The Class Discussion We Should Be Having

I am excited that Pomona College has committed to increase its percentage of low-income students; add a second group of Posse Foundation students with a focus on the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields; and increase its number of community college transfer students. As a low-income, high-achieving QuestBridge Scholar, I completely understand the struggle of low-income students who get the short end of the stick when it comes to being accepted by these elite institutions. We did not choose our family situation, and we did not have control over our family’s cultural or economic capital. 

Although Pomona is making strides to give more access to low-income students, I think that much can be done on campus right now to support low-income students and create more dialogue about class and class differences. Change should start with the administration and faculty, because they can initiate wide-reaching and enduring changes on campus—even if they start with something as small as professors who are familiar with low-income backgrounds speaking about these issues with students.

Many low-income students, and also first-generation students, are committed to excellence in education but didn’t have that counselor pushing them to apply to a liberal arts institution, that tutor who helped them study for the SAT or ACT, or that mentor who helped them with their college applications. I’m a first-generation student myself. My parents didn’t really have a concrete idea of how college worked, so I spent a lot of time at the library researching. Fortunately, I was privileged to have a high school counselor who was on his game and helped me out, but not all of us have that privilege. 

I’ve been on Pomona’s campus for a year and a half now, and in general, I feel that socioeconomic class is a topic that is not discussed enough on campus, if at all. Most of the time when I’ve seen this issue brought up, an awkward situation arises. That’s understandable, but not very useful for anyone.

I know class is something that cannot be observed as easily as something like skin color, but different socioeconomic class groups certainly go about the 5C experience very differently. For instance, many of my friends have talked about their first-year sponsor groups having sponsor group dinners in the Village, or their friends trying to have them attend concerts or other costly activities. But a low-income student’s opinion might be, “Why would I pay for a dinner in the Village if I have meals on my meal plan?” or “Why would I pay for a concert when I haven’t even bought my books yet?”

This isn’t to say that a low-income person can’t ever do anything fun or exciting, or that my friends want to be pitied. But many of my friends and I have to carefully consider how we spend our money.

If we were to have more dialogue across the 5Cs about socioeconomic class, situations like these would probably be less awkward, because then we’d all understand that everyone comes from different backgrounds. The QuestBridge chapter at Pomona has been a great community of low-income students to be involved with, but conversations about class need to occur among more groups of students.

To these ends, we could have an upper-middle-class speaker come to campus, like the talk last year on white privilege by white speaker Tim Wise. That way, people would be less defensive and more inclined to listen. If some people have only been around those who share their own socioeconomic class all of their lives, they don’t really know our struggle. 

Awareness is key to any issue, be it class, gender, sexuality, or race. As more and more low-income students are accepted at elite institutions like the Claremont Colleges, we must combat the ignorance of social class differences. Since being from a low-income background influences certain aspects of a student’s mindset, this ignorance will lead to less effective relationships at work and school.

For example, I remember one of my friends asked me once why I have three jobs. She wanted to hang out with me more often, but she didn’t understand that my mom has other bills and necessities to worry about back home, so I don’t want to have to bother her about expenses I need here, especially if I can earn that money myself. I have to try to provide for myself so my mom won’t have to worry about me from far away.

Personally, I just want people to understand where I am coming from when I say that my upbringing as a low-income student has impacted the person I am today, the things that I do, the expectations I have for myself, and the expectations that other people have for me. I cannot change my background, but I can certainly have my voice be heard. I hope that people will listen, and more than that, I hope that they’ll join in the conversation. 

Ashley Land PO ’16 is a Media Studies major and QuestBridge Scholar. 

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