Low-Income Students Tokenized for Oberlin Students’ Benefits

As my fourth and final year of college starts, I’ve been thinking about my time at Oberlin and how blessed I am to have made it this far, as what academia deems an “at-risk” student. Being a low-income and first-generation college student has made my experience at Oberlin differ hugely from that of my affluent peers. Sadly, identities such as low-income are not often talked about, leaving students like myself feeling lonely and misunderstood in a school known to have a generally close-knit community.

Perhaps we don’t talk about these issues because the number of low-income students at Oberlin is ridiculously small, or maybe most students just don’t understand what it is like to go through life with worries about financial insecurity. Regardless of the reason, I find Oberlin — I am talking about the student body here, not the institution — to be extremely toxic to low-income folks. Now, I can only speak for myself, but here are some of the reasons why and how you — YES YOU — might be hurting low-income students, and how you could be helpful in many ways you might not have thought about.

There are several discussions I have come across during my time at Oberlin where demands are made to the College and the well-being of low-income students is mentioned as a strong point for why the school should listen to the student body. The most recent I can think of is the discussion about dining changes. Every single time there has been a discussion of such sorts, I have noticed one or more of us intervene to clarify that Oberlin, in fact, offers us stellar aid. In my time at Oberlin, I have not had to buy any books with my hard-earned money, and I have been able to afford what little the school and government aid does not cover with a couple of jobs during the school year. So, whenever people write petitions and they mention the accessibility issues regarding low-income students, I can’t help but feel tokenized. Yes, the dining plan and many other issues can and do affect low-income students in very real ways, but let’s be honest. Do Obies really care about low-income students or are they using us to win a fight? To me, it seems like the latter. So, what are real ways to be an ally to low-income folks at Oberlin? Based on my own experiences and some conversations with other low-income peers both here and elsewhere, I’ve included examples of ways that you could help.

Stop trying to hide your class guilt in thrifted clothes. Please just stop. Think of the resources you are taking away from people who depend on them. I have yet to find someone with a valid reason why they do this, especially when you all walk around with $3 shirts, $5 pants, and expensive shoes that cost more than my mother has in her bank account — anything more than $150.

Leave front row seats open in classrooms. Many of us have so many things to worry about daily that we need to be in the front to actually focus (Will my family be able to pay rent this month? Will my mom finally buy herself snow boots so her feet stop hurting in the winter?). Outside of that, we worry about how we’ll get home for breaks or if we’ll be able to afford the bills we help with at home. Every single semester on my first day of school, professors lose me as soon as they start talking about books, access codes, lab materials, and such. In my head, I am thinking of all the offices I’ll have to visit in order to get books while everyone else has moved on to thinking about the lecture.

Please lend your books to low-income students once you’re done with a class. I cannot stress this enough. Ever since my second semester, I have offered my books to other low-income students to borrow for the semester. Most people sell their books to other people. Have you thought of lending them instead to people who won’t be able to afford them otherwise? And no, books on reserve aren’t always the best option.

If you have a friend who is low-income and is having a difficult financial time and if you or your parents can afford it, invite them for dinner to their favorite spot, or offer the option of financial assistance. But don’t think of yourself as a hero and please be extremely mindful of the way you approach these type of discussions.

Push the school and yourself to educate the student body about low-income struggles. I could honestly write for hours about my frustrations with most of you. Don’t act like you can relate to our struggles. I’ve been hungry, and I’ve had light, water, gas, phone and other important services cut off throughout my life due to lack of payment. I’ve been homeless, I’ve been humiliated, and my mom continues to be humiliated. So please understand that your “broke” struggles are not the same as low-income struggles. We do not have a safety net. We are the safety net.

Be proud of us. We are doing so much. Whether we finish school here, elsewhere, or if we don’t finish school, be extremely proud because this system is not made for us and we deserve praising. We often need reminders that we belong here. Remind us that more than anybody, we belong. Lastly, share resources and connections that you grew up with. Advice on interviews, how to network, email writing, resume help, and other things like this are all new to many of us.

I hope this small list is something you take seriously. There are many more things I have in mind, but I would end up writing a book. I will try to open conversations across campus about topics like this one soon. Stay tuned and thanks for reading.