I am rich on campus, but not rich at Duke

I am rich on campus.

I don’t think twice about spending $7 on an overpriced chocolate bar and $8 on an overpriced bottle of kombucha and $4 on an overpriced protein bar. I get wine drunk at the Nasher on most Thursdays, where the waitress no longer asks for my ID because we’re on a first name basis now. To my sweet friends that live off campus, I am their sugar mama. I still drink drip coffee though, because getting into a habit of dirty chai lattes and withstanding the upcharge for oat milk is simply not economically sustainable over time. Plus waiting for your order during peak hours at Vondy is almost worse than waiting on the line during peak hours at Vondy, but I digress.

I order two desserts at lunch, just for a bite of each. I hoard Clif bars in my pantry and champagne (not prosecco–there’s a difference that you should learn before graduating) over the fridge.

This all sounds so frivolous. It is frivolous. And I can keep going, listing all of the indulgences I engage in with my excess of food points.

Food points aren’t real money, I try to convince myself, totally derailing the fact that my meal plan is incorporated in my tuition and is therefore, very much so, “real money.” I look at my spending habits on this campus and feel as if I’m abusing a power that doesn’t belong to me.

But that’s the catch, because my tuition isn’t fully mine to pay. Though I am rich on campus, I am not rich at Duke.

I wasn’t aware of my status as disadvantaged until I came to Duke. There was little transparency in my family about money. We were comfortable, but also not. We had nice things, but not many. We went on vacation, but not without sacrifices. I guess we were middle class, but I’m still not entirely sure.

What I now know for sure, however, is that we were not wealthy–not by my own understanding, and certainly not in the way it is conceptualized on this campus. The only reason I’m even here is because someone out there believed in me enough to recruit multiple others to help me afford it.

I am a white and straight female from New York, so basically I fit into the archetype that makes up a big chunk of our undergraduate population; which makes speaking and writing about my experience as a disadvantaged student feel unjustified. The assumption when you meet me is that I have money, because that’s what a lot of people who look like me on this campus come from. The assumption is that I am part of the majority, because the identities that categorize me as “other” aren’t visible from the outside.

I cannot express how many times I felt guilt over mishandling this privilege that others would kill for. You’re being dramatic. Lighten up. Look at how lucky you are. Be grateful, dammit. This is what my mind tells me. But that doesn’t make the juxtaposition between my financial capacity on and off campus any less agonizing. 

The thing is, I am. I am so incredibly grateful for the economic resources that allow me to be here. I’m grateful that I get to play rich at Duke. I get to choose what sounds good at WU instead of gravitating towards the cheapest meal. I get to say yes to dinner dates and coffee chats without the anxiety induced by a price tag. And the best part: I get to use this power to do good.

I get to buy the person behind me coffee, adding something delightfully unexpected to their morning. I get to tip the wait staff at the Nasher generously, instead of skimping out of necessity. I get to treat my off-campus friends to meals and in return, get to spend more time with them in the very few months we have left together. I get to donate packaged items from the lobby shop to food drives without creating a hole in my bank account. I get to gift my mentors a bottle of wine from Thrive as a thank you for helping me navigate the many quintessential crises that characterize my four years here.

These things, I don’t do just because I can. I do it because I get to. I get to know what it feels like to be who I am, without being held back by what I have. And I don’t know when I’ll have the chance to again.

I don’t think this was ever Duke’s intention–to empower students of low-income backgrounds to develop financial literacy through a currency that only exists on our grounds. Or maybe this was another social experiment, like QuadEx or the randomization of roommates freshman year. Though I wouldn’t count on it, I think it should be.

Either way, I am grateful for how something so simple like a meal plan levels the playing field on a campus where the very overt wealth affects every area of our social and academic lives, yet is barely talked about. I wish we did more as friends and peers to have an honest, open dialogue about wealth like we are just beginning to do with sex and race. Because we are all rich in a lot of things on campus–knowledge, opportunity, beautiful architecture. But we are not all rich at Duke.

Samantha Sette is a Trinity Senior. Her column typically runs on alternate Tuesdays. 


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