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Butterfly_effect

Grad students from low-income backgrounds (rant?)

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Disclaimer: I can only speak to my own experiences, and these are shaped in part by being in a well-funded science program at a top university. I can’t speak to the issues I talk about below in the context of humanities, though I imagine things may be worse (?).

 

Grad school as a student from a low-income background can be difficult, even for me, someone in the sciences who gets paid a great stipend that means I don’t have to worry about accruing any debt. It’s just kind of an odd cultural situation.

Honestly, things were much easier in undergrad. I attended a very small SLAC that prided itself on being inclusive and diverse. It had its problems, but as a low-income student I felt really welcomed by the no-cash campus and low-income-specific student groups. Even if we had problems with the administration, at least we weren’t alone. I held several jobs, but I didn’t have to. I just tend to be someone who squirrels away money ‘just in case.’ When it came to grad school, I was accepted to what is arguably the best school in my field. I would be attending for free and would even be paid a living wage stipend, and I didn’t even have to teach! I thought having the same stipend would even the playing field even more between myself and my peers. Or so I thought.

I didn’t realize that in grad school that it’s common to receive significant financial support from your parents. No offense intended if you happen to be one of those students; I just had no clue that that was commonplace. Because I got a full-ride scholarship to undergrad, and did research internships (or other random things) during summer, my parents haven’t had to really support me in a serious way for years. I recognize that I was incredibly lucky to have received those privileges and it’s not nearly so easy for others who just miss cutoffs for financial aid, or who go to a less well-funded college. I realize my experience is nowhere near the norm, but what surprised me the most when I got to grad school is how every other first year grad student seemed to think that their life was the norm. For example, my program is small, but of the 15 or so of us in my year, I think everyone has parents that are professionals: doctors, lawyers, or professors/scientists. One guy even published a paper recently with his dad. For comparison, my dad works in a factory and my mom didn’t work while she was raising myself and my sister. My set of experiences are very different from my peers. Not necessarily better or worse, but so different that it's often hard to relate. I'm pretty candid about my background, but I can tell it makes others uncomfortable at times. Sometimes the differences make me feel uncomfortable too. 

For example, some other classmates and I went shopping together. I am very money-conscious and enjoy window shopping, but a lot of the time won’t get anything unless I feel like it’s a good deal. My grad school friends bought new winter coats and boots and used their parents’ credit cards to pay. I’m not bitter about it; if I could I would totally do that as well. I just can’t relate. And I don't think they could relate to me either. I just loaned my family $2000 for my sister to pay for college because my parents couldn’t afford the expected parental contribution. Loaning my parents money was a very odd thing for me, but whenever I try to talk about those kinds of experiences, I usually get blank stares or weird concerned looks. I just wish I knew someone who has been in my shoes; someone who I could share these experiences with. 

I was wondering if anyone else is in a similar boat, and if you are, how did you find people like you/relate to your peers who seem to come from totally different worlds?

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1 hour ago, Butterfly_effect said:

I didn’t realize that in grad school that it’s common to receive significant financial support from your parents.

I don't know where you are going or what exactly you are studying, but I know exactly no one who got regular financial support from their parents at my grad program, which was also at a top school. Maybe you just need to look for friends outside of your cohort/department. It happens that one doesn't get along with people from one's cohort, for a variety of reasons, and the best solution seems to be to do a combination of becoming more flexible in talking to your cohort and what you expect from them, and looking for friends elsewhere. There are threads here that you can find on where to look (e.g. meetup and similar, and other suggestions).

And as for thinking that one's experience is the norm, isn't that entirely commonplace? You know what you know and you view the world from your own perspective. If you and everyone you know does X, and you don't give any thought to the fact that there are other people in other parts of town (or, you know, in other cities/states/countries, etc.) who do Y, you might generalize more than you should. There is a reason why we talk about white privilege and male privilege, etc.

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I see what you say, but I don't necessarily agree. 

I don't come from low-income family, but I am international student, so it is worse because. My roommate's so young her dad still pays for insurance (health, car, etc), taxes, trips, etc. As an older student, I already passed the bitterness of being upset, I would have been five years ago. But I have learned that we all have our own situations, good or bad. Sometimes I don't go out because I have no money and if a friends gets offended by that, that's their problem. I had so say no to some roadtrips, and a friend got upset. Sorry for her. Don't let these things get to you. It is not worth it.

Further, I think that you being there and getting all those looks is great. You are part of an environment clearly not used to your financial situation and I think it is important for everyone to interact with people they are not used to. In any case, you have a great opportunity to show that money does not define you but affects you and people should learn to be sensitive about that in the same way they should be sensitive about other things. In my case, some American friends mistrust my knowledge because unconsciously they think that coming from a third world country automatically means worse education. So, seize this chance to show others that there are other realities in the world and you yourself don't be so conscious about it. Enjoy this!

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3 hours ago, fuzzylogician said:

Maybe you just need to look for friends outside of your cohort/department. 

Thanks! I do have friends outside of my cohort. I was more posting because I want to get along better with the people in my cohort that I interact with all the time. I don't always know how to overcome awkwardness caused by our differing assumptions about our backgrounds. 

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59 minutes ago, Butterfly_effect said:

Thanks! I do have friends outside of my cohort. I was more posting because I want to get along better with the people in my cohort that I interact with all the time. I don't always know how to overcome awkwardness caused by our differing assumptions about our backgrounds. 

Time. And patience. You get to know them better, they get to know you better. If they are open and willing (and you can't make them, if they are not), they will come to understand where you came from and when an assumption they are making just doesn't hold for you, at least to some extent. You can't expect them to change their assumptions about the world after just talking to you once, but you can hope that if you have multiple conversations with them over time, that they will begin to be more inclusive of your point of view. It's really hard to imagine someone's life when it's completely different from yours, even if you are the best meaning person, certainly if you are not even aware of your privilege. Having actual personal contact with someone who lives that life is the best way to lead to change. 

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I think we all sometimes feel like there are others better off than us, or that there is something different about us that makes us feel left out. I think because you're self-conscious about it you're going to be the one noticing things like this, not anybody else.

Although I'm not in the same situation as you, I do know what it's like to feel like others are in more favourable circumstances than I am. I did have my education paid for by a relative, but not being on financial aid made me ineligible for all summer research opportunities. This feels downright unfair when you're trying to apply for grad school and see fellow classmates presenting at conferences and conducting research with professors. And I know other people being able to spend their money more freely, or having academic or wealthy backgrounds, can feel unfair as well, but you have to remember that you've ended up exactly where they are regardless. People have different backgrounds and different experiences but still share certain qualities and goals. Try to put a positive spin on your circumstances and experiences. Try to find similarities between you and your cohort rather than focusing on the differences.

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I can totally understand your situation there. I'm also from a humble background and have been dealing with this half-awkward and half-confident moments during my school years. Actually, I found myself even more unrelated after I went to college, as a English major, and later on won a scholarship to study in the US. Since not everyone from my hometown can have the luck and privilege to go to college (plus pick some major that does not seem to be immediately lucrative upon graduation) and to compete for a selective government scholarship, I assume this is normal that I would not be surrounded by people who share or understand my background. But in any case, I am used to it and proud of what I have achieved so far, even when I'll have to go slower and bumpier. My peer was shocked that while he was already admitted to UCLA with generous funding, I just started my application for the Fall 2107 cycle because I needed to work and pay for ET$ exams, house rent (I moved to a city where libraries are available) and other upcoming application fees.  

It took me some years to realize and to embrace what fuzzylogician said: it is not easy for people to understand the world beyond their own experience. So, on the personal level, I think this is totally fine. I am glad that difference exists and perhaps I should be grateful that I have something else to say because of my socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. On the professional level, however, it really bothers me when teachers or classmates dealing with issues narrowly... In that context, I am uncomfortable and upset to see how they betray or ignore genuine humanities concerns, about human sufferings, inequality, underrepresentation that we practitioners should be sensitive enough to acknowledge. Well... I am not sure how your situation would benefit your career (but I am sure that you've gained enough strength to build resilience and perseverance against all odds later in life), but as a English major myself, my experience becomes an impetus; it compels me to delve into certain research topics as I decided to embark on my academic journey (that is, if I got admitted). 

Building network and finding company outside of you cohort might be a good idea. Personally, I love talking to people from all walks of life. I talk to random strangers like bartenders, baristas (I think they are the most accessible), seniors on the bus, etc. and sometimes they teach me things even if they don't have a Ivy degree. Or, I just go for a run or random evening reads to find peace. Hey, by the way, you don't have to go shopping with a running pal. Perhaps you can look for activity-specific company; in that way, you'll be able to do what's enjoyable with them and leave the rest to yourself.

In any case... I just want you to know that you're not alone. Best of luck for everything! ;-P 
 

Edited by cloudyword

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I'm definitely on the lower end of means compared to 99% of students I meet, and while other student's family's affluence is never blatant, there are hints. Sometimes, it's how nice of a car they drive or how much they spend on food. Sometimes, it's the clothes they wear; I doubt anyone of lesser means has a closet full of Patagonia. Sometimes, it's passing mentions of what their parents do for a living.

I generally just nod and hold my tongue. It does feel as if they live in another world. Peers of mine will mention in passing that they didn't grow up with much money, yet their second breath notes how their parents can only pay their rent, not their tuition. Or they'll comment that their 'really old, junky car' is only 2-3 years old and probably cost more than my student loan debt when new.

I genuinely wonder how these people will do after graduation.

Edited by Neist
Typo.

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Another thing to realize is that just because members of your cohort are being supported by their parents doesn't mean its affordable.  Their parents may be living way beyond their means, maxing out credit cards, taking out loans, etc and their kid has no idea (or doesn't care).  I've known plenty of students who thought the parental gravy train would never end and all of a sudden it did because their parents reached a point of no return.  Those students are then in for a rude awakening as they realize they know nothing about money management and there is no way they can maintain the lifestyle they're used to with zero income while being a full time student. 

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@Neist and @MarineBluePsy both make good points.

Some students really do get everything paid for by them, sure, but what happens if they're suddenly cut off? Unlike you they won't have any experience with financial independence. 

And a lot of people go out of their way to appear more "well off" than they are. The complete opposite can be true as well. 

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Yes, I know plenty of graduate students in my program are still supported by their parents, even when they are in their 30s (ex. phone bill, car insurance, rent, etc.) 

I have noticed that most generous people I have met in graduate school were all from low- or middle- class background. One of my former coworkers was an international student from a third world country, but he often fail to mention that everyone in his family are medical doctor and that they just bought a beach front house in US in full cash, in order to gain legal resident status. Oh, and he wasn't even willing to contribute $20 for a farewell gift for a postdoc who helped our lab research a lot for 3 years. 

Another kid (also a former coworker) was also bragging about he doesn't have to pay any rent because he owns a house that his parents gave it to him (he doesn't pay for property taxes) and he has a fund ready for him to use once he turns 30. 

 

 

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On 7/9/2016 at 7:25 PM, Quantum Buckyball said:

Another kid (also a former coworker) was also bragging about he doesn't have to pay any rent because he owns a house that his parents gave it to him (he doesn't pay for property taxes) and he has a fund ready for him to use once he turns 30. 

Whoa :blink:

 

On 7/9/2016 at 3:17 PM, MarineBluePsy said:

Another thing to realize is that just because members of your cohort are being supported by their parents doesn't mean its affordable.

Definitely. I never really realized this could be a thing until undergrad. I have no clue how common this is among my grad cohort. I find the graduate students I know aren't as open as my undergrad friends about money, but I think a lot of that has to do with the depth of the friendships I was able to make quickly in undergrad (probably in part due to shared proximity). 

 

On 7/9/2016 at 1:49 PM, Neist said:

yet their second breath notes how their parents can only pay their rent, not their tuition

Just curious, how common is it to have to pay tuition in a PhD program? I am only really familiar with life sciences, and I think it's pretty uncommon not to get tuition completely waived as well as a living stipend. 

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12 hours ago, Butterfly_effect said:

Just curious, how common is it to have to pay tuition in a PhD program? I am only really familiar with life sciences, and I think it's pretty uncommon not to get tuition completely waived as well as a living stipend. 

1

I can only estimate based on the program I'm attending, but there's definitely more students than there are assistantship positions. I believe there's under 10 rotating assistantship positions, but there are 15 students in the program, and that's excluding doctoral candidates. I know a few individuals have been awarded outside-of-department funding (via a library RA-ship or the like), but I'm guessing there are at least a few people covering the bill.

In general, I'd say paying tuition in the humanities is pretty uncommon, but not because certain programs have an ability to fund everyone. The students who end up matriculating are just the small minority of students who did receive funding from a larger pool.

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@Butterfly_effect and the rest of this thread: I am SO SO sorry but that horribly written post. That's not a couple typos. That's me being fully asleep in front of the screen. Sorry guys. :(

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On July 8, 2016 at 3:43 PM, Butterfly_effect said:

I was wondering if anyone else is in a similar boat, and if you are, how did you find people like you/relate to your peers who seem to come from totally different worlds?

I am in a similar boat. But I did something different from what you did. I just honestly tell them where I am from, and more importantly let them know I am proletarian. I guess when you are more openly talk about your problems in a sincere way, there are generally two types of people: 1. those who are quickly tired of your stories and problems 2. those who are interested in listening and/or willing to help if possible. You can quickly identify who may be more suitable for you to continue to hang out more often and know more about each other in this way. 

On July 8, 2016 at 3:43 PM, Butterfly_effect said:

For example, some other classmates and I went shopping together. I am very money-conscious and enjoy window shopping, but a lot of the time won’t get anything unless I feel like it’s a good deal. My grad school friends bought new winter coats and boots and used their parents’ credit cards to pay. I’m not bitter about it; if I could I would totally do that as well. I just can’t relate. And I don't think they could relate to me either. I just loaned my family $2000 for my sister to pay for college because my parents couldn’t afford the expected parental contribution. Loaning my parents money was a very odd thing for me, but whenever I try to talk about those kinds of experiences, I usually get blank stares or weird concerned looks. I just wish I knew someone who has been in my shoes; someone who I could share these experiences with. 

You willed to loan the money to your family rather than spending that money in buying things for yourself. This means that you exercised your free will to take this action to help your sister, giving priority to help others in stead of yourself. This is a case of altruism. I guess your essential problem is not that you do not have the money to buy the things you window shopped. You did have the money. If you had not had loaned the money to your family, you could have used that money to buy the things you window shopped. The essential issue here is that you gave priority to the happiness of your family rather than to your own pleasure. That was your choice. But now you somehow regret your choice because as a result of your altruism to your family you cannot enjoy the shopping that you could have enjoyed. How to solve this problem? Well, switch your priority if you can will to do so. 

You may say you have the moral obligation to help your sister out. But honestly speaking, not matter from Aristotelian ethics (reason over emotion) , deontological ethics (rationality as basis of morality), utilitarianism (maximization of utility), contractualism/contractarianism (mutual agreement), it is hard to justify that it is morally required to give priority to your family over yourself, unless you are simply altruistic, and choose to exercise your free will to help at the cost of your own happiness. For example, you said that you parents did not support you for your college career in a substantial sense. Then, ask yourself why you should support them for the EFC that they are supposed to contribute, and why you should take the responsibility of theirs. Is there any social contract going on here? If so, what kind of social contract? If no social contract at all, isn't it unfair to even ask you to contribute, regardless of whether you are opulent or are eking out a living? 

Based on your description, I also feel that your family members are trying to take advantage of (i.e. exploit) you. They did not financially support you for many years yet ask you for financial support for their own problems. Isn't this a text-book definition of exploitation (i.e. giving out little and then demanding a lot back)? Given that you are now self-supported and can make a living with your stipend, AND given that your family can barely support you for anything, it may be better for you to distance yourself from your family, or simply quit from it and cut whatever ties you may have with them. After all, a family is not unlike other social institutions such as a school, a company, etc, and you should have the right to quit if you are treated unfairly in such a social institution. A detailed discussion of family as a social institution can be found in this book: The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (published in 1884). So, if you have time, take a look at this book, and you will have a better idea what family is all about. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Edited by historicallinguist

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I would like to comment from the other side of this. While I grew up in poverty, my father is (now in my adult years) very wealthy. He is also very generous in the realm of academics, in that he has offered (I would have never asked) to help pay for textbooks, school expenses, or any big medical/dental issues I have. 

Both my undergrad and so far grad school have been fully funded by scholarships, grants, and a TA position. I have worked many minimum wage jobs to pay rent, buy clothes, etc. I shop at thrift stores, all my furniture is from craigslist, I don't eat out... and the $20 a person to get into the zoo on the weekend is something we save up for. People having resources doesn't make them incapable of understanding your situation. 

Most people I have ever met in grad school are operating on a limited budget, and have used clothes, bus passes, etc. Just like I do. But if they aren't, that doesn't mean you can't relate in other ways. It is always nice to talk with people from other walks of life and learn their own struggles, and introduce them to lives outside of their own socioeconomic spheres too. 

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On 7/15/2016 at 5:50 AM, historicallinguist said:

But now you somehow regret your choice because as a result of your altruism to your family you cannot enjoy the shopping that you could have enjoyed.

Hi, thanks for the response. Just to clarify, I don't regret my decision to loan my family money at all. I just mentioned those instances as times I felt distant from my peers, kind of 'torn between two worlds' kind of way, if that makes sense. 

 

On 7/15/2016 at 5:50 AM, historicallinguist said:

Based on your description, I also feel that your family members are trying to take advantage of (i.e. exploit) you.

I don't think this is the case at all. Maybe I was unclear in my description. My family didn't support me largely because they didn't need to (full-ride scholarship) and it's not like they didn't help out (I stayed home over some breaks, etc.). Also just to be clear, they didn't demand, they asked me. I was free to say 'no' and they would have had to try to get a loan from the government or something. Again, I really don't regret this decision at all. I am happy to be able to support my family (and it's not like I won't get the money back eventually). I wrote the post more to get perspectives from people in similar (or different) situations regarding navigating class differences in grad school.

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I have a similar experience where even professors have trouble believing that students are genuinely struggling to make ends meet. I have had a professor complain to me about the school accepting MA students who work when only partial scholarships are offered to some  MA students and the others must work/live off of loans/receive parental help. I am one of the students working 2 part time jobs (for more flexibility in my schedule) in order to pay bills, etc. Everyone is different and we wouldn't be who we are without different circumstances and upbringings, but I definitely get the frustration that comes with a lack of understanding about different socio-economic status lifestyles. 

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On 7/15/2016 at 10:53 AM, sjoh197 said:

It is always nice to talk with people from other walks of life and learn their own struggles, and introduce them to lives outside of their own socioeconomic spheres too. 

Yep, I totally agree.  

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7 hours ago, Butterfly_effect said:

Hi, thanks for the response. Just to clarify, I don't regret my decision to loan my family money at all. I just mentioned those instances as times I felt distant from my peers, kind of 'torn between two worlds' kind of way, if that makes sense. 

 

I don't think this is the case at all. Maybe I was unclear in my description. My family didn't support me largely because they didn't need to (full-ride scholarship) and it's not like they didn't help out (I stayed home over some breaks, etc.). Also just to be clear, they didn't demand, they asked me. I was free to say 'no' and they would have had to try to get a loan from the government or something. Again, I really don't regret this decision at all. I am happy to be able to support my family (and it's not like I won't get the money back eventually). I wrote the post more to get perspectives from people in similar (or different) situations regarding navigating class differences in grad school.

Oh I see. Now I understand. Then, it is a totally different story. It sounds like both you and your family have good will to help each other, and such good will is also mutual. Regardless of the consequences of such good will on each party (i.e. being non-consequentialist), I think the good will is such that it truly makes a difference here.

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I can only speak for myself but I'm on the opposite side of the fence. My parents have helped me throughout undergrad and I'm very lucky to have zero loans. I also was smart enough to use this time wisely and put a lot of money towards my savings. Now I'm mostly independent, they offered to help pay my tuition. I went instate for undergrad and I had access to affordable four-year schools. With the fellowships I was given, it brought down the price significantly for grad school. My parents offered and I didn't see any reason not to accept. I'm going to a masters program so it isn't completely funded.

I'm applying for part time jobs now but with my parents help I don't feel the pressure of getting a full time job. Also living with my bf helps with the cost of living. Of course I never bragged and only talked this with close friends. Not sure about anyone else but I know that I never meant to make anyone feel uncomfortable. I do know my peers liked to comment "how I always dressed so fancy" when all I was wearing was a dress or a sweater/jeans. I won't understand the struggles completely since I haven't experienced it for myself. But my close/best friends come from less privilege means so I'm not oblivious. I like to joke that my sense of reality is a little bit better than Lucille Bluth. :)

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My bf is starting a neuroscience program as well, and from my time with him I've learned how he doesn't always feel comfortable or like he belongs in the same situations that I might take for granted. Being the first person to graduate from university in your family, having to translate for your parents, or teach them basic financial skills, or sometimes loan them money is all new to me.

However, both my bf (from a lower income background) and I (from a more educated and better off background) can not relate to people who have no sense of what things cost, no responsibility and no previous work experience, and who are still dependent on their parents in graduate school. I know many people like this, but both of us are unable to really relate to them on a deeper level or get along very well.

So although I know there are many things I likely can't relate to, I completely relate to being someone more frugal, who prefers to window shop, and doesn't feel comfortable with people who spend their parents' money like it's nothing.  That might not help you find a way to get along with these people, but you might just have to be polite acquaintances and not close friends.

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Ah, well. I have been in two different American schools, and, unlike my home country, people with money seem to be very down to earth. Maybe I haven't met super rich people. Also, I have never heard most people are receiving money from their parents. I think some people may receive money from their parents. In my department everyone is funded, soooo

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I feel you on this so hard, @Butterfly_effect. I am starting in the fall and really worried about what it's going to be like not just with my cohort, but also to TA for undergrads who have more money at 18 than I have in my entire life. I'm a non-traditional student who just came from a tiny SLAC, where there was a lot of money, but it was different- I was embraced as a part of the community, and my experience was, while not entirely bump-free, pretty great. Now, though, there's this power differential, and I'm not super sure about what to do to lessen those awkward situations.

What has helped a little in the prep is talking to other folks who are already in PhD programs and dealing with the same stuff. Out-of-touch cohorts, undergrads, and admin/faculty are all situations that have been discussed among my friend group, outside of my program. Also, a friend posted this recently (https://docs.google.com/document/d/1vCjZLXBPY1p7iKz2jnviJa0YYIFlyT2pREad-CiFqtg/preview) and I have found it to be a source of good information, lots of common sense stuff, but it's nice that it's all spelled out in here. It's becoming a wiki, and will be edited further in the coming months. 

I know that stuff isn't really an answer to what you're asking, and I'm sorry to be a derailing voice. I just wanted to jump in and say hey, you are heard, and you are not alone. 

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