Jump to content
Butterfly_effect

Grad students from low-income backgrounds (rant?)

Recommended Posts

@Butterfly_effect thanks for posting this. Like you, I come from a humble background: my parents don't have college degrees, my grandparents were immigrants, and we often struggled financially while growing up. When I first started grad school, my mom was living in a trailer, and with my grad stipend, I was making significantly more money than her annually. I recently got my first car at 26, and it was a 20-year-old hand-me-down from my father after HE was able to get a slightly newer hand-me-down car from relatives.

What surprised me most about grad school was that most of the other grad students frequently complain about how little we make - to me, the stipend is a fortune! Because of the way I grew up, I am extremely careful now about savings, paying off debts, and filling my retirement IRA each year, so I was flabbergasted to hear from other students last year that they had "run out" of money by the first of June and had nothing to live on over the summer!

This year I actually held a workshop for other grad students in the department to show them how to file their own taxes - many of them had never had a job of any kind before (at an average age of 24-26 years old) and had no idea how to fill out the forms. When I told other grad students who grew up with parents who were doctors, lawyers, and teachers that I was raised in a house where we didn't have books, and I saved all of my pocket money to buy them for myself, they were shocked.

I've never experienced any condescension or rudeness from other grad students who grew up in families that were better off, but I think it's important both for them and for myself to see that there's something more than we experienced growing up. I hope that my presence in our grad program is able to better remind others how lucky they are to be there (as I myself feel every day), so perhaps they won't take things as much for granted. 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

OP, I totally get where you are coming from. I found being a doctoral student from a working-class background difficult in a more philosophical/existential space than an actual effect.

In my department regular financial support from parents was also pretty common - I know people whose parents covered their rent, or covered their living expenses during the summer; and people whose parents bought them an apartment or at least paid the down payment on an apartment in my very expensive graduate city. It also made me feel a little weird, because that was such a foreign concept to me - my background is really similar to yours (I went to college on a full scholarship and haven't had any significant financial support from my parents since I was 18; I lent large sums of money to my parents to keep them afloat while I was in graduate school, and never got all of it back). Sometimes the conversations we'd have or the expectations of the childhood experiences that we'd had heightened my feelings of being on the outside in this specific set of circumstances.

You're not imagining things; this is so commonplace that there are actually two books about it. The best-known one is This Fine Place So Far From Home, edited by C.L. Barney Dews and Carolyn Leste Law. The other one (which is actually older) is called Strangers in Paradise, edited by Jake Ryan and Charles Sackrey. Both are anthologies of analytical essays written from the perspective of academics who grew up working class and how they had to navigate the environment, which felt foreign to them. One memorable joke from the first book (paraphrased) is an author who made reference to the wine and cheese gatherings that academics tend to have; she said that when poor people really need to talk to each other, they don't spend time trying to balance a small plate in one and and a glass of wine in the other while standing up. They sit down! It was funny to me, but it also resonated because my awkwardness and wine and cheese events (or any event with highboy tables where you stand up and eat!) was encapsulated there. It was not something I had ever been exposed to before.

What surprised me most about grad school was that most of the other grad students frequently complain about how little we make - to me, the stipend is a fortune! Because of the way I grew up, I am extremely careful now about savings, paying off debts, and filling my retirement IRA each year, so I was flabbergasted to hear from other students last year that they had "run out" of money by the first of June and had nothing to live on over the summer!

This was my experience as well. My stipend was $32,000 a year and that, to me, felt like so much money. I felt like I could do everything I wanted and still save. But...my wants were pretty small in scope, things like buying new clothes and eating out sometimes, or being able to replace my personal needs before they ran out. My husband always teases me about hoarding toothpaste and toilet paper but that's because I grew up with those things running out and my family not being able to replace them quickly. So I was really baffled when I would hear fellow cohort mates complaining that we made so little.
 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Wow, what a great thread! Thank you, @Butterfly_effect and everyone else who shared their stories.

I grew up on a farm and have never really been rich/had nice things. My parents were able to pay all the bills and provide food and clothing and such, but any leftover money went back to the farm and back into the business (or to other things... but that's another story). I went to college without taking on debt due to scholarships and grants, and I also worked my way through college to make extra money (both at the farm and at my university). I definitely understand the struggle, but I realize that I was probably still better off than most thanks to the scholarships and steady (albeit quasi exploitative) work.

I'm probably going to be making more money with my stipend/extra jobs than I do at the farm, which is weird to me. I totally can feel those of you who say that the stipends don't seem that low because, to me, it feels like a lot of money for not too much work (it's a lot of work, of course, but when you're used to working 70 hours a week and getting paid peanuts, it definitely feels like moving on up in the world!).

In the end, I feel grateful to have grown up understanding the value of hard work and a dollar. It definitely wasn't easy growing up and watching all my friends have fancy toys, cars, vacations, etc. while I had to work/have used things, but I feel like it's part of who I am (and perhaps a part of who all of you are, too).

Sometimes I feel like I wear it all as a badge of honor :)

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

As someone who came from a privileged background, I never flashed any sort of wealth (in fact, I prefer not to own nice furniture -- I don't like the idea of people becoming my friends because I have nice things or a nice car or whatever), but I did find it very hard to relate to the poorer people in some ways. For example, going to a movie with some friends one time. I wanted to just go to a regular movie theater that had a nice parking lot. Everyone else was whining that the tickets would cost $10 instead of $8 (or whatever), so they insisted on going to a theater on campus. This meant finding a place to parallel park and walking 6 blocks each way. When I said that sounded like a bad idea, one of the guys said "or you could just pay for our tickets." I actually considered it, but I wasn't going to do that *after* someone made a dick comment like that. Or even back in undergrad when I studied abroad, everyone around me refused to spend more than like $5 going out to lunch. That got really annoying.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
12 hours ago, arkaim said:

As someone who came from a privileged background, I never flashed any sort of wealth (in fact, I prefer not to own nice furniture -- I don't like the idea of people becoming my friends because I have nice things or a nice car or whatever), but I did find it very hard to relate to the poorer people in some ways. For example, going to a movie with some friends one time. I wanted to just go to a regular movie theater that had a nice parking lot. Everyone else was whining that the tickets would cost $10 instead of $8 (or whatever), so they insisted on going to a theater on campus. This meant finding a place to parallel park and walking 6 blocks each way. When I said that sounded like a bad idea, one of the guys said "or you could just pay for our tickets." I actually considered it, but I wasn't going to do that *after* someone made a dick comment like that. Or even back in undergrad when I studied abroad, everyone around me refused to spend more than like $5 going out to lunch. That got really annoying.

"That got really annoying"

 

petty-bourgeoisie privilege alert.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
On 7/9/2016 at 5:25 PM, Quantum Buckyball said:

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. 

 

 

Rich people don't get rich by giving their money away. That is all. 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
12 hours ago, arkaim said:

As someone who came from a privileged background, I never flashed any sort of wealth (in fact, I prefer not to own nice furniture -- I don't like the idea of people becoming my friends because I have nice things or a nice car or whatever), but I did find it very hard to relate to the poorer people in some ways. For example, going to a movie with some friends one time. I wanted to just go to a regular movie theater that had a nice parking lot. Everyone else was whining that the tickets would cost $10 instead of $8 (or whatever), so they insisted on going to a theater on campus. This meant finding a place to parallel park and walking 6 blocks each way. When I said that sounded like a bad idea, one of the guys said "or you could just pay for our tickets." I actually considered it, but I wasn't going to do that *after* someone made a dick comment like that. Or even back in undergrad when I studied abroad, everyone around me refused to spend more than like $5 going out to lunch. That got really annoying.

No I get it. I think everyone has their own preferences to what they are willing to give their money for. I am relatively cheap when it comes to food. (I don't like spending more than $5 on lunch either. But I pay more for rent so I don't have to live next to people who throw parties all the time and trash the hallways. And I don't like to go anywhere with my vehicle where I can imagine getting potential damage from other peoples shitty cars that they don't care about. -I think the movie theater falls into that category. I'd rather spend $2, and not have to worry about shitty street parking.  

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

@klader My mom grew up on a farm in south dakota, so i've heard all the stories about having to wake up at 4 am when its in the negatives to do manual labor. When most people meet my mom, they are shocked when they learned she grew up on a farm. She kept the work ethic but she left everything else :D. She hates the cold (anything below 70) and told my dad she would divorce him, if he went ahead and bought land/cows. :) 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
On Friday, July 29, 2016 at 0:53 PM, Need Coffee in an IV said:

@klader My mom grew up on a farm in south dakota, so i've heard all the stories about having to wake up at 4 am when its in the negatives to do manual labor. When most people meet my mom, they are shocked when they learned she grew up on a farm. She kept the work ethic but she left everything else :D. She hates the cold (anything below 70) and told my dad she would divorce him, if he went ahead and bought land/cows. :) 

Oh, yes!!! I know the feeling. Started my work day at 4:30 this morning, in fact, and when I'm older, I don't ever want to live around cows and cornfields ;)

It's so true that, after growing up on a farm, you keep the work ethic and apply it to basically everything else you do as you go through life. It rubs off on you after a while and becomes a part of you. Whether you're researching Isocrates all night or picking corn all morning, you get 'er done

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
2 hours ago, klader said:

Oh, yes!!! I know the feeling. Started my work day at 4:30 this morning, in fact, and when I'm older, I don't ever want to live around cows and cornfields ;)

It's so true that, after growing up on a farm, you keep the work ethic and apply it to basically everything else you do as you go through life. It rubs off on you after a while and becomes a part of you. Whether you're researching Isocrates all night or picking corn all morning, you get 'er done

Pretty much! My mom has had people turn down her job offers because they were scared of her work ethic :-P. I'm pretty sure the only cow my mom wants to see is one on her plate ha.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
On 7/23/2016 at 10:20 AM, jlt646 said:

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. 

Thanks for the reply (and thanks to everyone else who has replied!). And you're not a derailing voice. This kind of thing (relating to others) is exactly what I'm looking for. :)Yeah that's a great document. Here's the wiki link. http://howtoprepforgradschoolwhilepoor.wikispaces.com/

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
On 7/23/2016 at 10:52 AM, maelia8 said:

This year I actually held a workshop for other grad students in the department to show them how to file their own taxes

Thanks for the reply! I always did my own taxes too. To be fair, grad school taxes are extra hard (and quarterly estimated tax payments are also a huge headache if you're in a program like mine that doesn't withhold any $$ from our paychecks). -_-

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Thanks for the stories and perspectives everyone! From hearing your stories and talking with older grad students, I feel really positive about the future. People (myself included) will be awkward sometimes, misunderstandings will happen, and transitioning from one class to another isn't easy, but it's ultimately a positive thing. :)

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

For what it's worth, I find being completely upfront the best thing for me. I remember a conversation with a prof I TA with where she mentioned in passing that it was annoying that she needed to wait at home for the pool cleaners to come and that interfered with her golf outing with a friend. The story then goes that the golf was supposed to lead to some dressage show. I made some comment about loving horses and she asked how often I rode, and I said never, even though I used to volunteer with them just so I could be around them. When she asked why, I told her upfront I didn't have the money to ride. The prof looked at me quite puzzled and I had to explain that the money it cost to ride (equipment, clothes, riding lessons, etc) is equivalent to X number of meals I could eat in a week or month, or maybe part of my rent. She really had zero clue what her students make do with. 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I totally relate to the original post. I would also like to add that as a first generation college student, I met no one in my cohort or department that were first generation college students. In fact, many had parents that were quite successful (i.e. lawyers, doctors, researchers). Being as my parents never went to college, I didn't feel like I could freely express my problems or issues with my parents because they would not understand. In fact, my parents were not truly supportive of my research pursuits until now and even now I have to defend my future research goals and interests and whether they are worth it. They come from a background where higher education should lead directly to more money, which is not always the case in research. The support whether financial or social/emotional helps a lot. 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I really relate to this post as well. I grew up well below the poverty line, struggled with homelessness, I have no relationship with my family, etc. I have been having such a tough time with feeling like I belong here. I feel so behind all the time. I never thought I would graduate high school, let alone go to an elite PhD program. I sit in seminars with people who are so articulate, so skilled at speaking and putting their thoughts together, and I can't even work up the courage to open my mouth. It's a struggle for me everyday to: 1. Believe I have something valid to say 2. Believe I have a right to say it...let alone the courage of saying it....and none of my peers ever seem to doubt those things. It's hard with faculty, they want to know why I don't speak up more, and I don't know quite how to explain that when you do not grow up with the privilege of believing you have a right to an education it's a tough road.

 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
On 9/14/2016 at 10:01 PM, Rogue856 said:

I really relate to this post as well. I grew up well below the poverty line, struggled with homelessness, I have no relationship with my family, etc. I have been having such a tough time with feeling like I belong here. I feel so behind all the time. I never thought I would graduate high school, let alone go to an elite PhD program. I sit in seminars with people who are so articulate, so skilled at speaking and putting their thoughts together, and I can't even work up the courage to open my mouth. It's a struggle for me everyday to: 1. Believe I have something valid to say 2. Believe I have a right to say it...let alone the courage of saying it....and none of my peers ever seem to doubt those things. It's hard with faculty, they want to know why I don't speak up more, and I don't know quite how to explain that when you do not grow up with the privilege of believing you have a right to an education it's a tough road.

 

Thanks for posting this! I've struggled for a while to sort out why my writing and vocabulary in general was lacking. I never once really thought about the educational background of my family being a factor. 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

My parents were, it turned out much later, upper-middle class, but you wouldn't know it at the time.  They were tight with money.  When I was a kid, my allowance was one nickel a week, and if I went to my dad and asked for another nickel, he'd tell me to come back in a week.  My mom's chief love was music, and all she had was one AM radio, one record player, and about 10 records that she played over and over again.  I never heard rock and roll until high school.

At that time financial aid for college was calculated this way:

  1. Add up the value of all your parents' savings and assets.  This effectively included retirement savings, since there were no 401Ks and the max yearly contribution for an IRA was about $2000.
  2. If it's more than the tuition for one kid for one year of college, you get no financial aid.

So families with retirement savings or a house got no financial aid.  Families with more than one kid were supposed to pick one to send to college, I guess.  I could have gotten into any college, but there were no more merit scholarships at the top colleges.  These had been done away with in the 1960s and 1970s.  Most of the financial aid available came with a disclaimer saying "If you are a white guy, f--- off."  If you couldn't get financial aid and you didn't have cash, you could try to get a loan, but the maximum college loan the government would make was $10K a year, which was 1/3 to 1/4 of what you'd have needed to attend a highly-ranked college.  The white male middle class of my generation was shut out of all the top colleges.

In my freshman year of undergrad, my parents gave me my college fund which they'd been saving all my life for my college education, which was then $3000.  It lasted most of that year.  That was all the money they gave me until long after grad school.

I had 4 different scholarships in undergrad and 2 or 3 fellowships in grad school, and took odd jobs to cover the rest, and just squeaked by.  I couldn't go to movies.  I couldn't go out drinking.  I couldn't go out to restaurants, ever, not one time in my 4 years as undergrad.  I ate oatmeal, Ramen noodles, and macaroni and cheese, and sometimes I had none of that and sprayed my roommate's spray starch down my throat for dinner.

As a guy, it meant I couldn't date.  I had no money, so I couldn't take a girl anywhere.  I had little social life.  It was a repetition of my childhood, when I couldn't participate in after-school activities because I had to deliver newspapers every day for a few bucks a week.  I was at a college full of rich kids, and some of my rich housemates cheated me on the phone bill, making long phone calls to Greece or Lebanon that they didn't pay for.  The more money they had, the less likely they were to pay.  Grad school was similar, though I had more money owing to the small stipend.

Years later I found out that by that time, my parents had given hundreds of thousands of dollars to Christian missions, and saved up even more for their retirement.  They didn't mean to be cheap.  They didn't know that college cost money.  When they went to college it was, like, $500 a year tuition, and they lived at home and paid nothing for room or board, so they just didn't think of college as a thing you needed to save money for.  Maybe they would have given me money if I'd asked.  I don't know.

Edited by Shagbark
typo

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
23 hours ago, Shagbark said:

My parents were, it turned out much later, upper-middle class, but you wouldn't know it at the time.  They were tight with money.  When I was a kid, my allowance was one nickel a week, and if I went to my dad and asked for another nickel, he'd tell me to come back in a week.  My mom's chief love was music, and all she had was one AM radio, one record player, and about 10 records that she played over and over again.  I never heard rock and roll until high school.

At that time financial aid for college was calculated this way:

  1. Add up the value of all your parents' savings and assets.  This effectively included retirement savings, since there were no 401Ks and the max yearly contribution for an IRA was about $2000.
  2. If it's more than the tuition for one kid for one year of college, you get no financial aid.

So families with retirement savings or a house got no financial aid.  Families with more than one kid were supposed to pick one to send to college, I guess.  I could have gotten into any college, but there were no more merit scholarships at the top colleges.  These had been done away with in the 1960s and 1970s.  Most of the financial aid available came with a disclaimer saying "If you are a white guy, f--- off."  If you couldn't get financial aid and you didn't have cash, you could try to get a loan, but the maximum college loan the government would make was $10K a year, which was 1/3 to 1/4 of what you'd have needed to attend a highly-ranked college.  The white male middle class of my generation was shut out of all the top colleges.

In my freshman year of undergrad, my parents gave me my college fund which they'd been saving all my life for my college education, which was then $3000.  It lasted most of that year.  That was all the money they gave me until long after grad school.

I had 4 different scholarships in undergrad and 2 or 3 fellowships in grad school, and took odd jobs to cover the rest, and just squeaked by.  I couldn't go to movies.  I couldn't go out drinking.  I couldn't go out to restaurants, ever, not one time in my 4 years as undergrad.  I ate oatmeal, Ramen noodles, and macaroni and cheese, and sometimes I had none of that and sprayed my roommate's spray starch down my throat for dinner.

As a guy, it meant I couldn't date.  I had no money, so I couldn't take a girl anywhere.  I had little social life.  It was a repetition of my childhood, when I couldn't participate in after-school activities because I had to deliver newspapers every day for a few bucks a week.  I was at a college full of rich kids, and some of my rich housemates cheated me on the phone bill, making long phone calls to Greece or Lebanon that they didn't pay for.  The more money they had, the less likely they were to pay.  Grad school was similar, though I had more money owing to the small stipend.

Years later I found out that by that time, my parents had given hundreds of thousands of dollars to Christian missions, and saved up even more for their retirement.  They didn't mean to be cheap.  They didn't know that college cost money.  When they went to college it was, like, $500 a year tuition, and they lived at home and paid nothing for room or board, so they just didn't think of college as a thing you needed to save money for.  Maybe they would have given me money if I'd asked.  I don't know.

I'm confused...you went to college in the 60s and 70s, but are just now applying for another grad program? And while I understand the hardship, college was still way more affordable in the 1960s and 1970s than it is now. 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
On 9/26/2016 at 10:04 AM, Shagbark said:

sometimes I had none of that and sprayed my roommate's spray starch down my throat for dinner.

I think this will replace "I used to walk to school 20 miles uphill both ways" as the seminal marker of millennial entitlement

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now

×
×
  • Create New...

Important Information

By using this site, you agree to our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.