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.