What is it like to be a poor student at a very rich university?

10 Jan

Fifth Avenue, New York City (image by Shinya Suzuki, used under CC license)

Fifth Avenue, New York City (image by Shinya Suzuki, used under CC license)

During my first year of college, I went on a trip with a group of other classmates to New York City to network with alumni. At the end of the day, after spending hours going from one company to the next, several of the students talked about hanging out in the city for a while before getting dinner.

“It’ll be so much fun,” they said. “You should totally come with us!”

I said I would be happy to tag along, and I followed the group onto a train headed towards another part of town. When we finally reached our stop and climbed out onto the street, I suddenly found myself surrounded by clothing stores and restaurants as far as the eye could see.

Feeling a pit in my stomach, I followed the group into a store they decided to enter at random, and walked idly around the interior as I gazed at the golden lights, the shiny surfaces, the hard edges, and the beautiful clothes.

I saw a pretty jacket and checked the price tag. $530.

“That would look so cute on you!” One of the girls in the group, Melanie, was suddenly standing beside me, taking the jacket from the hanger and holding it up against my chest. “It totally goes with your hair color.”

“I think I’m good, thanks.”

“Are you sure?? It’s totally cute.”

“Honestly, I’m okay.” I paused, noticing the piles of clothes Melanie held clutched against her chest. “Did you find anything you like?”

“Oh my gosh, yes! It totally sucks living in a college town because there are, like, no clothing stores. I honestly try to come to NYC as much as possible just to shop.”

I almost laughed, thinking she was joking, but when Melanie turned away to inspect a $1,000 dress hanging from the wall, I realized she was serious.

The other students in the group ended up spending thousands of dollars at the store, their purchases being folded carefully and tucked away into colorful paper bags. It was only when they had finished that they decided to eat dinner at a place across the street.

In the nicest restaurant I had ever been to that year, I ordered the cheapest appetizer I could find, and sat in silence as the students around me reminisced about the private schools they had gone to, their most recent vacations to Europe, the silly things they had made their housekeepers do growing up.

When the dinner was over, a student suggested seeing a Broadway play, and one of the guys pulled out his phone and told the group Cabaret was playing for only $250 a ticket.

“What a steal!” Melanie, wearing her brand-new jacket, cried. “We have to go!” She turned to look at me and gave me a big smile. “Do you want to come?”

I knew I wasn’t going to be spending $250 for a show.

“I have a lot of homework,” I said. “But thanks anyway.”

Melanie shrugged, and after paying for our dinner, the group walked out of the restaurant into the chilly New York City air to head towards the show. I walked back to the hotel alone, and spent the night studying for my upcoming Sociology exam.

When I had finished studying, I lay back in the starched sheets of the bed and wondered what it was like for those classmates of mine, who had grown up with the ability to spend thousands of dollars on clothing, to go on trips to big cities to see expensive shows and blow even more money on fancy restaurants and stores. Who went to summer camp, private schools, who lived in big houses with maids and housekeepers, who went on vacation to foreign countries, staying in beautiful hotels.

To be very honest, I find it fascinating to be surrounded by classmates who come from wealth like I have never experienced. I’m not embarrassed for being unable to afford the things some of my classmates buy dozens of through online shopping. I’m not embarrassed for growing up being told “no” again and again, because my family simply didn’t have enough money.

I’m proud of who I am, and where I’ve come from. And that’s enough for me.

By: Virginia Kettles

The author is a student at Washington and Lee University, a private liberal arts college in the United States. This article first appeared on Quora. Read the original post here.

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