September 15, 2019

POORE | Cornell Hath Made a Pauper of Me

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I must disclose that I have always considered myself to be privileged. I was raised by a family that loves and supports me. Growing up, I never had to worry about where I would sleep at night or how I would get my next meal. To me, that is privilege. Why, then, does Cornell make me feel so poor?

I remember a conversation from sophomore year regarding where my friends and I wanted to go for Spring Break. The first suggestion in the group chat was Costa Rica. I gingerly remarked that not everyone might be able to afford that. Understanding my plight, the destination became Puerto Rico. Again, I praised the virtues of frugality and thriftiness. Then, the pin dropped in Miami. Even then, I was unsure — it wasn’t just the flight but the meals and the hotel and the museums and the nightclubs. Perhaps growing impatient, someone replied: “Why not just ask your parents?”

That’s simply a question and a conversation that does not exist within my familial lexicon, at least in that specific context. Money for books? Sure. Desperate need for groceries? That could be arranged. But merely a trip with my friends to Miami? The thought made me recoil, as though tasting something bitter.

I ended up on a road trip to Chincoteague Island in Virginia with other friends to see its wild horses stroll along a much more affordable mid-Atlantic beach. I enjoyed it thoroughly, I might add.

An incident like this might be easily ignored if it were to crop up only every now and then, but similar situations around wealth seem to occur almost every day at Cornell. And the constant reminder they provide — the subtle suggestion that some of us can’t afford to fit in — eventually becomes hard not to take personally.

Please, don’t say you’re too poor to do something when the truth is that you just don’t want to do it. And when I ask you to do something you don’t want to do, don’t use the money excuse only to order a new outfit or send Snapchats of your sushi dinner the next day. Because if your idea of poverty — even as a joke — is above the level at which I exist, how am I supposed to feel anything other than alienation? In the moment, I laugh along. But the insecurity is mounting.

Cornell is often an uncomfortable experience for many students who simply aren’t as affluent as the cohort of students that seem to dominate campus life. In a world in which Canada Goose jackets, AirPods and hotelies dressed in full business attire abound, it’s easy for a student to feel unworthy. It’s a strange feeling to have thought you were well-off, only to come to Cornell and find out that you are, in fact, poor. (And no, I will not be ordering a new outfit or heading out for sushi tomorrow.)

And it’s a hard feeling to have because it’s one that you shouldn’t be having. These accessories and eyesores are supposed to be basic facts of life (though they’re not). Casual references to a poverty level still within the top 10 percent of society are agreed upon to be humorous and unassuming. You are meant to be laughing, not recoiling.

During the first few weeks of freshman year, while sitting in a group of strangers outfitted in Vineyard Vines and boat shoes, awkwardly attempting to make acquaintance, someone said that I looked like I came from a public school. It’s hard to feel comfortable in that type of conversation, when a wealth disparity is not only implied but vocalized. And it’s hard to feel comfortable at a college where that conversation even occurs in the first place.

The unremarkable nature of these casually dropped status symbols — of international voyages, of steakhouse dinners — serve to remind everyone that this is normal. This is expected. We should learn to expect it. Or at least to pretend to. However, it quickly becomes tiring to feign interest in a social display in which you can’t take part. It’s a strain to pretend that you aren’t alienated from your peers when you really are.

It makes it more difficult for me to convince myself that I am worthy for Cornell, that I belong here and that I fit in when I find myself routinely exposed to what I don’t have and when I interact with people with whom I don’t share many life experiences. And it hurts more to be on the losing end of that feeling, to feel that I don’t have these life experiences because, frankly, I couldn’t afford them.

None of this is to say that one should relinquish their AirPods or renounce their Canada Goose; affluence exists at Cornell in abundance. It is only meant to suggest that one act with mindfulness. To speak about material possessions and life experiences not as things that are taken for granted but are very much privileges, and to acknowledge them as such. To be aware that though we might be too proud to admit it, it can be painful to find out you’re sitting in a room of 20 in which only three people didn’t come from the wealthiest zip codes in the U.S.

We are laughing along with you, but maybe only because we don’t want you to know how much like imposters we feel to be studying alongside you.

Colton Poore is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at clp222@cornell.edu. Help Me, I’m Poore runs every other Monday this semester.