Recently, I was in class and found myself feeling a profound sadness that is hard to describe. We had a guest speaker from pre-law advising and two Binghamton University alumni currently in law school participating over Zoom. The whole 90 minutes was focused on the process of applying to law school and used the kind of jargon that I encountered while applying to undergraduate school — letters of recommendation, LSATS, interviews, extracurricular activities, work experience, etc. While I couldn’t help but be engaged in this lecture, it suddenly occurred to me that this presentation was not meant for me. I have no plans of attending law school, medical school or graduate school. While I did at one time entertain these notions, I no longer do. Quite simply, such paths to higher education are not in the cards for me at this point in time as a result of my circumstantial constraints, and I have made my peace with it. But it was strange to realize that the professor and guest lecturers were operating under the idea that all their students have such plans for themselves. It is as if, after becoming so immersed in the world of academia, they forget that this world is often unattainable to students struggling just to get through their undergraduate degrees.
The mentality that has been adopted by many in academia is often blind to lower-income students. I understand the stereotype of a typical student that many people have. It’s usually someone with enough familial support to be able to partake in everything BU has to offer. If the student needs a subscription to iClicker, they can simply call their parents and ask for the money. I very much doubt that when professors list their readings in the syllabus, they can imagine a student like myself scouring LibGen in order to avoid paying the $100 my bank account doesn’t have to spare. I have stopped emailing professors and asking for ways to afford their texts or software because I am tired of feeling ashamed for doing so. I don’t want to tell my professors a sob story every time I need to explain my situation and its effect on my academic performance. If the University could allocate more resources to fee waivers for the programs and textbooks that students such as myself need, then I would have one less burden to worry about.
According to the Pew Research Center, the amount of dependent undergraduates who are below the poverty line has risen to 20 percent as of 2016, with a much larger percentage coming into less selective colleges. Looking at BU specifically, nearly six percent of students come from families making less than $20,000 a year. The fact of the matter is, whether you know it or not, many students on campus are struggling financially. I would like to say that this problem not only exists on an institutional level, but it is so much more than that. Every day I am met with a barrage of opportunities I cannot partake in. The study-abroad poster in the University Union reminds me that I don’t have the financial security for it. When my friends haphazardly suggest getting food at the Marketplace, I need to make up some excuse as to why I’m not hungry, even though I feel my stomach growling. When the clubs I am a part of suggest an event, I’ll be the one missing out because I can’t pay the cover fee. When housing applications open, I tell my friends I think Mountainview, Dickinson and Newing are overrated, when the truth is they are the more costly dorms and I need to save wherever I can. And while it would be easy to devolve into arguments about better financial aid and social welfare programs, at this point, it seems that basic recognition is difficult to acknowledge.
While the CARE team often says that they are there in the event of a crisis, how are they supposed to help when your ongoing crisis is poverty? Who can help when your family calls, wondering how to pay their next bill? How will they help when a visit to the mechanic nearly bankrupts you? Often, it feels as if, while living on campus as a lower-income student, I face an endless line of problems I need to solve on my own, trapped within the confines of a Catch-22. Naturally, this would lead to more stressors than the average student faces. But the so-called solutions offered by University support systems don’t come close to amending the problems low-income students face. The CARE team offers a student emergency fund, but usually these awards do not exceed $500 and can only be utilized once during your undergraduate career. This money also comes with the stipulation that it cannot be used for any school-related fees, such as textbooks or tuition. Besides this, a lower-income student could be referred to the University Counseling Center in order to address the stresses of living as a lower-income college student, but once again, the support offered is inadequate. I doubt it is possible to remedy any situation over the span of 10 therapy sessions, much less the overwhelming circumstances that poor students face. Thirty percent of undergraduates face some sort of food insecurity, and while the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) may help to combat this, only 23 percent of students who are eligible for SNAP actually enroll in it. While this could be for a myriad of reasons, underuse is attributable most prominently to the fact that quite simply people do not know it exists and that they qualify for it.
Lower-income students often have to balance a dual role as students and as members of their lower-income family. And oftentimes these roles come into conflict, as I have learned from experience. Yes, I have an exam today, but my mother called to say that my sister fell and hurt her knee, and now I need to come home to carry her down to the car to take her to the hospital. Yes, I have class right now, but my mother is having a panic attack over the phone trying to figure out how to pay the added-on fees for the HOA. Yes, I have final exams, but I have to return home to take care of my mother after her emergency ulcer surgery. If I had a cent for every time someone told me to simply email my professor and explain my situation, I wouldn’t need to be writing this article. Firstly, professors have their own lives and responsibilities. It would be difficult for them to be concerned with the affairs of their thousands of students. Secondly, there is only so much professors can do to be accommodating without the requirements of the SSD office. After a certain amount, emails asking for extensions become hollow and don’t convey the desperation you feel.
The sad fact of the matter is that whatever campus resources there are to address the needs of lower-income students, they simply are not enough. Lower-income students such as myself feel that they have been forgotten and left behind while the machinery of the University continues ever onward. While I hope that there is some help out there for students such as myself, it means nothing if we can’t find it. So these existing resources must be made available in a manner that brings the help closer to those it is intended to reach. Secondly, while there exists a department for many kinds of students, from SSD to the Q Center, where should I turn beyond the CARE team in order to get the help I need? There should be an established space on campus that has the capacity to further serve its students beyond the scope of the University, whether it be connecting a student with basic benefits in order to survive more comfortably or having more of an authority to reach out to professors on behalf of students to allow for accommodations because of their ongoing circumstances.
Kimberly Mourao is a junior double-majoring in psychology and philosophy, politics and law.