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Finessing Duke on a dime

from 'fine' to finesse

As I traveled through the trenches of the premed track and back, I studied hard, but never abroad. I moved nonstop on the pathway to claiming my bachelor’s degree, even as it changed from Chemistry to Mathematics to Cultural Anthropology. And I saw many of my peers travel to great places, from Australia to Kenya to Mexico and beyond. They cultivated stamped-out passports and Insta-worthy photographs, all on the Duke Dime.

I felt like I didn’t have enough  time or money as I clung to the normative premed track, even though it was leading to a dead end. I had too much material to review and too many bills to pay, so my refund check vanished when it touched my bank account. 

During my first year, I played a human rat by participating in paid research studies because my scholarship misinformed us about our ability to get jobs. I was fighting so hard to be a scientist that I let white scientists reduce me to an experiment. And I worked a fast food job in my hometown every break until I quit from exhaustion. 

As a sophomore, I tried to maximize my refund check by getting a smaller meal plan, which led to food insecurity and insecurities around eating. I started skipping meals and forgetting snacks. I was boo’d up with a Smart Water and Skinny Pop until I got referred for nutrition assistance.

As a junior, I tried to hop out my feelings and hop into a bag, but my financial counselor consistently delayed my refund checks. I lost faith in it ever coming on time after being disappointed time and time again. I wanted to secure myself in some way, without relying on my family or my refund check, so I might have taken four different on-campus jobs. 

My financial circumstances improved, but the tale of my transcript got much worse. After semesters of overloading, months of all-nighters and blowing my refund checks on books I was rarely brave enough to open, I finally waved my white flag on the premed track because I saw my last chance to do something I was actually passionate about slipping away. 

While Duke students pursue immense opportunities and study away on the Duke Dime, I had to navigate Duke On A Dime, like other first generation, low-income students. I was humbled by peers who labelled me as difficult in executive settings because I wouldn’t call out of work for club emergencies and last minute changes. I was met with an unsupportive family who thought I should just be grateful for the full ride. However, what good is free room and board without basic freedoms, or dignity and respect? I went head to head with an indifferent financial aid counselor who “hoped their correspondence found me in good health and high spirits.” Yet they would rarely disburse my refund check in a timely and reasonable manner. 

Even amidst the pandemic, I  found myself and countless other first generation students doing the exhausting gymnastics of taking classes, doing projects, working internships and getting jobs this past summer to take care of ourselves and our families. Some of our peers were worried about gaps in their resumes and property left on campus, whereas others of us were worried about deaths in our families and paying our rent. Yet we still were not able to take a break due to financial distress. While Duke did make payments, policies and promises to take care of low-income students, their assumptions and non-transparent decisions often negatively affected us.

Heck, I was even referred to Duke Reach for explaining why my financial circumstances were so taut. They feigned concern for my health, but they wouldn’t acknowledge that their inaction on cutting my checks was making the pandemic seem more like a purge where the rich eat and the poor are eliminated. 

In higher education systems, class is not a protected group. And class discrimination is one of many areas where Duke fails to be different. In a bureaucratic system like Duke’s, riddled with indifference and inaction, financial health remains an important, yet overlooked, aspect of self care. Our financial situations are influenced by our savings, retirement plans and the income that we use to pay expenses. While money is not a straight gateway to happiness, I believe money empowers us with more resources and opportunities to take care of ourselves. The therapy sessions, face masks and yoga classes don’t pay for themselves: not everyone has enough surplus income to afford those self-care treatments. Not everyone wants to work a job on top of classes. Not everyone gets reimbursement, nor do they want to take out loans to cover these costs. 

At Duke, I felt caught between prayer and pretending to be rich, so I kept my jobs and rationed my refund checks. I didn’t always have the cash, checks, credit, connections or concerned parents to keep up with my peers. But I did have the cornrows and the courage to put my best wig on and march through the Blue Devil circus, finessing my finances and cultivating my way out of debt. 

My financial worries got so intrusive that I couldn’t focus on assignments until I started budgeting, cutting expenses and tracking my money moves. Building a budget made my financial situation more tangible and easier to understand. A budget consists of income sources, expenses and savings. (I often included a $20-50 monthly rainy day buffer to account for emergencies.) As a college student, our scholarships, stipends and paychecks represent our income. Our expenses typically include car insurance, medication, streaming service and the variable costs of a social life (e.g. clothes, dates). And savings refers to funds that have been set aside to cover a future expense or build a safety net.

My budget served as a mini vision board for my financial goals as I set aside money for a parking pass, textbooks, new hairstyle or self care treatments. I saved money by getting cheaper cell plans, sharing streaming services and utilizing digital textbooks. When I could not shake my financial worries, I started scheduling times for my financial freak outs. I also used Truebill, which is a great free app that allows you to track expenses from multiple accounts. I was able to monitor monthly expenses and recurring transactions from my phone, so I felt a greater sense of control. When I needed more advice on budgeting, building credit or maximizing my savings, I consulted a financial health counselor at Duke Personal Finance. Unlike the traditional financial aid counselors, I believe these counselors empower students with more knowledge, advice and resources to gain financial autonomy and well-being.

The Duke Dime seems to work wonders for Duke students. Yet it eludes some of us. Not every Duke student is wealthy and rich. The assumption of wealth and adequate financial support creates an uphill bureaucratic battle for students, first generation, low-income or otherwise not-rich at Duke, fighting to finesse Duke on a Dime.

Rez Williamson is a Trinity senior. Their column, "from 'fine' to finesse," runs on alternate Mondays. To ask them a question about finessing or recommend a topic, submit to this form

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