Coming Out as Poor at Duke University


When was the first time I felt uncomfortable at Duke because of money? My second day of o-week. My FAC group wanted to meet at Mad Hatter’s Bakery; I went with them and said that I had already eaten on campus because I didn’t have cash to spend. Since then, I have continued to notice the presence of overt and subtle class issues and classism on campus. I couldn’t find a place for my “poor identity.” While writing my resume, I put McDonald’s under work experience. A friend leaned over and said, “Do you think it’s a good idea to put that on your resume?” In their eyes, it was better to list no work experience than to list this “lowly” position. I did not understand these mentalities and perceptions of my peers. Yet no one was talking about this discrepancy, this apparent class stratification that I was seeing all around me.

People associate many things with their identity: I’m a woman, I’m queer, I’m a poet. One of the most defining aspects of my identity is being poor. The amount of money (or lack thereof) in my bank account defines almost every decision I make, in a way that being a woman or being queer never has and never will. Not that these are not important as well, just that in my personal experience, they have been less defining. Money influenced the way I grew up and my family dynamics. It continues to influence the schools I choose to go to, the food I eat, the items I buy and the things I say and do.

KellyNoel Waldorf, a student at Duke, has an editorial in The Duke Chronicle about “coming out as poor” in a college atmosphere where she says talking about class has been difficult for her. And it’s not the kind of “poor student on a ramen diet” that’s prototypical of the “broke college student,” but things like having to lie about reasons why she couldn’t socialize because she felt ashamed about not having money, and having her mother calling her crying, telling her that she doesn’t have enough gas money to pick her up for Thanksgiving.

Waldorf, isn’t alone. As we noted earlier this year, there has been a rise in student groups at colleges all across the U.S. that are trying to foster more discussions about class and socioeconomic diversity on campus. The editorial could be Waldorf’s entree to starting her own.

Photo: Matt Phillips

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14 Comments / Post A Comment

LookUponMyWorks (#2,616)

I used to work at a restaurant quite close to Duke (we locals call it the University of New Jersey – South Campus) and we would have students who’d spend on a meal what I’d spend on groceries for four days. Anecdata, sure, but also a small indicator of the great divide between town and gown in Durham.

allreb (#502)

Ouch. I have been in similar – poor at Brandeis, which is a fairly outrageously priced school. (Relatively poor, anyway; somewhere in the vaguely described “lower middle class” – which is to say, averaget-o-reasonably-well-off for my actually poor home town, poor compared to other students at ‘deis.)

I think, actually, the first time I knew I was poor was a pretty similar situation. A friend asked me if I wanted to go out for dinner, and I declined, pretty bluntly saying that I didn’t have any money that week. He said that was fine, we could stop at an ATM on the way. Then we stared at each other for a really long time before the exchange sunk in.

It was definitely a moment of looking around and realizing he thought his life/money was normal. I thought mine was. But if he was normal, I was poor; if I was normal, he was rich. It’s taken me a long time to wrap my head around those things all being true at once.

louisebelcher (#5,282)

It was surprising how much I related to that earlier article about scholarship students in New York’s elite private high schools. As a full scholarship student at a very expensive university for undergrad, I usually congregated with the other poors. They continue to be some of my closest friends. I’ve heard that these private universities are supposed to be places that help you connect with wealthy and influential people, but there was just too great a schism between my lived experience and theirs.

louisebelcher (#5,282)

@louisebelcher Also, I am from Durham and this girl nailed it. All my favorite Duke students were the ones that had to work with me at the local diner to get by when I was in high school.

LookUponMyWorks (#2,616)

@louisebelcher Elmo’s?

the rat lady (#785)

@louisebelcher I went to Duke and the best friends I made there were the ones I worked with. Socializing with coworkers really helped weed out the pearl-and-polka-dot set.

Silver lining: if I saw two resumes from recent Duke grads, one of which has McDonalds work experience and one of which has four unpaid internships, I’d probably choose the McDonalds kid.

Catface (#1,106)

@stuffisthings I’m not actually interested in being a manager, but a manager is the person who makes those decisions, and I want to make them and call them like you would. So I’m torn.

@Catface You don’t have to be a manager to have a say in hiring decisions! I don’t actually manage anyone but I do go through resumes, and I suspect it’s the same in most workplaces.

WayDownSouth (#3,431)

@stuffisthings I agree. I do make decisions about who to hire and would place a higher value on paid employment than an unpaid internship. I worked at Wendys for a couple of years in high school and would also value a person who worked at McDonalds while going to school. The role and background of the friend who advised not to include McDonalds on the resume wasn’t identified. That would be quite interesting to know.

Catface (#1,106)

@stuffisthings Not at mine, unfortunately, and I work in the public sector (pension pension pension) so will probably be here for a long time. I do kind of feel like I owe it to my younger self and her present-day bros and sisters to obtain a role in screening and hiring. One day.

Catface (#1,106)

I interviewed for the School of Management at Yale. I had a bad feeling because not one of the students featured in any of their booklets and brochures had been to a public college, but if Yale wants to look you over, you go, right? The second-year who interviewed me asked, “Why did you work so many jobs when you were in college? Don’t you feel like you missed out on a lot of opportunities?” She also pointed out that most applicants had attended more prestigious colleges than I had — yeah, no shiz, Hannah. And she told me all about the annual auction to benefit the internship fund, where things go up to bid like a hundred-year-old bottle of wine, the use of a certain professor’s vintage sports car for a weekend, a weekend trip to Paris, etc. I was confused: if the professors are contributing the items to bid on, who is doing the bidding? Hannah stared at me, incredulous. “The students. The students bid,” she said. After the interview I went right to a townie bar and drank but they waitlisted me almost immediately. When I saw that e-mail I hit the No Longer Interested button, because I no longer was. Nice to be looked over, though.

aetataureate (#1,310)

@Catface Holy cow, I just scoffed out loud at “Why did you work so many jobs when you were in college? Don’t you feel like you missed out on a lot of opportunities?” And then the rest, and then I died.

What’s the word for something that shows you real time why you’re glad you’re not going to end up doing it?

…Wow. This hit me right in the gut. My adult life has been characterized by various degrees of deep-seated, stemming-from-childhood financial anxiety set against the backdrop of various tony academic institutions that would deign to give me enough money to allow me to be there. I am now the kind of student who gets paid to go to school, which puts me, for the first time, almost-just-barely in the “comfortable” income range. That is to say, I’m sure my yearly income would be laughable to most people with middle-class jobs, and at 30, and it’s only been for the last six months of my life that I’ve started to feel like I can afford most of the things that I need and many of the things that I want. However, the experience of being poor has shaped me so fundamentally that I, also, feel that it is perhaps the most important thing about me.

I haven’t ever really felt comfortable “coming out” as poor (or now as formally poor, or culturally working class?) in any of these settings, however. I’ve mentioned it, and I’ve hinted at it, but it never really goes over very well…I think it embarrasses people. It’s a very odd existence to feel that the thing that most fundamentally makes you *you* is the kind of thing that you can’t share with anyone, even your good friends, because they just won’t understand your reality. (It’s particularly ironic in my lefty-skewing discipline, where we talk about the “affective nature of capitalism” all day long, but never in any sense that includes personal experience.) I wish that I could share this article with someone, but I literally can think of no friends from any of my networks of the fancy private schools I’ve attended for the past decade who would understand and appreciate this.

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