Section: News

Students recount experiences with economic divide

Students recount experiences with economic divide

By Julie France and Phoebe Carter

Sitting in the hot, August sun four years ago, listening to Dean of Admissions Jennifer Delahunty’s annual welcome to the incoming first years, Tyann Smith ’14 listened to the accomplishments of her new classmates: one had traveled around the world by boat, another had a recommendation letter written by a senator, while a third had chosen to live on a food-stamp diet for a week to experience the lives of their recipients. While Delahunty’s convocation address was intended to celebrate Kenyon’s incoming first years and their accomplishments, Smith noticed something most of these accomplishments had in common — they required a certain socioeconomic status. “All of those things are classed, but they were presented as meritocracy,” Smith said, referring to a system in which progress is based on ability and talent rather than class or wealth.

Tim Jurney ’15 also found that students at Kenyon celebrate their socioeconomic class as an achievement. Referring to a poster that was hung in the Peirce atrium in March soliciting responses from students about the topic, Jurney said, “I was really surprised at the poster that said, ‘How do you feel about economic inequality?’ and people were like, ‘I feel great because I’m winning.’”

In a student body where  a slight majority of 56 percent can afford to pay the full $58,890 for tuition, being a student from a working-class family can feel at once frustrating and alienating.

“So many times I’ve heard at the beginning of a discussion or the beginning of a new idea … ‘So, we are here at Kenyon. We are all white and we are all upper-middle-class,” Smith said. “To me, because I don’t identify as that way, I am almost tempted to shut everything that comes next out because it’s like, ‘You’re not talking to me.’”

Eric Chu ’17 said that, although he is “really happy” here, he frequently feels “othered.” He referenced the culture at Kenyon, such as the way people show one another they care. “They’ll say, ‘Happy birthday! Here, let me buy you something!’” Chu said.

But economic inequality has bigger implications for him than birthday presents. Earlier this year, Chu talked to a student who said that, no matter what he did in college, his father had a job with a yearly salary of $120,000 lined up for him.

“He said it so nonchalantly,” Chu said. “He was just like, ‘It doesn’t really matter if I graduate or not,’ and when he said that I felt like, ‘Wow, I don’t have that.’ I feel like I’m the hope of my family and I have this weight that I kind of live with every day where it’s like if I mess up, I’m not just messing up for me.”

For some students for whom having a job has never been a priority, it can be difficult to step into the shoes of their classmates who have to take whatever job they can get.

Jurney recalled a classmate asking him during his first year what his summer plans were. “I told him I was going to work at a fast food restaurant over the summer,” Jurney said. “And he said, ‘Oh, why?’ and I said, ‘Well,’ and I kind of paused, ‘I have to have a job.’ And he said, ‘Why?’ and it became clear that he really didn’t get that people had to work.”

For Jurney the economic gap was evident in his summer plans, but things such as fashion trends can obscure the divide on campus as well. Thanks to pop starts Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, shopping at thrift stores is all the rage. As Sarah Hobbs ’15 put it, “It’s cool because just based on clothes and stuff, the style at Kenyon is so thrift store/vintage and I definitely can’t tell [someone’s wealth] when it’s something like that.”

However, when it comes to students with cars, single rooms and apartments, the divide is hard to ignore. “They may not be super wealthy,” Hobbs said, “but they have enough to afford a single or a car.”

While the economic gap has its roots in larger institutional problems such as the College’s limited financial aid budget, inequalities often play out in small social misunderstandings. Nathan Durham ’17 recalls Parents’ Weekend as a moment when his family’s finances came into contrast with those of the majority of his classmates because his parents could not afford to visit for what he called a “staple of Kenyon culture.” One night a fellow student came back from dinner with her parents and began complaining about her parents being there. “There was nothing I wanted more in the world than for my parents to be there right when that happened,” Durham said.  “I was so mad … because they just didn’t get it. They don’t get how lucky you are that your parents paid that much money to come see you for those two days.”

What struck Durham was that so many students at Kenyon took their parents’ visits for granted. “I think it’s just because they thought it was so normal,” he said, explaining what upset him. “I think a start to making things better is for kids here to realize that if your parents can afford to [visit for Parents’ Weekend], if your parents can afford to spend $60,000 a year for you to go here and not struggle with that … you live a luxurious life and you are very lucky.”

Durham recognized that ignoring socioeconomic classes will not solve anything. He proposed instead that “we should be working together to make every student comfortable in their space.”

“I can’t promise for everybody,” Durham said, “but I can promise for me and for most of the poor kids here, that we’re not going to judge you or otherize you for being rich. … Recognize your position and do something to make people who are not in your position feel like they are just as worthy of being here.”

shut everything that comes next out because it’s like, ‘You’re not talking to me.’”

Eric Chu ’17 said that, although he is “really happy” here, he frequently feels “othered.” He referenced the culture at Kenyon, such as the way people show one another they care. “They’ll say, ‘Happy birthday! Here, let me buy you something!’” Chu said.

But economic inequality has bigger implications for him.Earlier this year, Chu talked to a student who said that, no matter what he did in college, his father had a job with an annual salary of $120,000 lined up for him.

“He said it so nonchalantly,” Chu said. “He was just like, ‘It doesn’t really matter if I graduate or not,’ and when he said that I felt like, ‘Wow, I don’t have that.’ I feel like I’m the hope of my family and I have this weight that I kind of live with every day where it’s like if I mess up, I’m not just messing up for me.”

For some students for whom having a job has never been a priority, it can be difficult to step into the shoes of their classmates who have to take whatever job they can get.

Jurney recalled a classmate asking him during his first year what his summer plans were. “I told him I was going to work at a fast food restaurant over the summer,” Jurney said. “And he said, ‘Oh, why?’ and I said, ‘Well,’ and I kind of paused, ‘I have to have a job.’ And he said, ‘Why?’ and it became clear that he really didn’t get that people had to work.”

For Jurney, the economic gap was evident in his summer plans, but things such as fashion trends can obscure the divide on campus. Thanks to pop stars Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, shopping at thrift stores is all the rage. As Sarah Hobbs ’15 put it, “It’s cool because, just based on clothes and stuff, the style at Kenyon is so thrift store/vintage and I definitely can’t tell [someone’s wealth] when it’s something like that.”

However, when it comes to students with cars, single rooms and apartments, the divide is hard to ignore. “They may not be super wealthy,” Hobbs said, “but they have enough to afford a single or a car.”

While the economic gap has its roots in larger institutional problems such as the College’s limited financial aid budget, inequalities often play out in small social misunderstandings. Nathan Durham ’17 recalls Parents’ Weekend as a moment when his family’s finances came into contrast with those of the majority of his classmates because his parents could not afford to visit for what he called a “staple of Kenyon culture.” One night, a fellow student came back from dinner with her parents and began complaining about their being there. “There was nothing I wanted more in the world than for my parents to be there right when that happened,” Durham said.  “I was so mad … because they just didn’t get it. They don’t get how lucky you are that your parents paid that much money to come see you for those two days.”

What struck Durham was that so many students at Kenyon took their parents’ visits for granted. “I think it’s just because they thought it was so normal,” he said, further explaining what upset him. “I think a start to making things better is for kids here to realize that if your parents can afford to [visit for Parents’ Weekend], if your parents can afford to spend $60,000 a year for you to go here and not struggle with that … you live a luxurious life and you are very lucky.”

Durham recognized that ignoring people’s socioeconomic classes will not solve anything. He proposed instead that “we should be working together to make every student comfortable in their space.”

“I can’t promise for everybody,” Durham said, “but I can promise for me and for most of the poor kids here, that we’re not going to judge you or otherize you for being rich. … Recognize your position and do something to make people who are not in your position feel like they are just as worthy of being here.”

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