The Jensen Column: How to be an ally to lower-income students

BY CHLOE JENSEN '20

While it may seem as though I only write this weekly column to complain about the Mount Holyoke economic elite, I do genuinely believe that many of our wealthiest students can and should reflect appropriately on their privilege in order to benefit low-income students. Although I spend the majority of my columns discussing the classism that low-income Mount Holyoke students face on both an institutional and personal level, I rarely provide any guidance as to what students from higher income backgrounds can do. Despite Mount Holyoke’s wealth, not everyone at this prestigious college had an upper or upper middle-class childhood, and thus, it is important for higher income students to acknowledge their privilege in a way that is meaningful and helpful to low-income students.

As in many forms of activism, one of the most important things that a privileged person can do is listen. This is something that I too work on when I learn about my own privileges. The majority of higher income people have likely grown up surrounded by wealth and status, and have rarely, if ever, had a close relationship with a person of lower income. This is not necessarily higher income students’ faults. Demographically, people tend to live in neighborhoods where there is not much wealth and income discrepancy. Higher income students often live in expensive areas among peers with similar incomes and likely attended well-funded, top-ranked schools with other higher income students. For many of you, this could be your first time listening to low income students tell their personal stories beyond overused narratives and the stereotype of the low-income college student.

When low-income students tell their stories, do not fixate on stories you may have previously heard about poor people during your volunteer experiences. Listen to everything we have to say, and acknowledge that even we have had privileges in our own lives that other low-income students may not have had. Do not try to relate our stories to “The Grapes of Wrath” or some other story you may have read about low-income people. Just listen and reflect, especially if we are being vulnerable enough to share these stories with you.

And while you are listening to our stories and our struggles, be especially cautious of complaining about money in your life. If I tell you that I am really anxious about my finances and need to make sure that my work study check deposits on time so that I can pay my biweekly bill, this is not the time for you as a full or nearly full pay student to say that you wish you qualified for federal work study on campus. While I understand that you genuinely want to empathize with me and my struggles, you need to be aware of when that is and is not an appropriate comparison to make. If I tell you I really cannot go out to Iya because I need to buy a plane ticket home next week, I am not giving you, a wealthy student, the invitation to say that you can relate because your parents haven’t sent you spending money yet. 

Instead, if I or any other low-income student reach out to you, try to be as empathetic as possible. Acknowledge that we are not asking for you to have had our experiences first hand, but rather, to understand the struggles we may face and the stress and strains they place on our daily lives.

When you empathize with a low-income student, it is especially important that you think about the privileges you have had growing up in a life immersed in wealth and financial stability. If a low-income, first generation student tells you about how they do not feel the college is a space that fully reflects their life experiences and is not a space for them, think about how Mount Holyoke is a space for you.

Likely, you are not the first person in your family to attend college, and because of that, there has always been a firm understanding of the academic world in your personal and family life. For you, there has never been a class separation between Mount Holyoke and your family: the two worlds collide. They both represent a world of elite education and wealth. If Mount Holyoke is a space that reflects your upbringing, and if you feel represented here, you should consider what we as a community can do to make low-income students, especially first generation students and students of color, experience this college as a space that reflects their needs and upbringings as well.

It is also important for you to consider the intersectionality of classism at Mount Holyoke, especially as it pertains to race, ethnicity, first generation status, ability and gender identity. Classism does not manifest itself the same way for me, a white, low-income student with two highly educated parents the same way as it does for someone who is low-income, first generation and a student of color. Many low-income students have intersecting experiences with classism; it is not enough that you consider your own upper or upper middle class experiences, but you should also consider the additional privileges you were granted as well, and how those shaped your upbringing and your identity as a student at Mount Holyoke.

While this list is not exhaustive, I think that upper and upper middle class Mount Holyoke students would benefit from it. It is not enough that privileged Mount Holyoke students acknowledge that there are impoverished students on this campus; they must be ready to listen, reflect and change our institution to represent the experiences of low-income students.

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