WORDS: THEODORA MESSALAS '15
Secrecy around money begins early. For many parents, it’s not a child’s place to know how much money they are making—it opens up the question of how well they’re providing. That secrecy often comes to a head around the question of paying for college and filling out financial aid forms. A parent who is generally reluctant to talk about finances is even less inclined to do so for an 18-year-old with a critical adult’s eye.
When I was applying to college, I noticed that some students had their parents filling out the financial forms, while others (myself included) were filling out the forms on behalf of their parents. This divide manifested itself along lines of income and first generation/immigrant status. The students who did their parents’ forms were doing so because their parents did not speak English or did not know how to use the computer or couldn’t parse a complicated form or just did not have the free time to do it. Filling out a financial aid form on behalf of your parents is an isolating and frustrating experience, especially when your parents won’t be honest with you about how much money they’re making and where the money comes from. And when I say “where the money comes from,” I mean to illustrate here that not everyone’s income comes to them through legal means. But it is students, us and our peers, who must account for this doubleness, how much we should say and not say, how to read a crumpled tax form that you had to swipe out of a drawer in the first place, the price of messing up a form that could cost your family tens of thousands of dollars when you are just a stupid 18-year-old.
Once they are at college, students confront the pervading middle class values and school-specific ideologies alone. Art is highly valued, but there is very little institutional support for that art. Students in painting classes are only provided enough oil paint to last them for the first project, and there is a clear financial divide in the film major between those who are able to afford the $5,000 for a 16mm thesis film, and those who are not. (Financial aid was once provided for these film projects; it is not anymore).
As a freshman, once my tuition contribution was paid up, I thought that perhaps we would all be equalized. We all get the same points and meals, and people from all kinds of financial situations buy their clothes from thrift stores. But class visibility crept through. Olin is a sea of chrome-encased MacBook pros. In friends’ dorm rooms I found TVs and expensive music equipment. Looking down Fountain you see more cars than there are parking spots. In the classroom, I see students with hard copies of the books we’re reading, while I frantically post-it my library copy or have nothing in front of me at all.
Middletown cash, as one of my friends astutely pointed out, is the place where the WesCard’s feeling of egalitarianism begins to break down. I have done laundry with friends and accidentally seen that they have a couple hundred or even a thousand dollars in Middletown cash. Middletown cash is the net that catches you when the ill-designed meal plan gives out. (To be a student on full aid who runs out of meal points is doubly horrifying because not only are you forced into spending real money, but you failed at having that thrifty prudence that your financial struggles were supposed to have taught you.) It means you live differently here. You go to WesWings often, and I want to be game every time I’m invited, but it’s not actually something we can all afford. Which brings me to my next point.
The ideal Wesleyan student is carefree, easygoing, and fun. But worrying about money makes you care a lot. You don’t feel like you can “let it go” when somebody doesn’t pay you back. You kill the vibe when everyone wants to eat out, or you go and watch in horror as they try to split the bill evenly when you just ordered a single egg roll. And when friends laughingly complain that they “never see you anymore,” you can only screw your face up and think about how much work-study you do.
Money issues leave you bitter and isolated from others. You do not have access to buoyancy most days. You are plagued by a constant anxiety that you’re not getting enough of a return on the money you paid to be here, money that you busted your ass to get in the first place. You can’t enjoy one semester because you worry about how you’re going to pay for the next one. Or you know you won’t be able to pay for the next one, and you wonder how you’re going to tell people.
The ideal Wesleyan student is a leader. Many of the paid jobs on this campus are not about being a leader; they are about being a worker. They are about doling out food, making photocopies, shelving books. They are repetitive, and there is no extra prize for ingenuity. You do not become the manager of anything. Perhaps it is worth noting that all of the people I wish were mobilizing around class issues at this school are probably busy at jobs, getting the money they need to be here. It does not pay to run a club or a student group or a movement. And it does not pay to go to class or do your homework. Professors do not account for students who have less time to do coursework because they are doing their paid work. I once approached a professor about getting an extension because I needed to pick up more work study hours. He said he felt it wouldn’t be fair. Laughably, this professor was in the sociology department.
What kind of Wesleyan experience is there for students who are scrounging and stressing and skipping out on “quintessential” parts of the college experience in order to pay their bills?
As with any group trying to mobilize around an issue, we must confront the range of experiences within the group. Wesleyan tends to speak about all students on financial aid as a single group (probably to tout how high the number is), as if there is no difference between the life of a student receiving $5,000 dollars of aid per semester and a student receiving $28,000 dollars of aid per semester .And that does not even account for the differences in race, national status, and ability that intersect with one’s class status.
What words do we all use to identify our class standing? I use low-income. Some people use working-class. Some people use words like poor and poverty, and some words are not self-identifying words, but words of classification that bureaucratic offices assign you. Class is hard to grasp and hard to put into words, and the effects it leaves are like footprints. But I want us to be talking about this issue, even with all of these insufficient words for what we mean, even if people think nothing I wrote was an accurate assessment of this campus, even if we run the risk of being told we look greedy or lazy or that we’re making it all up.