Creating a Vanderbilt for Everyone
The New York Times recently published a report on the economic diversity of US colleges, including Vanderbilt.
If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s a snapshot:
- 70% of students are in the top 20%
- 23% of students are in the top 1%.
- 3.8% of students are in the top 0.1%
- 1.9% of students are in the bottom 20%.
From what I’ve heard around campus, these statistics were shocking to many. However, for many low-income students (myself included), this was no surprise. Even just walking around campus, the wealth of Vanderbilt’s student body is clear. Luxury cars line Greek row and students are well-dressed in lululemon leggings, North Face backpacks, and Vineyard Vines everything. It isn’t uncommon to hear someone discussing their private high school. European vacation, or second house. When twice as many students come from the top 0.1% as the bottom 20%, this makes sense. However, for low-income students, this can be a tough environment to be constantly immersed in. Though many Vanderbilt students may be well-off financially, the socioeconomic standing of students is not homogenous. When I came to Vanderbilt (with the help of generous financial aid), I expected to struggle with common college issues of homesickness, making new friends, and taking difficult classes. I didn’t expect how difficult it would be to adjust to the affluence of my peers. Financial security is something that is very easy to take for granted until you don’t have it.
Being a low-income student, frankly, can be hard. When I have four dollars of commodore cash left and need to do laundry, it’s hard to argue with my friends that I can’t go out to eat even if “it’s on the card.” When I’m worried about my mom (who receives food stamps) being able to pay her rent, it’s hard to hear someone tell me about their “inexpensive” three-week trip to the Caribbean. When I complain that my laptop doesn’t hold a charge and won’t always connect to the internet, it’s hard to explain to someone that I can’t “just buy a new one.” When wealth is seen as the default, it often feels as though I have to justify my lack thereof. I feel acutely aware of my financial standing as a result of being around those who are not.
While at Vanderbilt, I have been drawn to people with similar experiences and made many friends who come from low-income households. Even though I have sometimes been hurt and frustrated by the insensitivity and lack of understanding of some of my peers, I’ve realized that I can also be guilty of failing to recognize my economic privilege. I don’t have to worry about having enough food to eat, having warm clothing for the winter, or being able to go home for breaks: all things that some of my friends aren’t able to take for granted. Wealth, inherently, isn’t the issue, but a lack of recognition, sensitivity, or compassion is. No one can choose their background, but we can choose to recognize our own privilege. We can choose to be considerate towards and observant of the diversity of experiences of our peers. We can choose to encourage our friends to do the same, and together,
we can make Vanderbilt a welcoming place for students of all economic backgrounds.