“But you don’t seem poor” — five words that I’ll never forget. In the fall of 2009 I arrived at Wellesley College after having spent my entire life in a small town in Ohio. Most of the kids that I had dated in high school were the same kids I played with on the playground. Our families knew each other and we all grew up relatively the same way. Flash forward to my first fall semester at Wellesley, and the story gets really interesting.
My first experience occurred when a friend from Wellesley took me to visit a high school friend who was now at Harvard. Saying that I was nervous is an understatement. We agreed to go after dinner, and I rushed to my room to change. I quickly realized that I had no idea what to wear to a get-together at Harvard. I finally settled on a Wellesley sweatshirt and a pair of Uggs – my most expensive shoes – rather than a pair of cheap rain-boots that I had been wearing that day. I felt insecure about not having anything designer or expensive to wear. Since arriving at Wellesley I’d noticed the differences between my clothes and everyone else’s. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love my clothes and shoes. After working in retail for a few years in high school, I’d managed to acquire quite the wardrobe for pretty cheap. My clothes, however, lacked the labels.
My friend showed up to get me in black heels, red lipstick, and a gorgeous black top. I felt like a four-year-old in my jeans, sweatshirt, and Uggs. When I stepped off of the bus at Harvard, I stepped into an entirely different world. My friend introduced me to her friend and his seven roommates. I immediately noticed differences from the boys that I had dated back home. They were discussing art and literature and something called a “gap year.” Apparently, most of them had taken a year off before attending Harvard to pursue other interests.
To my surprise, our evening involved a lobster dinner. Lobster? I’d never really had any seafood before. Where I’m from, it’s pretty landlocked, making good seafood nearly impossible to find. I sheepishly admitted that I’d never tried lobster – only to be met with blank stares. During dinner I quietly ate while everyone talked about all of their amazing travels. I had never been out of the country, and still haven’t. At the end of the evening I left feeling uncultured, uneducated, and more importantly – unimpressive.
After a few more times hanging out with that group, I realized that they didn’t understand where I came from – but also that they didn’t want to understand. For the rest of my first year I avoided Harvard all together. Eventually sophomore year I met another group of guys at a party. They were interested in who I was, my major, and my background. I grew up very differently from almost all of this new group, but this time it was okay. It was actually more than okay: they appreciated my differences and wanted to get to know me.
Comparing those experiences at Harvard during my first versus second year of college taught me that it’s not a certain school, or even a certain socioeconomic level, that causes people to judge my background; it’s more on the individual level. If someone doesn’t try to understand me or doesn’t respect me, I’ve learned to let it go and walk away. People that aren’t willing to take the time to understand you aren’t worth your time. I’ve learned to value myself and my experiences, even when it feels like others don’t.
Emily Loftis is First Generation College student at Wellesley College. Emily is active on Class Action’s First Generation College Student Organizing project. She is a Classical Civilizations and Media, Arts, and Sciences double major, with an interest in class equality.