I attended the University of Chicago, one of the most elite universities in the country and world. Privileged places like the U of C are making strides in opening their doors to low-income students like myself, but this didn’t automatically eliminate the classism that existed and still exists today. In reflecting on my experience, here are just some of the classist things I experienced as a student there.
- “You haven’t traveled in how long?” I was somewhat blessed to find funded travel opportunities while in school, despite my limited financial resources. However, during my junior year of college I didn’t travel anywhere (*shocker*)! I did go on a trip in the fall of my senior year and I told my friend it was my first plane ride in a year. Her reaction was one of shock. “I can’t imagine not going anywhere for so long.” The classism behind that statement made me uncomfortable. Travel is a privilege for the financially stable, not a norm for many working class families.
- “You stayed in Chicago for college? What a failure!” I was born and raised in Chicago and went to college at the U of C on a full scholarship. A doctoral student once asked me where I was from. I told him from Chicago. He chuckled and asked, “Ever planning to leave?” Among the privileged, there is a norm of going away for college. However, this isn’t a reality for many working class students because of lack of scholarships, necessity of helping out at home, and different cultural norms. To belittle anyone for not going away for college is classism at its best.
- “You need to be more intellectual” During college, I dated a student that often criticized me (and others for that matter) for not always having intellectual conversational topics. While he had been accustomed to talking about politics over the dinner table, I grew up in a working class immigrant household in which I was never used to that. The standards for what “better communication is” very much has a classist undertone.
- “No food for you Saturday nights!” Our dining halls are closed after lunchtime on Saturday, so students have to find alternatives for dinner. While this doesn’t seem like a big deal, for some low-income students it means having to spend the scarce money they have on meals. Having the dining halls closed is a classist assumption that everyone can afford to eat out.
- “Let’s go paintballing for $25!” Freshmen at UChicago are placed into “houses” to build residential communities. In my house, there were house trips pretty much every week, but I rarely participated because of the costs. From paintballing to weekly dinners, I didn’t feel comfortable flippantly spending money. “Fun” was built around a culture of money, which excluded low-income students like myself.
- “Some students are too poor for study abroad.” Though I never studied abroad officially through UChicago, many of my friends did. From low-income students I heard about the privilege that comes into sharper focus abroad when some students are traveling every weekend, while some can’t afford to feed themselves with the high costs of food. To alleviate the financial burdens abroad, the school should allot more grants to low-income students. Not doing so perpetuates the classism and privilege of study abroad.
- “Stay away from the South Side!” Our school exists in the middle of the South Side of Chicago, with many bordering neighborhoods being plagued with poverty and violence. During orientation, students are unofficially taught not to venture past 61st street and to avoid the green line train. While safety should be emphasized in an urban environment, it can be taught without perpetuating classist and racist stereotypes towards disenfranchised communities.
- “$60 to enjoy your senior week!” Senior Week is a week filled with events for graduating seniors. Unfortunately, the cost was $60 for a weeklong pass. While costs varied for individual events, I know many (myself included) that were dissuaded from participating because of the costs.
- “No Resources for First-Gen and Low-Income Students” During my time at UChicago, there was no staff member or official programming for first-generation and/or low-income students. While first-generation students are not exclusively low-income, most are. To not provide a staff-member or programming ensures marginalization for students that may need more support.
- “Why are you here?” I placed into precalculus my fall quarter of freshman year, which was understandable not having taken calculus (my high school didn’t offer it). At my first meeting with my teacher, the first thing she asked me was, “Why are you here?” To her, students not in upper level math classes were strange and didn’t belong at UChicago. Her reaction is riddled with ignorance of academic disparities due to access and demeans hardworking students like myself that made it to that school despite obstacles.
Lynda Lopez is a 2014 college graduate of the University of Chicago. As a Questbridge Scholar, she majored in Romance Languages and Literature. While a student, Lynda co-founded the Socioeconomic Diversity Alliance, a student group dedicated to low-income and first-generation students at U of C.