Before I begin, here are three facts you should know:
1. I experienced economic hardships growing up.
2. Because of this, I don’t pay tuition at Penn. Instead, I rely on financial aid to cover costs.
3. This doesn’t mean I need your sympathy.
Throughout my two years at Penn, I’ve noticed this: while students are always open to discussing the religious, political and racial divides that cut through campus, they rarely touch on class.
As much as we’ve tried to ignore it, there’s an unspoken divide between the rich and poor that permeates our culture. Think about the guy in Wharton who wears the same black suit and dress shoes at every recruiting event, the girl who turns down invitations to BYOs for no apparent reason or the student who would rather borrow a tattered copy of a book than buy it from the Penn Book Center.
(Hint: Student Financial Services doesn’t cover any of these things.)
Greek life on campus creates an even greater social divide since fraternity and sorority dues deter students from joining. This has created an air of exclusivity surrounding Greek organizations. I will never forget one night during New Student Orientation when I was turned away from a party at Castle. Back then, I was an unknowing freshman who had to rely a senior friend to tell me that this particular fraternity had the reputation of being “the rich kid’s club.”
Moments like these are disheartening — they demonstrate a lack of consideration for students who come from a different background or socioeconomic class. They reveal worrying norms that revolve around the idea that everyone has money to burn.
These norms make it difficult for students on financial aid to speak up. Some students fear embarrassment, others assume they will be coddled by sympathy, while most simply feel like they will not be heard.
The lack of dialogue on campus has created a structure that marginalizes those on financial aid. It has created false narratives to accompany financial difficulties — ones that embellish a sense of victimhood.
Stories about students who receive full financial aid are usually accompanied by an amazing tale of how they overcame obstacles.
Last year, I was invited to a scholarship dinner to meet and mingle with Penn’s donors. I walked into the event excited to talk about all that I was doing on campus, but the donor I was paired with insisted we discuss the hardships I had experienced prior to Penn.
While I’m not averse to sharing my story, this scenario worried me. If Penn’s donors (and many others) can’t see past the connection between my family’s hardships and my current success — when will my work be acknowledged simply for its merit?
College sophomore Talon Ducheneaux, who also receives substantial financial aid, explained it well. “I don’t want pity, just understanding,” he said. Ducheneaux, an American Indian student, said his ancestry adds another layer of complexity to the pity he receives.
“The issues with class and financial aid for me is a lot like that with being Native,” he explained. “I don’t want everyone to walk up to me and think: I feel really bad and I’m sorry about what happened to your ancestors or what happened to you growing up disadvantaged.”
Ducheneaux is right. Enough is enough.
There are thousands of students on financial aid. We’re tired of having to showcase the struggles we encountered growing up to seek the approval of the 52 percent who don’t receive any aid from Penn.
We’re not asking you to ignore society’s socioeconomic inequalities, but we want you to see Penn as a place that can cater to the rich, the poor and everyone in between.
Penn students — regardless of their economic background — deliver a wealth of knowledge that goes beyond anything that can be supported through a bank account.
Let’s not allow our families’ income to divide us. Let’s embrace our diversity by fostering acceptance and understanding. This will create a campus culture we simply can’t take to the bank.
Ernest Owens is a College junior from Chicago, Ill. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “The Ernest Opinion” appears every Friday. Toss him a tweet @MrErnestOwens.
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