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The University of Chicago’s Independent Student Newspaper since 1892

Chicago Maroon

The University of Chicago’s Independent Student Newspaper since 1892

Chicago Maroon

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Duck, Duck, Dollar Bill: At UChicago, Financial Diversity Goes Deeper Than Expensive Clothes

Conversations with first-generation, low income students reveal a reality of economic diversity at UChicago that’s much more complicated than Canada Goose memes bely. Grey City reports.
Courtesy of Brinda Rao.

University of Chicago students love Canada Goose jackets. A brief stroll across the quad during winter quarter will reveal as much. You’ll probably be able to pick out at least a half-dozen of the brand’s red and blue logos on the arms of passersby.

We also love to ridicule them. This past winter, NBC Chicago reported that armed robbers were targeting pedestrians wearing the coats (which can retail for more than $1,000), prompting a University student to post the link in the campus meme group with the caption “Glad I’m poor.” Students make plenty of jokes at the expense of people who have had their coats stolen from frat parties.

Some of the criticism adopts a more serious tone. Last month, first-year Brinda Rao wrote a column in The Maroon (“The Flight of the Canada Goose” 4/19/19), decrying what she views as a shift in campus culture toward a “new era of fashion elitism,” which she connected to the prevalence of Canada Goose coats and other expensive clothing items.

“Displays of wealth are not benign,” she wrote, adding that the trend “feeds a growing divide in our student body based on the value we place on socioeconomic status.”

Rao herself owns a bright red Canada Goose coat, and the irony is not lost on her. “I was walking out with everyone around me, contributing to this privilege,” she said.

While Rao was unequivocal about the harmful effect the Canada Goose proliferation has on campus, she was unsure about how to address it. When I asked Rao what effect she hoped her words would have on the student body, she wasn’t totally sure.

“I don’t necessarily know if this piece should have a call to action,” she said.

“It’s important to be aware and conscious of privilege,” she told me, “and that doesn’t mean you have to apologize for it or feel the need to make up for it.”

Though the coats may be gone for the year, the financial situations for first-generation, low-income (FGLI) students remain constant. Canada Goose jackets are not representative of their experiences. The hypervisibility of the jackets, it appears, eclipses the comparatively less flashy circumstances of those who cannot afford them—and UChicago talks about extreme wealth, but not necessarily the lack of it.

According to US News and World Report, 42 percent of University of Chicago students receive some form of financial aid, meaning that a majority of students pay full price—more than $75,000 in some cases. In third-year Thomas Zheng’s experience, the student body’s different socioeconomic strata tend to self-segregate.

Zheng came from a public high school that was very socioeconomically diverse. He said it was able to bring the student body together and provide an educational experience that was inclusive and provided him with “a greater sense of empathy as to what certain students who are different from me might face.”

He doesn’t think the same is true at the University of Chicago.

“One thing [the University] doesn’t do well is it doesn’t really give incentive for students to engage with students from different backgrounds,” he said.

Many University of Chicago students, in his view, “feel that they can get by through this University talking to their own and hanging out with their own, whatever ‘[their] own’ might be.”

The University of Chicago has made a number of steps toward increasing the number of FGLI students on campus, including guaranteeing free tuition to students with family incomes below $125,000 and introducing the UChicago Empower Initiative, which is meant to reduce administrative barriers like standardized testing in applications.

For example, the University partners with QuestBridge, a national nonprofit based in Palo Alto, which connects high-achieving low-income students with colleges and universities across the country and coordinates financial aid assistance up through the level of full scholarships. On campus, the University of Chicago QuestBridge chapter hosts informational and social events, connects admitted QuestBridge scholars, or “Questies,” with current students through a pen pal program, and collaborates with the University’s Center for College Student Success (CCSS) and the student-run Socioeconomic Diversity Alliance (SDA).

There is also significant overlap between the QuestBridge program and the University’s internal Odyssey Scholarship program. Initially funded by an anonymous donor named “Homer,” the program provides academic, social, and career support to low-income and first-generation students. Each Odyssey Scholar is guaranteed a paid summer internship following their first year, provided they participate in programs prepared by Career Advancement and attend regular meetings with a career adviser.

Second-year Naa Asheley Ashitey, a QuestBridge and Odyssey scholar, told me that the University’s financial aid policies were incredibly enticing when she was applying through QuestBridge. Once she got here, she found a campus environment that was less welcoming of her identity than the brochures had promised.

“You bring in a lot of these first[-generation] students,” Ashitey said. “But then what is happening on campus? How are they feeling on campus?”

Claire Moore, who graduated last year, expressed a similar sentiment. “Oh, I’m Black. I’m a woman and I’m low-income. Three boxes you can check,” she said, “Now that I’m here…how are you going to support me knowing that there are some limitations that I have—that I’m low-income? What are you going to do when your professors and when your students and when your administrators are notably racist? What are you going to do in incidents like that?”

Last May, a group of 14 Odyssey Scholars published an op-ed in The Maroon urging members of the Class of 2018 to boycott the senior class gift (“Seniors, Don’t Donate to the Class Gift” 5/14/18). The authors claimed that the University exploits Odyssey Scholars, “capitaliz[ing] on our talents and labors as scholars and advocates while providing us little support,” and using them to attract donors. “For years,” they wrote, “students have been asking for greater food security, a welcoming housing culture, reliable and adequate financial aid, and enhanced bias reporting mechanisms with little substantive support or acknowledgment from the University.”

According to Moore, the FGLI population was far from united in support of the boycott campaign.

“Some people just didn’t care,” she told me, “some people were all for it, and some people were just like, ‘This is absolutely ridiculous. How dare you even think this?’ There was not a consensus at all.” Moore’s support for the campaign got her into a fight with a close friend and fellow Odyssey Scholar.

Moore said the split was at least in part due to a “difference in experience” among FGLI students. She told me that people like her, who had to cope with obstacles associated with being female and a person of color on top of those associated with FGLI status, were more likely to be fed up with the administration.

First-year Michael Tuvshinsaikhan provided a different rationale for why some FGLI students hesitate to make more demands of the University, saying that it has already given them so much that such a request seems ungrateful.

“To me, personally, I can’t really ask for more,” he said. “To me it just feels kind of weird, kind of uncomfortable to just to say, ‘Okay, you paid for my entire scholarship. Now you’re gonna pay for my entire summer internship. But also, I need this.’”

Tuvshinsaikhan’s outlook has its roots in part in his experience as an immigrant from Mongolia. “You’ve come to the most powerful, most wealthy country in the world,” he said. “This is perceived to be the most amazing option or opportunity you’re ever going to get. So, you know, don’t screw it up.”

He feels the same way about the University. In his view, it’s up to students, FGLI or otherwise, to make the most of the opportunity. “So once you're here, you’re at the University of Chicago,” he told me. “This is one of the top universities in the world. You don’t mess it up.”

It’s a mentality that he acknowledged can be detrimental to students in some circumstances “where a person may need actually more.”

For his own part, though, Tuvshinsaikhan is satisfied with the services he has received from the University through the CCSS and through Career Advancement.

“Sometimes,” he told me, “you can kind of get lost in how many opportunities there are.”

Last quarter, The Maroon published a leaked e-mail chain allegedly containing instructions from the deputy director of Career Advancement to prioritize students connected to Career Advancement donors and employers when publicizing information about an opportunity for internship funding (“UChicago Allegedly Favored Donors’ Children for Internship Funding As Students in Need Were Turned Away” 3/15/19). The source, a Career Advancement staff member, told The Maroon that the ongoing FBI investigation into bribery in college admissions across the country was part of their motivation to share the e-mails.

In response to a request for comment for that piece, the University said that it regularly contacts students about opportunities for funding, but didn’t answer questions about whether it prioritized so-called “special interest cases.”

“When first-gen, low-income students hear about this,” Ashitey told me, “we’re not surprised about it.” She finds it frustrating that the most privileged students on campus would be given special treatment while FGLI students are the ones who face criticism for perceived special treatment.

Tuvshinsaikhan said that the e-mails raise ethical questions, but he remains somewhat ambivalent. “I don’t necessarily have a problem with that if it can give larger positive externalities,” he told me. As he sees it, shoring up relationships with donors can benefit everyone at the University in the long run, including FGLI students. He said the University is inevitably going to have to perform a “balancing act” with its commitments to students and its goals of long-term growth.

Ashitey told me that she has repeatedly felt the need to broadcast her identity and background to the University in order to be treated with compassion.

“My chem professor asked me if I had went to high school,” she said, “because I didn’t know how to use calculus in chemistry, because I guess I was supposed to know how to do that.”

After a midterm in another class went poorly, Ashitey sought help from her professor, but eventually stopped going to office hours because the experience made her uncomfortable.

“He would get annoyed if I’m asking questions,” she said.

Instead, she sought out a graduate student friend and the two met two or three times a week to go over the material. On the next midterm, Ashitey’s grade still didn’t improve. The class average also dipped substantially. Concerned about her grade, she approached her professor to ask what she could do to improve. He told her she “shouldn’t have waited until the last minute.” She replied that she had been working hard to learn the concepts.

“Well, maybe you should have just been smarter,” he replied.

After hearing that, she withdrew from the class.

“I no longer felt like I was welcomed,” she said. “I no longer felt like I was learning.”

It’s not just professors. Ashitey told me about a phone call she had with the University bursar’s office about her financial aid. She asked the employee to walk her through her financial aid documents, but still had difficulty with the unfamiliar terminology. Eventually it reached a point where Ashitey said, “Look, I understand that this may seem really basic and annoying that you have to explain all this, but I am a first-gen, low-income, minority student who doesn’t really have much background on what financial aid looks like, and I’m simply trying to understand the costs.”

“It was from there,” Ashitey went on, “that she finally decided to explain things I had been asking about for 20 minutes.”

Afterward, she called her mother in tears.

Ashitey said that as a result of her experiences, she’s started e-mailing her professors ahead of time to say, “I am a first-generation, low-income, minority student, and I don’t have the necessary background or all the backgrounds you may require. So if I seem annoying if I’m asking things in class, I apologize.”

That strategy has helped, but she’s frustrated she’s found herself in this position at all. “There’s no reason I should have to send that e-mail,” she said, “but it’s a reality that you have to express your background before people are willing to listen and people are willing to hear.”

Students, she said, should feel comfortable talking about where they come from, “but it shouldn’t be the reason that now people realize that they’re going to treat you fairly or they’re now going to actually listen to you.”

She likened her classroom experience to living with a physical or mental disability. Professors “should be teaching in a style that caters to all in the best way possible and be receptive to students,” she said.

In Moore’s experience, even being upfront about her situation wasn’t always enough to ensure that her interactions with the University went smoothly. She told me that during her first year, she had to spend so many hours working to help fund her education that she became physically sick. Her illness affected her performance in class. After receiving a C on a writing assignment, she tried to explain her situation to her professor.

“She was like, ‘What I asked for was an essay, and you didn’t give me an essay,’” Moore said. Moore offered to provide a doctor’s note, but the professor still wasn’t willing to accommodate. “She’s like, ‘I don't care, you shouldn’t even come to class if you’re going to be like this.’”

Moore was shocked. “And it’s just like, why do you feel comfortable saying that?”

Most of her interactions with professors were more positive, but it was experiences like that one that caused her to drift away from the broader University community.

“I guess I kind of created a bubble for myself,” she told me. When not at home, at work, or in class, she spent almost all of her time at the Center for Identity and Inclusion.

“They made me feel comfortable,” she said. “They gave me the home I was expecting from my house.”

One of the Socioeconomic Diversity Alliance’s recent campaigns has been an attempt to increase the amount of money, currently $4,000, that comes with the University’s summer Metcalf internships. Students in support of the change say that the funding does not meet the cost of living in many of the locations where the internships are available. Students whose families can provide cars or who live in internship hotspots like Washington, D.C., or New York City may find that $4,000 goes further than it does for their lower-income peers.

The campaign is an effort to prevent situations like that of third-year Kimika Padilla. Padilla spent the summer after her first year at a Metcalf internship in San Francisco, an experience that she “really valued.” “But obviously, housing is really expensive in San Francisco,” she said, “and I ended up sharing a bedroom and a bed in an Airbnb with a fellow QuestBridge scholar.” She told me the arrangement “ended up working great,” but she can easily imagine situations in which students are not able to manage the burden so easily.

The University has so far not agreed to the $2,000 increase they were hoping for, said third-year Adrian Morquecho. Morquecho serves as communications chair for SDA.

He said that a lot of FGLI students he knows feel like “they have to pimp out their struggles and their lack of resources, and the administration has this poverty fetish.”

Morquecho added that the SDA’s relationship with the administration is “very tenuous at best.”

The University had not responded to a request for comment regarding its relationship with SDA at the time of publication.

While at the University of Chicago, Moore was active in an SDA push for better food security on campus. She thought it was “completely ridiculous” that the dining halls weren’t open on Saturday nights.

The University’s implementation of Saturday night meal swipes at Hutchinson Commons in the fall of 2017 came in response to SDA’s efforts to make the administration aware of the burdens faced by FGLI students struggling to pay for food.

From the perspective of Morquecho, who got involved with SDA after the change was made, awareness of the Saturday meal swipe’s origin among the student body is relatively low. “If I were to ask a student, ‘Who do you think made this Saturday night meal swipe happen?’ I don’t think they necessarily would have known that it was us even though we were the ones behind all of the advocacy work for it.”

Morquecho said that there was some truth to the idea that outward displays of wealth, like the aforementioned Canada Goose jackets, can have a chilling effect on FGLI students. To him, it’s a sign of a likely lack of understanding. “It’s just a turnoff because it immediately signals to me that if I have a conversation it’s going to be difficult.”

He finds it irritating when he shows up 10 minutes early to a CCSS event aimed at FGLI students, only to see a line of expensively dressed students snaking out the door. “When an office finally decides to allocate some resources to us, the University finally makes the Center for College Student Success, and suddenly they’re like, ‘free food!’”

These kinds of interactions are symptomatic of what Morquecho sees as a “general obliviousness” among the non–FGLI student body to the experiences of their lower-income classmates.

He told me that he has friends who wear Canada Goose jackets, but class has proven to be an obstacle that needs to be overcome.

The other students I spoke to didn’t express any serious antipathy towards the campus Canada Goose phenomenon.

In Moore’s experience, class on campus is frequently more complicated than clothing, and a student’s outward presentation can mask the reality of their situation.

“One of my friends—I didn’t even know that she was part of the [FGLI] community because she worked really hard to make it look like she had no problems,” she said. “She spent all of her money on clothes, and sometimes I wouldn’t see her eat.”

Tuvshinsaikhan chuckled when I mentioned Rao’s article; he also owns a Canada Goose jacket. His father needed a warm coat for a trip back to Mongolia—“You know when we had the polar vortex? That kind of weather is there for maybe four or five months”—and, not needing it when he got back to Virginia, traded it in for one in a smaller size so Tuvshinsaikhan could take it to Chicago. “So I personally don’t have a problem,” he said.

Padilla, for her part, told me that she doesn’t particularly care what her peers wear.

“But I think that there are definitely other ways where wealth stands out,” she said, “things like who’s able to go home for three days on Thanksgiving and who’s staying on campus because they can’t afford it, and who’s able to afford frequent trips downtown.”

She said there are “degrees of awareness” of FGLI students’ experiences on campus. When she has had to skip nights out with friends because she can’t afford it, the subject of money inevitably comes up.

“For some people it’s really easy to explain that that’s what’s going on and they understand,” she said. “for others, that can be a really uncomfortable conversation.”

For Ashitey, Canada Goose jackets do mark those who wear them as different from her. “You know that they don’t have to think a lot about having to send money back to their parents,” she said. She added, however, that she doesn’t let clothing dictate her feelings about the people around her.

“Some people have the jacket and we automatically assume that they’re not going to listen to us,” she said, “when it’s not always like that.”

Far more important for Ashitey is whether or not her more affluent peers are willing to listen and understand when she talks about her experiences. “I have a lot of friends who are much more well-off than me,” she said, adding, “When I’m having a conversation and talking about what it means to be [FGLI], they’re completely understanding.” 

Owning a Canada Goose coat, it appears, does not preclude that kind of understanding.

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