Alison Stine | Longreads | February 2019 | 9 minutes (2,250 words)
This essay was supported by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, a journalism nonprofit organization.
I had never seen so many tennis courts in my life. I had never heard of rugby or lacrosse. I mispronounced genre in class because I had only ever read the word. I didn’t know girls my age owned pearls. I felt equally stunned by black dresses and those pearls at the dining hall on display Sunday nights, something many in sororities wore. I didn’t own pearls, or a nice black dress. I was born in Indiana, where our neighbors grew popcorn. I was raised in rural Ohio. My public high school was small, flanked by fields. The last day of senior year, a student drove up in his family’s tractor. It had taken him hours to get there, puttering along back roads. I was the first person in my family to attend an elite private college, partially on multiple scholarships, and partially, I think, on my parents’ sheer will to get me out.
I wasn’t the first person in my family to go to college — I was the second generation, after my parents — and on teachers’ and guidance counselors’ advice, I had applied to several schools, including state universities. But the private colleges were the ones that seemed to really want someone like me. They courted me. They offered me money, and I couldn’t say no to that. I couldn’t afford to.
I would soon learn that private colleges in this country have a social class problem. Each year, as spring break approaches, I think back on my time in school with particular sharpness, remembering other students going to warm islands or ski resorts. Unlike me, my classmates definitely knew how to ski. They parked their Land Rovers and BMWs on campus, and they landed coveted unpaid internships in the summer — something only rich kids can afford to do.
All of these trappings of wealth were new to me in 1996. But it appeared I was going to get an education in class privilege as well as liberal arts.
I was hardly alone in my experience of class bewilderment. Now, as then, there is no special orientation for students who identify as poor or rural, no workshops on the culture clash we might experience in college. Based on the price of required books, most professors had no idea of our financial reality. Students are reprimanded for not buying books on time, or not having money on a copy card, or for personal printers running out of pricy inks — but these are real and valid issues for those not raised in wealth. While our intellects can keep pace with our wealthy classmates, our wallets can’t.
I sometimes think it is difficult for our former professors to reconcile the academic and intellectual successes that I and my fellow scholarship kids had in college with our difficulties after graduation. A friend who works as a stay-at-home mom, raising multiple children, admitted to me she couldn’t face going to back to campus and seeing beloved teachers. Another friend, struggling to find work at the time, had a visceral, violent reaction to an annual fund request, sent on expensive, engraved paper only weeks after the Wall Street bailout in 2009. A few years after graduation, I returned to campus for a memorial service for a community member. One of my favorite professors asked me what I was doing. When I answered, “Teaching high school,” he said, “That’s a waste.”
I know he meant I was spending all my time working a very difficult job — and not the one for which I had studied — rather than writing. But for most of us, difficult, non-dream jobs are all we have, all we can hope for.
I didn’t know any of these potential perils or stigma of class, of course, when I first landed at the campus on a hill, overlooking the prettiest small town I had ever seen: houses with porches and gingerbread trim, manicured lawns, and residents who walked everywhere, greeting each other by name. The college boasted a towering chapel, a healthy endowment, and an annual tuition of over $65,000 as of last year.
I didn’t know girls my age owned pearls. I felt equally stunned by black dresses and those pearls at the dining hall on display Sunday nights, something many in sororities wore.
There, for the first time, I met kids who had gone to private high schools, kids who had gone to boarding schools. Kids very different from me. Most of my close friends at college ended up being scholarship kids who had gone to public schools like I had, or were from rural areas, or were poor. When wealthy students defiantly took their frozen yogurt out of the dining halls, which we were not supposed to do, they joked, “We’re paying for it.”
My high school had a good graduation and college attendance rate, but many of my classmates there went on to The Ohio State University, in Columbus, about an hour away from where I was raised. Some lived at home and attended community college or “the branch,” our name for the OSU satellite campus in our hometown. Nationally, according to 2015 data from the National Center for Education Statistics, only 14 percent of low-income students graduate from a bachelor’s or higher degree-granting program within eight years; only 29 percent of middle-income students do.
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Some of my high school classmates went on to private colleges, of course — a comparable number of low and middle income students enroll in private colleges as enroll as in state universities, according to the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities — but no one from my graduating class went to mine. That seemed important to me at the time, important to my starting over.
But I couldn’t start over, couldn’t leave my upbringing behind. It was there with me the whole time, informing every one of my choices and experiences.
I felt I needed to compensate for my upbringing by working extraordinarily hard. My first year, I dressed up for class, to which I would arrive half-an-hour early, waiting outside the classroom door. I took frantic, copious notes, but professors often said words I didn’t know — and didn’t explain them. Re-reading my notes at night, I stayed up until 2, until 4, trying to figure everything out, trying to learn this new language for a world I still felt I was denied entrance to: a world of learning, but also of wealth.
It didn’t take long before I stopped raising my hand. My theology professor admitted to me that he missed that fiery, eager student who had debated so much in our first few weeks. But that student had finally heard the snickers from the back of the class.
I had never read Nietzsche, Kafka, Nabokov — or many books at all by women, or writers of color. When I was growing up, we had one bookstore: a Walden Books in the mall. I would go straight to the Classics section, a short shelf, and stand there while Muzak from the lobby washed over me. In that way, I read George Eliot and the Brontes, purely by chance, out of desperation.
I had never heard of Immanuel Kant. In high school, I had never taken or even heard of philosophy. We had no advanced placement classes there. I had registered, my parents had paid for, and I had taken several advanced placement tests, in the hope of exempting out of some introductory college classes, as did a group of my classmates. I think we did okay, but not great, having not studied for these tests, having never been exposed to much of the subject matter, having never been tutored or seriously prepped for them. When I asked the administration about this, the vice principal said, “All of our classes are AP classes.”
But they weren’t. I had some wonderful teachers, of course. Several of them encouraged me in meaningful ways that still stand out today. One of these high school teachers later told me when she had tried to deviate from the syllabus the other teachers had all agreed to use — among her changes, she wanted to include more contemporary authors — her fellow teachers had shunned her.
Other words I mispronounced: manic, gesture, lingerie.
Another thing I didn’t know: There were exceptions to rules, that some people broke the rules and got away with it. Some had been getting away with rule-breaking their whole lives. That wasn’t an option for me. Following the syllabus and course policies to the letter, I came to class ill, I came to class exhausted. I was never late. I didn’t ask for a sorely-needed extension on a paper, not any paper — something many students request and many professors grant — until I was a senior. It didn’t even occur to me to try.
When you’re poor, when you’re on scholarship, when this is your first and only shot, you can’t afford to break the rules. You can’t get in trouble. You can’t afford a single mistake. Early in my college career, when I was at a party broken up by campus security, my boyfriend and I, both scholarship students, both underage, climbed out a window.
Not coming from a world of privilege made college confusing, difficult, and at times, dangerous.
I had never done much drinking. I remember having just a couple of drinks in high school: a wine cooler and Zima, procured from somebody’s older brother. That was it. Our parents didn’t drink with us. We didn’t have fake I.D.s. We didn’t have the money to buy gas, let alone beer. We didn’t go to parties where waiters served wine.
In college, suddenly, liquor was everywhere, glittering and expensive. Surrounded by kids with enough money to buy drugs, to buy the best alcohol, to secure it for their parties, I went to dorm rooms with full bars set up on dressers. One of my first-year roommates kept a crystal wine goblet in our room, which she brought with her to fill with wine at frat parties. It was actual crystal, a present from her parents. A professor bought my boyfriend Bombay Sapphire gin for his 21st birthday. It was the most expensive liquor we had ever seen.
Certainly, cheap beer flowed like a constant, sticky river. Boys lined bathtubs with garbage bags filled with “jungle juice” which was every bottle of alcohol in the dorm poured together, with a lot of malt liquor thrown in; it was always red. But many of my classmates had had the access and allowance to drink for years before I could. They were familiar with alcohol and used it to their advantage; they continued to lavish cash on partying expensive and hard.
And rarely faced consequences.
Because I feared getting in trouble, because I had no safety net and was terrified of losing my scholarships, I didn’t drink much. This further outcast me. I couldn’t even party like the others, bonding at frat parties. Not having had high school or family experiences with drinking also made me vulnerable. I tried to keep my drink with me at all times to stay safe, but I certainly couldn’t hold my liquor.
It wasn’t experience that kept me from getting hurt those years, it was dumb luck and my own terror.
Not coming from the world of privilege made navigating the real world after college challenging. I didn’t have student loans, surviving on a combination of scholarships, work study, summer jobs, and what my parents had saved, but many of my college friends weren’t as lucky. Our wealthiest classmates didn’t have this burden of repayment; they weren’t starting out already buried by debt.
On a teaching assistantship, I went to graduate school: another academic institution wound by wealth. I was surprised that many of my classmates said they were there just to learn; I was there hoping to ultimately land a good job with my degree. I had to have a job to live: learning was an afterthought.
My boyfriend at the time never finished the program, due to financial constraints. My longtime partner later in life had had the same experience: dropping out of a PhD program because his car broke down and he couldn’t get to class. He was one of the only ones among his graduate school class with a day job.
Another thing I didn’t know: There were exceptions to rules, that some people broke the rules and got away with it. Some had been getting away with rule-breaking their whole lives.
As an undergraduate, I had first come face to face with my own inexperience, my own lack. But I also was supported by professors who buoyed my confidence, invited me over for fancy dinners with visiting writers and scholars, and supported my ideas and ideals.
But the real world wasn’t like that. In the real world, it didn’t matter that I worked hard, that I stayed out of trouble. Bank accounts mattered more than my brain, the result of class and connections, which could never be taught or earned, but were birthrights.
Did I expect to make a large income after college? No. Did I expect to live up to my promise? I had hoped to.
I didn’t expect to see frat boys running the world, and running it just the way they went through college: like the money would never end, the alcohol would never stop, the party would never be busted, the paper would never come due, other people would never matter or know. And they would never get caught.
In that way college prepared me more for the real world than I could have ever dreamed.
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Alison Stine‘s debut novel, The Grower, will be published by Mira in Fall 2020. She lives in the foothills of Appalachia.
Editor: Sari Botton