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As someone who came from a low socioeconomic class, what harsh truth did you learn your first year at an elite U.S. university?
My biggest shock was actually the beginning of my sophomore year, when I went shopping with a good friend from freshman year. I’d come back to college with the bare minimum - no new clothes, looseleaf paper in last year’s binders and a $2 bottle of Suave shampoo. I could’ve told you the precise value of my back-to-school supplies because I’d bought only what I could after budgeting earnings from my full-time summer job for fees and textbooks. I was painfully aware of the many things I’d like to have - a computer! a car! those rain boots everyone was wearing! - and had no hope of affording. My friend took me with her to a CVS. Her mom had given her a credit card so she got a big cart and went through every aisle, filling the cart with makeup, grooming products, a semester’s worth of feminine hygiene products (I’d figured out t gave these away a few at a time at the health center if you asked), school supplies, cleaning supplies, snacks, magazines. She kept offering to buy me things but I was mortified to admit that I didn’t have any of it (as if she didn’t know) and convinced that her parents would be angry if she spent their money on me. The total was hundreds of dollars and she hadn’t bought books yet. I’d never seen anyone spend money like that, just throwing things in the cart without keeping track of the total, no budget limit, no awareness of other things those same dollars must be spent on. It profoundly shifted my understanding of my socioeconomic class and how vast the distance was between me and the people around me.
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I began to understand a more complex kind of social class and how it was both real and not real. I wasn’t poor because I didn’t have books, I wasn’t poor because I didn’t have a TV, I wasn’t poor because I didn’t have a computer — these were all things that you could buy with money at CVS, but you can also make it without money at a grocery store. And what did that have to do with class? Even if my friend’s parents had come to the store with her, they still wouldn’t know what it was like to live with poverty, to think that your life might be limited because of the way you're born, your race, your sexuality, or your socioeconomic status. For every single person out there, who lives in poverty but doesn't call poverty their class, the poverty they.
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