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The price of life as a low-income student: a response letter

guest letter

Dear Lindsay, 

Thank you for writing to the Chronicle about your experiences being low-income after Duke. I resonated with a lot of what you had to say and feel categorically similar in experience to you. Writing about the low-income experience is like trying to move the sea with a teaspoon; there will never be enough to capture its depth. But every attempt still moves the sea.

Last Spring students wrote in, both letters and columns, to identify the low-income experience. Some called attention to the social issues, others to the material ones, most for community over division. As the editorial board wrote, to be low-income at Duke is to play a game of relative numbers. A family with 80,000 dollars of annual income receives nearly full financial aid—not including the annual loans Duke considers as aid. That is roughly 20,000 more than the median American income. It is clear that the perspective at Duke is skewed. What is being described as low-income also falls in line with the average American family. For some people, 80,000 is a drop in the bucket. For the majority, it is itself a pretty good bucket. 

So what could I say to make someone understand what it feels like to be low-income at Duke? The identity is deeply varied, and my own understanding of the category is limited. I also have varied intersectional identities (woman, black, first-generation immigrant, elderly parents) that make it hard for me to pin-point which one is dominant.

Sometimes I get confused whether I count or not. My annual family income fluctuates between 60,000 and 88,000 dollars. I am not fully convinced that my working three jobs, or even taking the mega bus home each winter, is what makes me low-income. Some professors and individuals have expressed surprise: to them, I do not “seem” low income. The ignorance of their statement is not lost on me. But I have my student joys too: I buy a lot of movie tickets and take train trips to Raleigh with my friends. I give money regularly at Church. I always round up on my Venmo charges. And I usually overdo it for birthdays. 

Growing up, I had plenty of food and both of my parents worked. We never went on trips but I had good friends and a resourceful eye. The mixed-population suburbs were a good place to grow up. Furthermore, my high-school did the best it could with the ridiculous cards they were dealt. Going to college made you the exemplar. Going to a private elite university made you an anomaly.

What is life at Duke when you’re low-income? I do not have the depth of experience wide enough to completely answer that question (I’m 21! I know nothing.) But I can say a few things with certainty.

Your values are different. 

You work a bit harder because you know what happens to employees who don’t work hard enough. You worry more, because when you don’t worry you might miss something and make the wrong decision, ruining your opportunity to “break the cycle.” You question your decisions, because the wealthy have it right, even if evidence shows rationality is relative to situation. You cringe when people disrespect people in the service industry because you have worked in the service industry.

You are less likely to take beneficial economic risks; the kind meant for the secure. Sure, risks change the world, but you’re not trying to change the world. You just want to make sure your family has what they need. You are extra attentive to messages from your parents. Usually, it means something is wrong. 

You are more patient with others than you are with yourself; you know from many years of disappointment that no one is perfect. Except you. You always have to be the anomaly. Exceptionally independent. Often, you worry someone will make you into a bootstraps example, despite your lived reality that success depends on help from others. That others show you where to find boots, walk with you until you’re used to them, and teach you how to mend yours when they’re broken. You learn that genuine help is more precious than money. You realize competition is a scam and life is not about numbers. 

Eldar Shfir writes in a study on the scarcity mentality: “There’s an irony to poverty... You’re functioning with more requirements on your system than otherwise, your system is less capable to deal with them, and the punishments for making mistakes are much higher.”

Those mistakes always feel life or death. So you often feel tired. If you “make it” to a nice school like Duke, you really hold on to the fairytale; Where everything works out and you no longer need to feel the baggage of your identity anymore. But first, you need to wrangle your scholarship money back from Duke. It’s a shame Duke reduces your financial aid when you earn a scholarship. It’s like a metaphor for life or something.

Initially, this difference is not inherently good or bad. You pay extra attention to the small things. You celebrate easily. You are a good ear when it comes to difficult situations. You know how to plan the best trips on a small budget. You’re creative in ways you didn’t realize were creative. You almost always can think of a solution, or a next-step. You have to. You are more understanding of other people’s limits. You offer more help than you have ever taken. You are strangely more hopeful. Not because things always work out, they usually don’t. Yet, you’re still here. 

But then you come to Duke and suddenly, you can’t be low-income. It’s shameful. People don’t talk about it. Being frugal becomes being cheap. Everything about being low-income is at odds with the values Duke brings to the table. 

It is a double-edged sword. And what’s written about the experience is often the sharpest edge. Lindsey, I agree, it is not good to be poor. It is not good to be less-off, struggling, constantly fighting to stay afloat, paycheck by paycheck. But is it better to be wealthy? When the happiness cap sits around 75,000, what happens to the rest? A healthy stock may guarantee your future, but not how you will live that future.

As a not wealthy person, I learned, and am still learning, the value of money. I will never know how much money I need to have the perfect life. I do not have a lot now but I enjoy my life so much. I am now lucky (not deserving) to sit in a much stable state than previously in my life but I don’t feel like I can rest yet. Not after experiencing the exhaustion of having to constantly run from the traps of inequality. I do not think the money will be enough until it’s enough for everyone. 

Lindsey, we share the same universal dream. To leave the children with more than what we have. I have things to pass down much greater than money could ever buy. 

Omolola Sanusi is a Trinity junior. She also writes satire for the Chronicle’s Recess section.

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