Being from the Poverty Class in Graduate School

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They called us the Three Odd Musketeers, because we were always together
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I went through my graduate student pictures to see if I had really made any white close friends in my department. There was really only one (below)
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My sister and I pictured with my working class friend from Detroit. She felt different and out of place, too.

Thanks to alto, Kindra J. F., and Jewels for your interest

The reason it is difficult on poor white people to be in graduate school is that there are no special supports, services, cultural adaptations, etc. that focus on social class. That student is just in a foreign land where everyone thinks they are just as able to graduate as the privileged white students sitting next to them. The truth is they represent 3–5% or less of graduate programs. They have no one to connect to unless poor people of color are willing to open their arms to them. I can’t speak for all poor white people, but I found far more in common with poor students of color than I did white students. We actually shared life experiences. The only thing, literally the only thing, I shared in common with the other white people, was the color of our skin.

L J Laubenheimer did such a good job of reviewing many superficial and some deeper differences between white people in different classes, I want to cut and paste it right here to discuss some of the ways in which I was different from the other white people. We didn’t eat the same food. I was raised on junk, and it subsequently caused me to gain a lot of weight. The upper class white people in my program (all the rest of them) ate super-healthy food, international foods, and vegetarian on purpose. They were slender with a refined palate.

The other students socialized “formally,” with datebooks where you made appointments to meet your friends. What strangeness is this? Friends just drop by, and they don’t even knock. The upper class students had gatherings where they stand around someone’s livingroom and sip wine using prim and proper mannerisms. Believe me, no one was wearing sweats to these “social functions.” I needed a whole new wardrobe. But I digress. First, you have to get into graduate school as a poor person.

First of all, GRE scores are lower for every one from the bottom 10%. True for verbal scores, truer for quantitative scores. That represents a reason why you won’t often see students of any color from this bottom 10%. You will get a few more very poor students of color than very poor white students through affirmative action, which often discounts GREs as race-biased (they are).

The way this played out in practice, the poor students (of all races) who were accepted into our PhD program were usually wait-listed for their low GRE scores. Because my department at my school, the University of Michigan, practiced both racial AND economic affirmative action, I was accepted a month after other students had been. The other students all had a welcome recruitment weekend but I was accepted long after that, presumably when first rounders declined.

The following year one of the very poor black students, who is also named Deborah and who was a big support to my degree, was admitted. I noticed she came late to orientation, past the recruitment weekend. Eventually, we talked about GRE scores. Sure enough. Ours were nearly identically — right at the minimum standards for the program.

Eventually I served on the PhD admissions committee, and I saw how we did affirmative action. I thought it was very fair. Membership in a group that tests poorly on the GRE was given weight when considering test scores, the only thing that was ever really less “competitive.” Otherwise, all of us poverty-class students had excellent records. Besides, the GREs do not predict success in graduate school. At our first orientation meeting, Professor Garvin pointing around the room where the twelve of us sat, and he said, “Half of you won’t finish this program.” He was right. I finished. So did the other Deborah. The GREs didn’t predict squat for us.

But that’s where the next problem arose. Where did you get your pedigree? When the other 11 students in my cohort went around the room to say where they were from, it was Harvard, UC-Berkeley, and Northwestern, etc. Every school had an elite reputation. They also told everyone a little bit about themselves, and they had storied histories like living overseas for years or starting a non-profit. Then it came to me and I just said, “My senior thesis won a regional American Psychological Association award, and I went a college you’ve never heard of in Iowa.” I tried a big grin, but I was red with embarrassment. The other students looked disgusted like I had been let in mistakenly.

So first day, I already know I am the only one not accepted out right to the program and I’m from a no-name school. I assumed I was going to be one of the six who would drop out of the PhD program.

Granted they already met each other on a previous weekend, but the 11 people I was going to school with had adhesive relationships already, and I was the odd woman out. As people peeled off at breaks or at lunch, usually in pairs or threesomes, I found myself walking behind one group or another, trying to insert myself into a conversation, so I could start making friends. It’s already hard to feel like you are lurking behind other people, but when I listened to them talk, they might as well have been speaking Chinese. And in the case of two of the students, an older white man and a woman from Japan, they were speaking Japanese.

White people from the poverty class do not converse about the same things in casual conversations as upper class people. The wealthier often play a game of intellectual one-upmanship. “Why yes, I have heard of evolutionary psychology? I disagree with its premise that we rate each other by our mate values.” “Well, I just have to disagree with you on that count. I think there is plenty of evidence to support the idea reproduction is at the center of our psychology.”

Okay guys, we just started graduate school, I haven’t heard of any of this yet. [Note: evolutionary psychology was new then. By now, it is in undergraduate textbooks]. I thought the intellectual one-upmanship was perhaps reserved for graduate schools, but I later married into an upper-class family where there are doctors, a classical musician, an English teacher, an actress, etc. I found them to communicate in the same intellectual manner with each other.

What do poor white people talk about, either at home or socially? Our problems. What bill we are struggling with. How hard we have been working at back-breaking jobs. What hurts where. Is there any good gossip? What about what was on TV last night? I did figure out later that the upper class people gossiped, too, but they never seemed to do it visibly.

Now, at Michigan, the graduate school is called Rackham Graduate School, and out of Rackham come all of the scholarships, grant aid, and etc. Here is where being poor and white works against you. There are many race-based scholarships. Assuredly, not enough, even educational inequities. Plus most of them are won by upper class black students. There are also need-based scholarships, but there were none of these that were not paired with race. In other words, there was no such thing as a need-based scholarship for a poor white person.

There were merit-based scholarships, but here’s the thing about merit. If you grew up in the bottom 10%, attended a mediocre public school, and a third-tier college, you may be able to stand shoulder to shoulder with other graduate students, but you do not necessarily have the merits to excel beyond them. You started the race multiple steps behind. Your grammar isn’t quite as good. Your writing style not quite as sophisticated. You probably come in knowing less about technology. The rest of the people in my program already had had an email account and computers. I typed all of my college papers on an actual typewriter with paper and ink. My college had computers, but I could never use the computer lab, because I worked full-time, and it had limited hours I couldn’t make.

I did eventually win a merit-based scholarship in my seventh year in graduate school. I had caught up to my peers, but it took quite a few years. It also took me longer to finish my program than most upper class students. There were multiple reasons for this. Everyone worked in graduate school, because we would get jobs teaching undergraduates or doing research assistance. But I had custody of my youngest brother and sister, so I needed more money beyond these jobs. So I got a job at Shell gas station. There was an audible gasp in the whole department as each person heard I was a cashier.

Doctoral students did not do menial work. It was a waste of time and mental energy. I couldn’t even claim to be doing my homework there, because it was a really busy gas station. Needless to say, I was encouraged to take on more loan debt rather than do this job. So I did. In the end, I think I owed $110,000 in student loans for both undergraduate and graduate school, but if it was divided by the number of years in school, I hadn’t really borrowed that much for a poor person who had to live on the loan money with two kids I was legal guardians for. I will die owing on this debt which I pay each month like clockwork, even though I never really got to use the degree.

I know I was like a kangaroo at a dinner party jumping in where I didn’t belong (the upper class environment of graduate school) and creating havoc. There I was walking around in clothes unbecoming a professional, which is what they considered us to be. Women, in particular, were expected to wear pantsuits and dressy outfits. I went to Kohl’s every six months to buy something that fit in better. They shopped at thrift stores, which I found useless, because heavy people tended to be lower class like me, and the clothes selection for dressy clothes was very limited.

I smoked. The only other person I found that smoked was a Hawaiian Native professor who taught diversity. We both snuck outside in this little corner behind the main building for the School of Social Work, and we’d talk. He was one of the people who helped me understand white privilege. We’d talk about what being from the bottom 10% meant to us, but he’d help me see how race mattered just as much. We’d share gum with each other to try to hide our habit from the other faculty and students, but I think everyone knew. That was a big marker of lower class status.

Hmm, this is getting long. I’ll stop there, and let you weigh in on your thoughts or perhaps if you have questions? Thanks again for your interest.

Chances are I have a migraine. My spirit guides are Voltaire & Bierce. Considering making SJW into a religion. Genealogist

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