In my four years at Duke, I have tried to write this article many times. But I was afraid. I was afraid to reveal an integral part of myself. I'm poor.
Why is it not OK for me to talk about such an important part of my identity on Duke's campus? Why is the word "poor" associated with words like lazy, unmotivated and uneducated? I am none of those things.
When was the first time I felt uncomfortable at Duke because of money? My second day of o-week. My FAC group wanted to meet at Mad Hatter's Bakery; I went with them and said that I had already eaten on campus because I didn't have cash to spend. Since then, I have continued to notice the presence of overt and subtle class issues and classism on campus. I couldn't find a place for my "poor identity." While writing my resume, I put McDonald's under work experience. A friend leaned over and said, "Do you think it's a good idea to put that on your resume?" In their eyes, it was better to list no work experience than to list this "lowly" position. I did not understand these mentalities and perceptions of my peers. Yet no one was talking about this discrepancy, this apparent class stratification that I was seeing all around me.
People associate many things with their identity: I'm a woman, I'm queer, I'm a poet. One of the most defining aspects of my identity is being poor. The amount of money (or lack thereof) in my bank account defines almost every decision I make, in a way that being a woman or being queer never has and never will. Not that these are not important as well, just that in my personal experience, they have been less defining. Money influenced the way I grew up and my family dynamics. It continues to influence the schools I choose to go to, the food I eat, the items I buy and the things I say and do.
I live in a reality where:
Sometimes I lie that I am busy when actually I just don't have the money to eat out.
I don't get to see my dad anymore because he moved several states away to try and find a better job to make ends meet.
I avoid going to Student Health because Duke insurance won't do much if there is actually anything wrong with me.
Coming out as queer took a weekend and a few phone calls, but coming out as poor is still a daily challenge.
Getting my wisdom teeth removed at $400 per tooth is more of a funny joke than a possible reality.
I have been nearly 100 percent economically independent from my family since I left for college.
Textbook costs are impossible. Praise Perkins Library where all the books are free.
My mother has called me crying, telling me she doesn't have the gas money to pick me up for Thanksgiving.
My humorously cynical, self-deprecating jokes about being homeless after graduation are mostly funny but also kind of a little bit true.
I am scared that the more I increase my "social mobility," the further I will separate myself from my family.
Finances are always in the back (if not the forefront) of my mind, and I am always counting and re-counting to determine how I can manage my budget to pay for bills and living expenses.
This article is not meant to be a complaint about my life. This is not a sob story. There are good and bad things in my life, and we all face challenges. But it should be OK for me to talk about this aspect of my identity. Why has our culture made me so afraid or ashamed or embarrassed that I felt like I couldn't tell my best friends "Hey, I just can't afford to go out tonight"? I have always been afraid to discuss this with people, because they always seem to react with judgment or pity, and I want absolutely nothing to do with either of those. Sharing these realities could open a door to support, encouragement or simply openness.
Because I also live in a reality where:
I am proud of a job well done.
I feel a great sense of accomplishment when I get each paycheck.
I feel a bond of solidarity with those who are well acquainted with the food group "ramen."
I would never trade my happy family memories for a stable bank account.
I would never trade my perspective or work ethic or appreciation of life for money.
Most times it certainly would be nice to have more financial stability, but I love the person I have become for the background I have had.
It is time to start acknowledging class at Duke. Duke is great because of its amazing financial aid packages. My ability to go here is truly incredible. Duke is not great because so many of the students fundamentally do not understand the necessity for a discussion of class identity and classism. Duke needs to look past its blind spot and start discussing class stratification on campus to create a more welcoming environment for poor students.
If you have ever felt like this important piece of your identity was not welcome at Duke, know that you are not the only one. I want you to know that "poor" is not a dirty word. It is OK to talk about your experiences and your identity in relation to socioeconomic status. It is OK to tell the truth and be yourself. Stop worrying whether it will make other people feel uncomfortable. People can learn a lot about themselves from the things that make them uncomfortable. I want to say to you that no matter what socioeconomic status you come from, your experiences are worthy.
And because no one in four years has said it yet to me: It's okay to be poor and go to Duke.
KellyNoel Waldorf is a Duke University senior pursuing a double major in linguistics and international comparative studies.
This piece first appeared in The Chronicle.