending as many office hours as they can — then they are wasting the great opportunity that was handed to them. “In college, I have learned that every office hour, every class and every hour of work counts,” Czejdo says. 

This is not to say that wealthy students do not work hard or are ungrateful for the resources they have at Mount Holyoke, but that perhaps college does not carry the same weight for them. Attending college was often expected of them. College is an experience that their parents and their social circles probably had, and is seen as a chance for them to maintain their social status. For low-income students, especially students of color and first generation students, college is a chance to increase opportunities in ways that their families may have never had before.

In many ways, Mount Holyoke andother elite colleges continue tocommodify the college experiences of low-income and first generation college students. These are the stories that we see in the New York Times about an incredible high school senior who came from a poor suburb of Chicago and managed to score a spot in several Ivy Leagues. They are the stories that Mount Holyoke tells about their students on financial aid: how gifted, talented, hardworking and dedicated we all are. The college paints a picture of the perfect low-income students, who understand their place in a top ranked, elite institution that they were given the opportunity to attend. And while each of us is grateful for the opportunities we received at Mount Holyoke, it is impossible to meet such expectations, especially in comparison to our wealthier peers.

Even as the first place winner in the 2016 National Championship in Dramatic Interpretation, Czejdo still feels like she is “constantly playing catch up with all the experiences and advantages [she] never had” as a low-income student. Familial expectations, coupled with the elite college image of the ideal low-income student, can often leave us feeling like we need to achieve nothing short of perfection. 

When I wake up on those mornings and think about skipping class, when the reading is really boring and I feel like skimming it or when I don’t want to go that study hour, I remember that my mom is working overtime to cover my monthly bills. I remember the alumnae or donors who made it possible for me to attend this institution. And I remember my low-income peers and friends at home who, due to the advantages they never received, are unable to attend an institution like Mount Holyoke.

For us, college is not the classic experience that many wealthy students seem to have. Rather, it is a set of impossibly high standards we set upon ourselves so that we can hopefully garner opportunities that our communities or families were never granted. 

“Still,” Czejdo says, “it is important to acknowledge that college is not an economic or social equalizer.” At the end of the day, no matter how many hours low-income students devote to our Mount Holyoke experience both on behalf of our communities and on behalf of the institution, we will never have the same networks, connections and advantages as our wealthy peers. Perhaps low-income students should instead focus on our classic college experience, much like our wealthy peers.

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