Experiencing a ‘progressive’ university as a 1st-generation college student coming from poverty

Universities can be a lonely place for a first-generation Mexican American student, especially a nontraditional one without accomplished or college-educated parents and without a financial safety net of any sort. I’ve experienced poverty, the shame that comes with it, housing insecurity, racial segregation, educational inequality, predatory lending, gun violence, immigrant and workplace discrimination and environmental injustice. After spending more than 10 years in survival mode since undergrad, trying to escape poverty while also trying to grow as a person, I arrived at Berkeley ready to connect with a community.

The social alienation I’ve felt at UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design is a curious thing. You’re surrounded with progressives but you still have the exclusive social dynamics that you’d expect in other places. If you don’t have strong quantitative skills in a setting that highly values them, it adds to the sense that you don’t belong. It also doesn’t help if you don’t have the type of loud personality and overconfidence that people sometimes interpret as an indication of competence. Despite its good intentions, high academia can feel very artificial.  People tell you that your experience as a poor person of color matters, but if you can’t show that experience through dots on a map or statistically significant findings, it often doesn’t matter. It’s understandable, but it makes the experience lonely.

UC Berkeley is supposed to be about inclusion. Have I ever asked white privileged students to leave the room when discussing issues of poverty? No. In fact, privileged white students mostly lead those discussions, and it’s nearly impossible for me to do so when I’m constantly held back by personal challenges and a lack of social connection with other students.

Another curious thing is the idea of being a “person of color,” a group that gets lumped together without much attention paid to class inequalities. Students of color at UC Berkeley are often students from backgrounds that are at least middle class, whose parents often have college degrees. I cringe when I hear other “students of color” talk about how their culture values education, as if some cultures don’t. Those types of statements reveal so much ignorance about financial privileges. I often wonder whether people speaking about those in poverty have ever really known someone who was poor.

That’s one thing you should know about people coming from poverty: We’re not all this fuzzy, hardworking group that people like to fetishize. We’ve often built up issues due to the challenges we’ve overcome, and there are aspects of our behavior or personality you may not ever really understand. We can be messy. I suspect privileged people are no different; they just often have more resources to disguise it. Unless you’ve been around poverty and have accepted the people living in it, warts and all, I won’t fully trust that you’ll have our best interest in mind.

Shedding light on the historic and complex relationship between people of color and poverty shouldn’t be a burden carried only by a marginalized person. It requires more than just a superficial questions. It requires a genuine curiosity of others — a demonstrated history of not just having “diverse” friends or resume-building experiences. To be able to speak about poverty, you should be able to talk about the financially struggling people you’ve known and what you value and have learned about them. There should be a sense of humility to how you became involved in their lives, maintained those relationships and how you’ve shared quality time outside your familiar social circles. Imagine the understandings you’d gain if you had to make yourself vulnerable the way many of us always have. Exclusive groups and neighborhoods usually only think of what will be taken from them by interacting closely with poor people of color, often without considering what they might gain. Such gains are only possible when you notice not just those whose intellect or humor you find relatable or interesting, but also those invisible people who clean your spaces, serve your food or sit next to you in a classroom.

I have classmates who often speak in class about social equity, but I sense still a large disconnect. Earlier this year, I attended a campus event meant for students of color struggling with “imposter syndrome.” I remember I started to tell a white classmate that I didn’t like the event, and he immediately assumed it was because, in his words, “those events are often a ghettoization of themselves.” I stopped speaking and just left it that, feeling confused about his response and realizing that I wasn’t truly being heard.

Being a person of color and coming from poverty are not reasons for you to like me. I get that, but I do not want that. There is a deep sense of alienation being in an environment that wasn’t designed for people like me, both historically and still today. If it wasn’t for some of my classmates, some of my professors and a graduate student research position through which I worked in low-income communities, I would be so much worse off in my need for connection here. Despite many of my ongoing struggles, I am making the most of my experience; it may not be in a way that more privileged students relate to, and that’s fine. My ultimate reward will be to connect with those outside the academic world who still need a voice.

Jaime Lopez is from Southeast Los Angeles and just completed his first year as a masters student in city and regional planning at UC Berkeley. He hopes to one day obtain a doctorate degree and enrich scholarship and hands-on work related to communities of color living in poverty.

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  • SolvingProb

    Keep talking about this. I don’t think Cal is a place that is not open. But maybe people simply don’t know about your situation.

  • SecludedCompoundTTYS

    Classic naive entitled clueless rant from a 20+ year old who will be in academia his entire young adult life and then go onto work for the government. I’m white, I come from nothing, born with diabetes and can’t walk very well. I feel alienation from everyone on a daily basis but I get it, they are only humans. Grow up and realize that world owes you nothing and that you have lucky. All you are lacking is gratitude.

  • lspanker

    So it sounds like you want all the perks and advantages associated with mainstream America but wish to retain solidarity with the barrio. Poor baby.

  • ESPM360

    Sounds like the progressive agenda is not working out for you.

  • 安百瑞

    Jaime, thank you for writing. Alienation is the norm for a lot of people who arrive at UC Berkeley. I hope you find or create a community that serves you.

    • lspanker

      Many of them are “alienated” thanks to our K-12 public education system run by progressives that seeks NOT to help “students of color” through helping them assimilate into mainstream society, but use various psychological means to exploit ignorance and insecurities to promote division. It’s all part and parcel of using the educational system to promote cultural Marxism and class warfare.

      • Nunya Beeswax

        I don’t even know that it’s that complicated. The way I read it, the author expects the university to mediate his social life to him. I think that’s an awfully strange expectation.

        • lspanker

          There are a lot of strange expectations out there. One thing I never understood was why certain young “people of color” who were attending Cal would have parties in their dorms and invite their “homeboys” and “homegirls”, many of them who functioned at the cognitive and academic levels of 6th graders, to join them, instead of forming associations and relationships with young people of similar ambitions and interests. When I finally figured out what was going on in the real world in my 20’s, I made the conscious decision to dump certain people I hung out with when I was younger because I realized that they were going nowhere, and I didn’t want any part of where they were heading. Maybe it’s time for Jaime to do the same…

          • zzz

            Part of being adult is making your own way, I went to college a little later but moved out at 18. I assumed everyone I knew wanted to go out in the world, after a few months I came to the conclusion that many people want to stay in their parents basement, move across the street from their parents house and work at the gas station, wallow in self pity and expect the world to baby sit them… and other such self defeating type things. With facebook I have been found out by some of these people and am so glad I moved on, also glad I am 700 miles away.

            Of course progressive middle class whites are in charge on campus, they are the most self serving out of touch people you will find anywhere, they know how to make common cause with the leadership of minority groups, but dealing with actual minorities is akin to the Eleusinian Mysteries. Middle class revolutionaries around the world are the ones making life miserable for the people they claim to speak for. The Iranian Islamic Republic was thanks in large part to middle class revolutionaries for example.

            The whole essay is what is wrong with identity politics, people are told they are special because of their race and class but no one really seems to know how this is all supposed to manifest itself? When meeting new people on campus is there supposed to be a secret handshake and then a brief discussion on your race and class, then the relationship goes from there in some sort of Foucauldian/Derrida fashion?

  • Marie Svette

    As you state them, your expectations for friendship and community of CAL are largely constructed around your lower class and racialized identities which stand at odds with the fact that you’re at an R-1 institution. Without ever saying “white people,” your entire critique nonetheless reads as a critique of “white” culture which you’re entangled with by virtue (or, fact) of your choice to study at an land grant institution built upon expropriated Ohlone land. What’s remarkable about your essay or rant or whatever it is is the lack of awareness you bring to your own choices: CAL is the only Environmental Studies program in the U.S.? You weren’t aware of its (fairly well known) departmental issues with hiring people of color? Or, you were so dazzled by that embossed admissions’ letter from UC Berkeley, you chose to over look those facts? Although I “hear” you (but never, ever closely or correctly enough, I know, you’re “exhausted” with people making any effort to connect with you), honestly you’ve made a case for nothing except, perhaps, leaving for another program that’s more precisely constructed to fulfill your primary needs, namely that of having your class and race identities correctly apprehended and affirmed. CAL will never give that to you, more so it’s mildly surprising that someone in a graduate level program has arrived at CAL with such naive perceptions of the institution’s core purpose. You seem entirely oblivious to the fact that A) you have chosen to engage with a world of privilege which B) will, by fact of being a part of that world, end up assimilating you. Honestly, you sound miserable at CAL, you hate your cohort and the community (or, strongly disapprove of their reaction to you; no matter the efforts they’ve made to engage you, you find them beneath you) and your sole resolution is future based, a time in which you will have a degree from CAL and return to S. L.A. & help your community.

    • empathy helps

      Cal has clout. Poor students shouldn’t have to choose between the prestige of a degree and feeling connected to their academic community. Things can change, especially if people don’t shout down brave and insightful critiques like this article.

      • lspanker

        “Brave and insightful”? LOL…