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Class disparities affect student life in various spaces

Experiences with academics, finances, activism differ with socioeconomic status

This story is the second in a three-part series about socioeconomic status at Brown. The series, through interviews with five students, examines the way socioeconomic status shapes students’ relationships to Brown in three stages: the application process, adjusting to life on campus and going back home after living and studying here.

This story chronicles the adjustments of five students from high school to Brown’s campus. While some students reported consistencies between the environments of their high schools and the University’s, others were taken aback by the range of class privileges students bring to campus. Among the noteworthy class conditions on campus for the students interviewed were the sheer wealth some command as well as the way class background informs social habits, comfort in class and political attitudes.

Wealth shock

For some, coming to campus led to some of their first sustained interactions with people who can pay Brown’s full price tag of $62,046 per year.

“The first thing that shocked me was there are these people who are immensely rich at Brown — like billions of dollars,” said Chinenye Uduji ’19, adding that he had “never experienced that.” Uduji attended Central High School in Philadelphia, a public school with “a lot of low-income students.”

“The privilege here is very evident,” said Kimberly Davila ’20, who went to a public high school near Los Angeles. Describing the student body of her high school, she said, “It’s predominantly Latino, low-income, and a lot of people are the first in their families to go to college.”

Others were less struck by the wealth of some of Brown’s student body.

“I went from being one of the lesser privileged kids in a very privileged community to being one of the more privileged kids in a less privileged community,” said Charlotte May ’17.5, who went to the Hackley School, of her transition to Brown.

“Brown felt a little like Choate 2.0,” said Ahmed Ashour ’19, a student from Bahrain who attended Choate Rosemary Hall, a boarding school in Connecticut, on the Crown Prince’s International Scholarship.

On the other hand, the diversity of Brown’s student body was “humbling,” Ashour said. The wide array of class and ethnic backgrounds represented among students here provided a surprise and an opportunity to better understand those different from him, he said.

In the face of the great socioeconomic privilege of many at Brown, other students experience feelings of displacement.

“It was a shock because it was hard to see people who looked like me unless I intentionally decided to surround myself with people who looked like me,” Uduji said.

“(In) high school I would walk down the hall and see 20, 30, 50 people who looked like me, and I’d be like, ‘Yeah, I’m supposed to be here,’” Uduji said. “Even though for a lot of people this is the most diverse institution that they’ve been in, it was not even close for me.”

For Davila, frustration stems from the possibility that people from her community might have the potential to attend a school like Brown with the right resources. But at Brown, “a lot of people … come from all of these prep schools and all these rich communities. It’s kind of hard to see yourself here sometimes,” Davila said.

It can also be hard to open up to people about personal difficulties, she added. “I don’t need people’s sympathy” because, “I know why I’m here, why I’m going to stay here, why I’m going to keep pushing forward.”

In response to this kind of isolation, Davila and Uduji sought out groups on campus that provide them with a sense of community.

Uduji joined the Black Student Union his freshman year and is now part of the executive board, he said.

Additionally, Uduji is part of Mosaic+, a group that mentors computer science students from underrepresented racial groups. He pointed to a lack of “racial, gender and socioeconomic diversity” in the department as an impetus for the work Mosaic+ does.

As a first-year, Davila has received support from Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano/Chicana de Aztlán, a group in which many members have “been through this same process of adjusting,” she said.

Davila has also sought comfort from the new First-Generation College and Low-Income Student Center, she said. “I went to the opening of it, and it felt very empowering to know that there’s a … space for me.”

Academic confidence

Students from different high schools reported varying levels of confidence participating in class.

“I took an upper-level history class my freshman fall with a discussion section, and I didn’t want to talk because I didn’t want to sound like I didn’t know what I was talking about,” said Molly Sandstrom ’17, who attended Chicago Lakes High School in Lindstrom, Minnesota, a small town north of Minneapolis and Saint Paul.

In response to her lack of assertiveness, she and the teaching assistant eventually formulated a system through which she could participate more effectively, she added.

That experience taught Sandstrom to advocate for herself because her Midwestern background did not teach her to ask for things, she said.

On campus, “If I wanted something, I had to get after it and ask.” Whereas at her high school, “As long as I showed up, I would do okay,” Sandstrom said.

In the fall of his freshman year, Uduji took an introductory course in Africana studies. On the first day, the professor said the word “palimpsestic,” and Uduji did not know what the word meant, he said. “I look around, and I hoped that other people were confused, but then I see other people raising their hands” and tossing around the word, he said.

Given this experience, “I felt that everyone was smarter around me because they knew all these words and these terms and ideas that I just didn’t have exposure to,” he added.

Ashour faced a more substantial transition moving from Bahrain to Choate for high school than in transitioning from Choate to Brown.

The academics at his high school in Bahrain were “very watered down,” Ashour said. He called the academic expectations of his school an “underestimation of students’ abilities back home,” adding that he never had to complete daily homework or “actively” think about course material after school.

Adjusting to daily homework at Choate was difficult, he added, but the workload prepared him well for academics at Brown.

Spending habits

In an environment with socioeconomic diversity, some reported difficulty cohesively interacting with friends of varying financial backgrounds.

“Class to me is most obvious when I want to go to a nice restaurant to eat or go out to go see the movies or go shopping, and that’s where it rears its head, and money comes into the picture,” May said.

May works as a nanny for two different children off campus to make spending money and stay busy, she said.

Sandstrom currently works five jobs — student manager for the football team, office assistant at the Office of Residential Life, Safe Walker, Sexual Assault Peer Educator and a fellowship through a nonprofit in New York — for spending money and her expected student contribution from her financial aid package, she said.

“I don’t travel; I don’t spend excessive money, but I have the financial stability to do things, like eat off campus, … which aren’t always options to students coming from a different low-income background,” Sandstrom added.

Within Sandstrom’s group of housemates, debates can arise about purchasing organic food versus less expensive food, she said. While she grew up expecting “money to stretch,” other people approach those sorts of decisions with different frames of reference, she added.

For Davila, conversations about her friends’ luxurious vacations can spur feelings of alienation, she said, as she usually travels to Mexico to visit family.

As an international student, Ashour’s class status is hard to pin down given the disparity in socioeconomic standards in Bahrain and the United States, he said.

In addition, Ashour’s scholarship, which pays for tuition and provides a living allowance, can lead to the mistaken impression that he and all other international students are wealthy.

“I can afford to go get nice dinners in (Federal) Hill just because my allowance is a good amount. If we were to put that out of the equation, and if I was to be dependent on my family, then no, I would not be able to afford spending money for spending money’s sake,” he said.

Because of his ability to comfortably spend money, “The first question I got when I got to Choate was ‘Are you a prince?’ or ‘Are you royalty?’” Ashour said. Though he knows a lot of international students at Brown who receive similar sponsorships from their governments, many domestic students still presume an immediate correlation between being an international student and being wealthy that is misrepresentative, he added.

Accents and assimilation

Many of the interviewed students described connections between perceptions of language and class.

Sandstrom came to campus with a “thick Minnesotan accent,” she said. Her accent affected people’s perceptions of her and her class status, she added. People at Brown will often appropriate a Midwestern or Southern accent when trying to capture an unintelligent persona, she said.

“The way people talk here is very different than the way people talk back home,” Uduji said, pointing specifically to the use of “SAT words.”

“I found that I did change the way that I talked in class and even with my friends. Slang started getting omitted from my speech.”

Ashour credits his accent with an easier transition from Bahrain to the United States. “I don’t have an accent, (and) I came in with a good understanding of pop culture,” he said.

Liberal attitudes

Students across all high school backgrounds had some trouble adjusting to the liberal attitudes of faculty members and peers on campus.

Ashour grew up in a “very conservative” Muslim community in which topics such as sexual orientation were rarely discussed, he said.

Ashour’s transition to Choate made the subsequent move to a liberal college environment smoother, but he was not familiar with every topic pertaining to social justice discussed at Brown when he arrived here. For example, he had not learned about non-binary gender pronouns at Choate.

Despite coming to Brown with liberal political beliefs, Davila had also not been exposed to issues pertaining to the gender binary before coming to campus, unlike some of her friends who had attended private school, she said.

Coming from a small town in Minnesota, “I thought I was so liberal,” Sandstrom said. But she had certain beliefs that were molded by her rural background, she added.

Once Sandstrom came to campus, she felt the need to learn about social issues so she “wasn’t this uneducated rural person,” she said, adding that she has “gained a lot” from speaking with her peers here.

Similarly, Uduji has valued learning about different “systems of oppression” from his peers on campus, he said.

Yet in this atmosphere of social justice and change, socioeconomic class can create a barrier to discourse.

In some discussions, “upper-class people tend to take up a lot of space, … and you’ll hear them say all these fancy words and this vocab,” Uduji said.

The terminology will impress peers, but a lot of it is gained from private education or other forms of class privilege, he said. “You can say you’re all woke and whatnot, … but (if) you’re still not acknowledging that your woke-ness comes from your class privilege, then I don’t think you’re getting to the real issue.”

It is beneficial to hear about class from people who have lived experiences in poverty, but academic jargon can prevent those people from speaking up, Uduji said.

For May, the political atmosphere at Brown has at points seemed a “one-sided” echo chamber. “I care about the debate, but I don’t think the debate is happening,” she said.

In high school, May was involved with the gay-straight alliance. She still feels comfortable speaking about political issues and those of social justice at home, but at Brown, she feels as though she “can’t say anything” and can only speak frankly with close friends.

“I’ve become much more cynical and totally impassive,” May said. In an effort to avoiding offending people, she “doesn’t engage.”

— Additional reporting by Kasturi Pananjady



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