Growing up, I always knew my family was poor, but never did I imagine that other families were so wealthy. This realization didn’t wait long before unveiling itself to me at UC Berkeley. It was move-in day, and seeing the number of students getting out of luxury cars with their parents in tow was confusing at first and then disheartening second. I thought all parents worked Saturdays.
The confused looks I was met with whenever I would mention receiving my Electronic Funds Transfers (EFT) really put things into perspective. I would think to myself, “What do you mean you don’t need financial aid from the university?”
My life wasn’t set up for financial stability, let alone financial success — my father dropped out of the sixth grade to help his family financially, while my mother dropped out of the ninth grade because school supplies were simply unaffordable. Say what you will about the United States being a place to reinvent yourself from a working-class immigrant to a multimillion-dollar business CEO; we all know that’s just a cruel myth.
Even at such a “progressive” school such as UC Berkeley, I still come across people who truly believe that anyone (and I mean anyone) can simply pull themselves up by the bootstraps and make something of themselves. Out-of-touch financial privilege unveils its worst self during the summer break, or, should I say, the gap between spring and fall semester, because summer doesn’t give us all a break.
As is the case with many low-income, first-generation students, I am dependent on financial aid not only for tuition but also for housing and food assistance. Students like me simply can’t call our families to deposit money into our bank accounts so that we don’t have to worry about paying for our rent and groceries. Such dependency on financial assistance from an institution that demands so much of us robs us of much-needed breaks. Without enrolling in units for the summer term, I don’t see a way of paying for basic needs, let alone for the books on the syllabi.
So while we financial aid babies have no option but to endure hourlong, multiday classes, our fellow Golden Bears indulge themselves in vacation trips abroad, music festivals and journeys of self-reflection. At least on social media, they all seem to be thriving in the epitome of the summer vacations we’ve been conditioned to think are expected.
Thankfully, experiencing such financial struggle while here at UC Berkeley has allowed me to realize that there are many others like myself who are far from such privilege. It’s through this realization that I’ve been able to find community and comfort in places where financial disadvantage is a shared reality.
Through that shared reality, I’ve come to experience shared trust, empathy, understanding and support systems from other low-income, first-generation students who understand me and my background. Some say success — whether that be academic or personal — is only as strong as your support, and I’ve found a community that has provided me with encouragement while offering me a space for peace of mind.
For example, my newfound friend took it upon herself to move nearly 3,000 miles away from home to an entirely new city while figuring all of it out on her own. She reminds me a lot of my older brother, who had a harder time learning English at the age of 11 than I did at the age of 6. My one and only brother would occasionally buy me a canned Dr Pepper after school, even if he was extremely annoyed by his younger brother for good reason.
This same brother would become the first in our immediate and extended family in the United States to go to college. He’s the one who’s cleared some of the brush on the path I follow him down, the one who has taught me more things than he’s probably aware of.
If he were reading this article about my financial struggles, he’d probably think, Yeah, been there, done that. While I can’t exactly offer reparations, I can nonetheless offer gratitude. Everything that he’s been through has made me feel less alone throughout all of this — and for that, I’m grateful.
Ultimately, I’m not ashamed of my lack of financial privilege. In fact, it’s because I surround myself with others who share my story that I’ve been able to call some of the greatest, most selfless people my friends — friends that are genuine, amazing people. Whether or not our shared financial struggles have made them seem so, I’ve nevertheless come to realize that you can always measure a person’s socioeconomic status by their empathy or by their lack thereof. After all, it’s always been the people with the least that are willing to give up the most.