Nicole Brown’s blog post, “Broke vs. ‘Broke’,” explains one of the many ways class identity affects the college experience, especially in graduate school. Everyone I have ever known in graduate school has made significant sacrifices of time and treasure to complete their degrees.
In order to discuss our “sacrifices of treasure” though, I believe it is helpful and important to examine what we are actually talking about when we say that we are sacrificing treasure–how do we define “treasure.” Am I sacrificing potential earnings while I am school? Am I giving up luxuries like vacations, movies, going out to dinner, entertainment, impulse buys? Am I giving up necessities, like utilities, food, and healthcare? Am I giving up saving for emergencies? Am I am giving up saving for my retirement? Am I using my emergency savings? Am I using my retirement savings? Am I taking out personal debt (credit card or home equity)? Am I taking out student loans? Am I required to work in a paid position outside of school? Am I required to work part-time? Am I required to work full-time? Am I required to sacrifice my children’s financial well-being?
Does any family member have the resources to assist me if I am unable to take out loans, live on the amount of loan money allowed by my institution, and/or work in a paid position while completing my degree? Does any family member have the financial resources to help me during a short-term gap? Are the social services in my state able to make up for the financial gap between my living expenses and my resources? Am I spending a substantial portion of my study time trying to avoid eviction, car repossession, and/or returned checks?
Yes, all of these questions are examples of sacrifice AND the answers vary drastically based on class identity.
In addition, I believe that it is also important to reflect on the difference between qualifying for public assistance when we are in graduate school (limited as they may be) and depending on public assistance as our only resource.
In my situation, I am a first-generation college graduate and a third-generation single mother. My mother and grandmother both supported their children by waitressing 70-90 hours per week. My mother worked herself to the bone so that my sister and I could become “middle-class” when we became adults. It has been a long and slippery path for both of us. Once I became a single mother myself, it seemed impossible to stay on the road to the mythical promised land of “middle-class.” I had no financial resources myself and neither did any of my family members. However, with the help of student loans and persistence on my part, I have been able to fight to stay on this road and attend graduate school. My situation would be completely different if I had never been able to get to this road in the first place.
My financial challenges and difficulties are not the same as a person who has no financial resources (personal or family) AND no access to education. Although my tax return shows the same annual income as an individual who qualifies for Medicaid, food stamps, and public housing, my tax return does not show my student loan disbursements. I have somewhere to live even though the county that I live in no longer accepts new applicants for public housing. I have somewhere to live because I am not only living on my taxable income.
Sure, I am going into debt to pay for my living expenses while I complete my graduate degree. Heck yes, I am experiencing more economic hardship than many graduate students. Heck NO, I am not experiencing the same sacrifice, poverty, AND lack of options that an individual without any other resources is experiencing. My financial difficulties are simply not the same as poverty.
The higher education system is broke(n) because the American class system is broke(n). Broke vs. “broke” vs. broken.
Let’s move from broken to transformative. Will you join me?
Susan Van Housen says
very insightful and inspiring!
Nicole Brown says
Yes! I will Join you Kellie. I was unable at the time to envision my situation as a shared experience but now, I can see this as transformative–there is a community of us who are suffering in silence and in the shadows of the institutions that claim to be shaping us. This is a matter of social justice and equity!
Barbara Zimmer says
When I started being a single mom, I had no steady source of income. I attended school as a non-matricualted grad student ( that’s another long story) I was working as a free-lance editor and proofreader as well as a part-time speech therapist, so my pay depended on landing multiple jobs from multiple sources. I kept a record of my expenses and wept at the end of the first month when I realized that my income was several hundred dollars less than my expenses. (But I did have outstanding payments due for jobs completed.)
When my husband was in the process of leaving me, I stocked the pantry — full! — and lived off that food for a long time after he left. Plus, our son spent half his time at his dad’s house, so I was not responsible for his total food costs.
I was taking courses in computer languages and heading to the campus after my son went to bed (I had a tenant in the house who was there if there was an emergency.) I remember standing in line at the Computer Lab at midnight and realizing that it was beginning to fell “normal” to be there so late at night. I worked on my computer programs until they closed down the computers for backups at about 3 am, then headed home, grabbed a few hours of sleep, got my kid off to school, went to classes myself, over and over again.
Nobody else paid my way (except for a small bit of alimony from my ex and rent from my tenant) , but I knew I had an “ace in the hole.” If I had been desperate, I could have asked my aunt and uncle for some financial help. Years later I finally told them how hard it had been, and they said they would have offered to help. I told them that I had known that they were there for me. Whether it was a good idea not to ask for help at the time, whether It was pride that held me back from asking them for help….. I still need to figure that out.