Navigating the academy

In investigating, “What is it like to be poor at in Ivy League school?” Brooke Lea Foster points out not just anecdotes that might give faculty pause, but also all-too-common experiences that circle around a sort of identity crisis that faces low-income students in elite educational settings.

One key issue is recognizing that access is merely the first hurdle:

But receiving a full scholarship to an Ivy League school, while a transformative experience for the nation’s poorest students, is only the first hurdle. Once on campus, students report feelings of loneliness, alienation, and plummeting self-confidence. Having grant money for tuition and fees and holding down jobs, too, as virtually all of them do, doesn’t translate to having the pocket money to keep up with free-spending peers. And some disadvantaged students feel they don’t have a right to complain to peers or administrators about anything at all; they don’t want to be perceived as ungrateful.

In addition to not wanting to appear “ungrateful,” students who find themselves financially separated from those who are intellectually their classroom peers often do not know how to seek out the resources to help them adjust better.

After parachuting into a culture where many kids seem to have a direct line to prestigious internships through their well-off parents and feel entitled to argue with a professor over a grade, poor kids sense their disadvantage. Even if they’re in the same school as some of the nation’s smartest and best-connected young people, students’ socioeconomic backgrounds seem to dictate how they navigate campus. Research shows, for example, that upper-middle-class kids are better at asking for help at college than low-income ones, in part because they know the resources available to them.

This article is thorough and detailed not only about the problems working-class students face, but also about the kinds of mentoring that Ivy League colleges have begun to institute to help such students acclimate better. Even less prestigious schools would do well, it seems to me, to consider implementing some of these strategies for creating both bridge programs between high school and college and mentoring groups within college in order to assist their students in navigating the often-alien world of higher education’s expectations.

Author: Andrea Kaston Tange

Andrea Kaston Tange is professor of Victorian literature and culture at Eastern Michigan University, Past President and Treasurer of the Midwest Modern Language Association, and editor of the *Journal of Narrative Theory*.