How Can A College Student Be Both Privileged And Poor?

By Lauren Gilger
Published: Thursday, April 18, 2019 - 12:21pm
Updated: Thursday, April 18, 2019 - 4:33pm

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Alvaro Martinez and Christopher Frias
Lauren Gilger/KJZZ
Alvaro Martinez (left) and Christopher Frias are both first-generation college students.

LAUREN GILGER How can someone be both privileged and poor? That's the question a Harvard researcher Anthony JACK is hoping you'll ask when you take a look at his work. He's created a new category of low income college students and his work calls them the privileged poor and they are the kids who went to private high schools studied abroad. Things like that. So, they had access to the cultural capital that made college for them a lot easier to navigate.

ANTHONY JACK So they're poor on the one hand economically, but privileged with the kind of access they have to the educational and social experiences that we usually associate with the top 1%.

GILGER That goes in contrast to the other category of low income college kids. Jack identifies the doubly disadvantaged.

JACK They are economically poor. They don't come from families with money but where they are most under-served is because of structural inequalities and the disinvestment in public education that lead them to go to typically distress underfunded, under-resourced and overcrowded high schools. When they make the transition to college it looks like a new world to them, they experience culture shock.

GILGER Jack is himself a member of the privileged poor category. He was a head start kid that went to public school until his junior year when his football coach helped him transfer it to Gulliver Preparatory School in Miami. And a year later he found himself at Amherst College. So it was his own experience that sent him down this research path later in life, and that's where we began when I caught up with him via Skype.

JACK Everybody experiences some form of surprise when going to college. You know, like there are just some things are new for everybody but there wasn't as much new for me as it was for my peers.

GILGER You're looking at this cultural difference that really plays out in people's college experiences like what was the difference? How does this manifest itself for these kids?

JACK You know, one example that I like to use for answering this question is office hours. Office hours is a very class term. Unless you have been to a college campus, have family who has been to a college campus or you went to one of those few high schools there are resource rich enough to have something akin to office hours. You've probably never heard the term before. Right? Office hours are nothing more than a time that faculty members make themselves available for students.

GILGER Yeah.

JACK Right. But that's also the way to get letters of recommendation. Because students get to know faculty and faculty get to know students. It's how you get research assistantships. It's how you get introduced to headhunters because that professor knows you know your story, right. And so, the way in which we have this hidden curriculum. These the system of unsaid rules and hidden expectations that students must navigate is very class. And what I show is that the privileged poor by virtue of going to private high schools that are more akin to colleges than secondary institutions, are prepared for it, are accustomed to it and are at ease in navigating these type of relationships before they hit campus. Whereas a doubly disadvantage or not. They are shocked by it. They think that ironically enough in the most meritocratic way that getting ahead in college should be about the work. They should keep their head down and get the best grades even though they have the most to gain from that. They stand to lose the most because they don't know the hidden curriculum.

GILGER So what do you think should or can be done about this?

JACK I mean there are very simple things that can be done. For example, what will it mean if they were just to define office hours on the first day? I've worked with faculty members who have been teaching for 40 years and the look of shock on their face when they tell me, "Tony I've been teaching for four decades and I've never thought to define office hours."

GILGER Right.

JACK Right. Think about that. It begins us to think about what we take for granted and that mindset of being open to questioning what we take for granted is the beginning to how institutional change happens.

GILGER So it sounds like your research and just having this conversation initially is going to change a lot. Or should.

JACK I hope so. And even though we've talked about the social hurdles that lower income students face, there's one other thing that I would like to talk about. We cannot believe that this is all about social preparation. One of the clearest examples that everyone can relate to is what happens on campus during spring break. So many low income students who can't afford to go home they have to stay on campus, but universities shut down. There's no dining hall during spring break. There's no support services. Some schools even turn down the heat. What if you're one of those students who can't afford to go home or who does not have home to go to? You face a reality that we don't necessarily associate with students who face food security. You don't know where your next meal is coming from for days on end. This is a reality that a significant number of our students face day to day. We cannot think that it's just like these social programs that would help students acclimate to college life. Not with university policies amplify class differences in the way that it does during spring break.

GILGER It sounds to me like you're looking for a paradigm shift you're looking for universities to completely change their perspective.

JACK Yes, universities take for granted not just what students know but what they can afford. And so I hope that my research pushes them to question again what they take for granted especially as it pertains to their diversification efforts. Right. Access is not inclusion. A financial aid package connected to admissions is one thing. What happens to that student and whether they feel like a second class citizen in the first class world once they get to campus is another thing in its entirety?

GILGER Anthony Jack is an assistant professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. And he's the author of the new book The Privileged Poor. Tony thanks so much for coming on.

JACK Thank you for having me.

GILGER But what does that feel like for students who aren’t from the “privileged poor?” How difficult can it be to navigate that first day in a college classroom? To find out I sat down with two first generation college students from right here in Arizona. Alvaro Martinez and Christopher Frias or seniors at ASU and the first in their families to go to college. You'll hear Frias first here...

CHRISTOPHER FRIAS I am a Phoenix native born and raised. I come from a family of four so my single mother and then my two older siblings. And given the fact that my mother was a single mother and whatnot we had a very low income household and she knew that because she herself dropped out of high school to have my older brother and had to return to get her GED. She knew that education was the path out of poverty. So from a very early age she did all she could to make sure that I was reading a lot, to take whatever classes are available at my public schools and just kind of push the idea that I needed to go to college and that was there wasn't an alternative option out there.

GILGER So that was always the case in your head, like I'm definitely going to college.

FRIAS Correct, yes.

GILGER What about you Alvaro?

ALVARO MARTINEZ Yeah. So, I pretty much came from a low income community. I didn't go to a high school that talked about college a lot. The person who pushed me the most about going to college was my mom. So she's a big role model in terms of moving forward with my life and getting higher education. So my mom researched all of the different degrees that I could pursue in science because I paid the most money. My mom found a degree called astrophysics and I looked into it more and saying wow the universe seems so interesting let me look at some more shows about this and I came to the conclusion that astrophysics was for me.

GILGER She picked your major?

MARTINEZ Pretty much.

GILGER You're still doing that, right? You're still majoring in astrophysics?

MARTINEZ Yeah! I know the dropout rate for an astrophysicist is about 90%. So for me to be coming this far is definitely a blessing.

GILGER Yeah. So you're both in college, now almost done at this point. But I want to talk about what it was like. When you started college four years ago. What was it like when you walked into that classroom for the first time?

FRIAS I remember the very first day of college. It was, you know of course, 120 degrees outside. I was stressed trying to find my classes, I woke up super early just to kind of map out where to go. And I just remember walking into, it was kind of a lecture of about 100 students or so. And I just remember that I'm dripping sweat. I'm very confused about if there's like a seating chart or something along those lines. So, I kind of picked a spot towards the very middle of the room and the Professor walks in and she just goes straight into her lecture. Half the students in the room have laptops out half students have notebooks and so it was just a lot of me kind of looking around seeing what I should do. If I should try to copy people or, I mean, I thought we were just going over the syllabus today, so I'm very confused what's going on here. Yeah, I mean it was just very isolated experience just trying to navigate, you know, the first couple of weeks of just getting, you know, your schedule down, what the process looks like once you're actually in the classroom and just things of that nature.

GILGER Yeah. What about you Alvaro? You remember that first day?

MARTINEZ So, it was my astronomy class which was the very first classroom of the very first school, very daunting. No one tells you where to get help. It's like you learn the material cool, where can I go to ask questions? Who can I go to for help? And no one really told me that and eventually ASU offers a lot of tutoring centers for any type of subjects and that's something I had to figure out on my own.

GILGER Did you notice the difference between yourselves and the sort of you know flailing you felt like you might have been doing these first couple of weeks and other students who seemed more prepared or somehow knew what was going on?

FRIAS Yeah, definitely. I think it was such a surreal change for me just because in high school I was towards the top of my class and so I was used to being the one that was very confident and sure myself and what I was doing. And then you come into college and a lot of your peers have gone to summer preparation camps or have gone to a drawn out orientation or something along those lines to kind of orient themselves to the college experience. And for me, it was just a lot of adjustment that seemed overwhelming and kind of seemed like it diminished me a little bit in some sense just because I felt like if I was struggling so much and my peers weren't, do I belong on here? Is that something that reflects badly on me rather than reflects badly on like the situation I grew up in?

GILGER So you're almost done, right? What do you think that this has done for your college experience? Kind of the backgrounds that you came from, being the first ones in your families to do this and having to navigate this on your own? Do you think it's made you better students, stronger students? Do you think it's made it harder?

MARTINEZ So for me, I've been taught by my parents that hard work always pays off and that I have to work as hard as I can to be the best and pretty much to pass. Well that's pretty much paid off for me. I'm glad I came from low income community because most of my peers were very privileged and they just assumed I got my work cut out for me. I took a lot of AP, I don't have to study I could do it. Well as for me, I had to study every single day just put in the work and made it this far.

FRIAS Similarly, I think that coming from the background I did come from knowing the different outcomes that if I didn't do well in college I could potentially end up at. I knew that I did have to work twice as hard as most of my peers. I had to have multiple part time jobs while being a full time student and just having that time management skill and having that ability to get work experience and to really learn how to navigate complex systems and things like that. That definitely has contributed a lot to me in the long run. So I think this definitely my background and my experience has given me a kind of resilience and perseverance attitude about things that I definitely feel will help a lot in the long run.

GILGER All right, Christopher Frias, Alvaro Martinez, thank you so much.

FRIAS Thank you.

MARTINEZ Thank you.

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