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Letter: Don’t invalidate any struggles of being low-income

When I read Ali Thursland's column on being financially underprivileged at Duke, I related to a lot of her struggles. I am a low-income, first generation student and a member of a Greek organization. How many birthday dinners have I missed because I can’t afford a meal out? How many times have I lied about where my clothes are from? How many times have I skipped a mixer or party because I have nothing to wear? But, at the same time, I have also lied about why I would drive home 12 hours instead of flying, or about where my brother, sister and parents went to college. I have had to uncomfortably explain why I stayed at Duke for Thanksgiving, why I have two jobs, and why I didn’t go abroad. 

All of these struggles are real. 

When I read Angelica Pangan’s piece in response to Ali’s article, I felt like my struggles were invalidated. This is something I have felt frequently: I don’t belong in Greek life because I am low-income, but I am also not accepted by other low-income or first-generation students because I like to go to frat parties, Shooters, etc. To me, Angelica’s letter served to reinforce the idea that social life at Duke is only for the wealthy majority; that, because I am poor, I should abstain from these activities. But when only 12 percent of students at Duke receive Pell grants, why are we attacking each other’s experiences instead of providing a community of support for each other? 

At Duke, I am overwhelmingly used to my wealthier peers not understanding my financial struggles, but I am deeply saddened when they are invalidated by my less-wealthy peers. 

When I came to Duke, I wanted to be like everyone else, but I quickly realized I wasn’t. I wanted to join a sorority in the spring, but I knew I needed to hide who I really was to do that, and I did. I was constantly lying about being low-income and first-generation and it took a toll. After my first year, I felt like I didn’t belong here, and I was tired of lying. But to say that these aren’t “real” or “fundamental” ramifications of being low-income at Duke is hurtful and wrong. 

I waited until my sophomore year to be honest with my friends about my financial and family situation  and am incredibly lucky to have a group of friends who have been so supportive of me. Because of them, I have been able to go on spring break and fall break trips, I can be honest about not being able to afford a meal or night out, and they have always been incredibly generous to me. This has made my Duke experience unforgettable and I am forever grateful to them. 

Because of my friends, I can more easily go out and do things with them, but the social ramifications of being poor are still present in every part of my life. I still stress about affording my textbooks, toiletries, gas and tickets home. I worry every time I have to call an Uber or buy a meal without food points. I dread spending any money on alcohol, themed outfits or formal dresses. And although some of these struggles may seem small, unnecessary or impulsive, they have had a massive impact on my Duke experience. 

Don’t reduce my struggles because of my choice not to be submissive in the social hierarchies at Duke. I will not let who I am limit where I am and am not accepted on campus, and I won’t be shamed for it, either. There are endless social ramifications of being low-income at Duke, and they all are valid. 

Finally, we are not “financially underprivileged.” We are low-income and should not be ashamed to use that term.


Kaylee Brilhart, Trinity '20


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