Soon after arriving on campus as a freshman I found myself navigating the long hallways of college almost furtively, quietly darting between the large archways of the turn-of-the-century building, afraid to cause a stir lest I be told that my acceptance to this institution had all been a mistake and could at any point be revoked. I carried with me a constant fear of being found out, believing that revealing my secret would result in the loss of my newfound status as part of the privileged elite – someone considered worthy of educating.
It was only years later I found my fear was shared by others who had come to the private liberal arts colleges from poverty. Most other students coming to college from poor families and neighborhoods were African American or Asian. Unlike my peers, I was able to blend in, my almost exclusively Irish roots providing rich cover among the unsuspecting students of the conservative Catholic institution I attended. My ability to pass was both a blessing and a burden. While I desperately wished to remain the unidentified and completely anonymous full scholarship student I was, I also, possibly more desperately, needed the sense of validation that comes with being completely open with others about who I was. I needed to know that my experiences as a low-income, first-generation student were normal and that my frustration and anger with the comments made about my community and people like me were valid.
During my freshman year I had to officially change my parental address. As I arrived at the records office located at the end of one of the long dimly lit hallways, my heart began to race, as it did whenever I expected to speak with someone about my family situation. My pulse quickened when I stood in front of the office’s dauntingly high counters reminiscent of judge’s bench. I understood that those behind the counter had the power to make rulings resulting in indelible changes to my life. As I began to describe my situation to the woman behind the counter, her face began to twitch, becoming more contorted in disbelief at each word of my request. Meekly standing in front of the counter, attempting to explain my situation–that my family was homeless, I was met with a barrage of accusatory questions at the disbelief that the situation could exist at this institution.
First she wanted to know how I had applied as a dependent if I did not have parental support. Moments later in this conversation, she threatened to look up my application to determine a family address, as if it would reveal my pitiful lie. Running through a list of similarly invasive questions about my personal finances, in a tone that implied I could not possibly be the one paying the bills, she seemed to become exhausted. When my patience was wearing thin and I could see our conversation stagnating, I politely challenged her to check my application as she had threatened.
She retreated to the back room to rummage through my files and determine the credibility of my argument. She wasn’t impartial and this wasn’t a court, but it sure as hell felt like a trial, and I like the defendant. I was in agony as she continued to fumble through my files then call another office, to confirm her decision. She returned to the counter and reluctantly approved my address change.
The simple act of changing my address had turned into a full-blown court hearing with a prosecution, a defense and even a ruling judge to stamp approval on the final verdict. As with many simple tasks or even questions about my home life the truth was complicated and often baffling for those around me. Sometimes I found it easier not to mention life before college because then I would not be dragged through the process of explaining years’ worth of circumstances just to get someone to understand who I was and where I came from.
Much of college was, for me, an alienating experience where every one of my fears and self-doubts were put on display for those around me to judge. This was especially true my first year, and nowhere more true than that day in the records office. That day however also served as my first validating experience at college. I realized I had confronted my worst fears, being found out and kicked out, by going on trial and surviving.
Looking back, I hope that in some small way my situation served as an eye-opening experience for that woman, and that it eased the path of those with similarly complicated lives who came after me. I wasn’t ready to become an outspoken advocate across the class divide, but I was becoming more comfortable in my skin as an individual living in two dissonant class experiences – one in my head and another in reality.
Adj Marshall is an instillation artist and community organizer in Providence RI. She is currently a Masters Candidate in Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage at Brown University and a Masters Candidate in Conflict Transformation at the School for International Training. Adj’s research focuses on the use of art in social justice movements particularly within international peace-building processes. In her free time Adj curates the Mercantile Gallery at AS220 and teaches rock climbing.
Betsy Leondar-Wright says
You tell your story so eloquently, Adj! Thank you for sharing it publicly. I hope it inspires other college students from poverty backgrounds to speak their truth.