I am not too proud to admit that I chose to apply to Princeton because I thought it looked pretty. Applying to, much less being admitted to, an Ivy League seemed like a pipe dream, unrealistic to the point of irresponsible. When I told my mother I was going to apply to an Ivy League school she reacted much like a parent whose child tells them they want to be a movie star despite never auditioning for a school play– “Are you sure about that?”–trying her best to subtly suggest alternatives. “Is it really worth your time?” “I heard your cousin got nearly a full tuition scholarship at *insert small state school here*, why don’t you look into that?”
So it seemed reasonable that I chose which Ivy League to apply to based on something as arbitrary as looks. It’s like online shopping with clothes you know you could never afford to buy. Not Harvard, the buildings weren’t as pretty, not Yale, it seemed too big, not Dartmouth, it was too isolated, and so on. Naturally, I was swayed by the castle-like architecture of Princeton, and I applied with little hope of becoming a student but with many romanticized daydreams of studying in stern intellectual buildings.
When it came to decision day, with the unexpected letter of admission, the choice seemed obvious– go with the Ivy League castle. After all, we’ve never had anyone in the family go to a castle, as my mom would gush. Most importantly, the castle ironically happened to be the most affordable place to go. The castle practically paid me to go. The castle would help me afford to visit my family over winter break, a luxury that I couldn’t get elsewhere. In the end, my choice to choose Princeton didn’t feel like a choice at all. It was an obligation–an opportunity that was realistically impossible to deny.
Flash forward a few months to move-in day, my first time witnessing the campus, in all its stone-arch, colonial-style-window glory.
“This is incredible,” my mom said, gazing at Blair Arch. She was staring with such concentration that I thought she might be trying to read its giant clock, memorizing the exact time she dropped off her kid at an Ivy League School.
Facebook’s gonna hear about this one, I thought.
Meanwhile, my heart sank as I looked around at the intricate buildings around me, whose pictures would likely appear in tandem with her braggadocious Facebook post. It hit me as I stepped in front of my country-club looking dorm for a picture– I couldn’t live here. The buildings were too nice, the students roaming on campus looked too put-together; there was no graffiti, no homeless people asking for money outside the library, no sign of the poorness I had always associated with reality. The familiar signs of a stratified society were missing; what I considered middle to low-income normalities were completely hidden. This school was unnatural and unreal, its campus made up. And I wasn’t meant to be in its fantasy world. I too, should have been tucked away in some corner, not to be seen by the tourist groups or fancy visiting professionals.
As I would come to realize, for me and for many students with low-income backgrounds, the beautiful campus would become a facade of isolation, a reminder that I don’t belong, that this place was not made for people whose clothes were thrifted, not out of a taste for fashion, but out of a practiced necessity started in elementary school. The school that I had immaturely chosen because of its beauty suffocated me with its manicured gardens and proud stone arches.
I spoke with my friend Ray, a student who had also come from a low-income background, about my discomfort on a trip to Brooklyn. For us, trips to NYC taken on the unclean public transportation felt like a reset, a connection to what we were familiar with. We laughed as we passed down an alleyway that would have made Princeton shudder. I told him that I was sad that the Princeton Public Library didn’t smell like piss and body odor. He told me that he missed running into people in the street who would try to sell you fake jewelry while shouting obscenities. We giggled at how crazy we were, missing what some would call the worst parts of city life, because it reminded us of home, that there was a world out there where men dressed in pants besides khakis and chinos. Where income levels below $100,000 were normal, and the hecticness that came with low- and middle-income neighborhoods was expected.
I began to realize that the “orange bubble” which all Princeton students can relate to– the feeling of isolation and lack of connection to the world outside of Princeton– hits differently for different students. While I cannot speak to the experiences of students of color, for low-income students, the orange bubble not only confines us to campus, but casts an orange tint on the walls of every building, reminding us that the walls inside the bubble aren’t ours either. The orange bubble is not a hemispheric boundary, but rather a membrane filled with congested air that permeates throughout the whole campus, simultaneously trapping us within and isolating us from a beautiful facade that is supposed to be our home.
Upon speaking to more low-income students, this pattern kept popping up. With every low-income student I talked to, I asked, “Do you feel like you belong?”
For most, their response was an immediate “No,” jarring even themselves at how swiftly the answer came.
When I asked students if they would choose to come to Princeton all over again, knowing now what it is like to be a low-income student on campus, their answers reflected the cycle that low-income students fall into with Princeton: “Princeton was the only affordable option, I think I would have to choose it again.”
Princeton beckons low-income students to come to its campus with its robust financial aid, strong diversity statistics (for an Ivy League), and a promise that you will be supported. Low-income students follow that promise, until like me, they come to realize that the campus itself jeers at us, that we do not belong here. The programs put in place for low-income students, such as SIFP, are draining, condescending, and hold back resources from low-income students who don’t have the time to meet certain activity requirements for funding. Still, SIFP and its associated programs are a necessary evil– the only thing many of us have to navigate our way through Princeton.
As I have come to learn through my conversations with low-income students, it is not a question of what can be changed at Princeton to make low-income students more comfortable (after all, what can we really ask for but for Princeton to pretend to be something it will never be–a castle made for the poor).
Instead, it is about finding ways for each individual student to steel themselves to the realities of Princeton in the most sustainable way. Some students find friend groups with other low-income students, some students throw themselves into their studies, some students brave it with relentless motivation from their home life–the knowledge that they are their parent’s retirement plan.
For most of us, there are noticeable gaps in everyday life at Princeton. In fact, I think you could ask anyone on campus if there are gaps between low-income students and the rest of the student population, and most would respond in the affirmative, citing the obvious wealth gap. But for low-income students, it’s more than just a wealth gap.
It’s an affordability gap–telling your friends that you can’t go to Nassau Street to get Tacoria because you already spent $15 on laundry detergent at the overpriced University Store or CVS. It’s a comfort gap–feeling afraid of the eating club system because it feels like networking, which you are also afraid of because it’s so foreign to you. An experience gap–best said by one of the freshmen who I talked to, referring to those who came from a higher status than them: “These kids haven’t seen shit.” A conversation gap–not knowing what to say when your classmate mentions going to Cancun over winter break. A family gap–not being able to call your mom to get feedback on a paper or problem set, not because your parents are dumb, but because they were never trained to define “motive” in a paper. It’s an opportunity gap–seeing someone who takes the exact classes as you get an internship because they knew someone who knew someone. It’s a motivation gap–taking 5 courses in a semester not because you have to, but because you are afraid to miss out on a funded opportunity. A food gap–being relieved at the reliable sight of food in the dining hall and uneasy at the thought of someone cleaning your plate for you. It’s a knowledge gap–trying to take the BSE general requirements but getting weeded out in the process because your high school didn’t offer AP Physics, Chem, or Calculus. A stress gap–because if you do have to pay some part of tuition, “parent contribution” is your responsibility and really, just a fancy way of saying “student contribution.”
Out of all of these gaps comes a delicate truth. Despite being told that we would have resources to help, or that we deserved to be here because we were admitted, or that we are just as smart as the other students here, we are inevitably behind students from wealthier areas. I asked the students I spoke to if anyone warned them it was going to be like this, to which all but one responded to the effect of, “No. I wish someone did.” The one first-year student who said she was warned about Princeton recalled it was by her sister, who advised her, “Don’t come here.”
I’m not asking that Princeton graffiti its walls or get as many questionable people with trench coats to stand on random corners and harass students in order to make low-income students feel more “at home.” But I do wish the dishonesty of Princeton’s economic diversity marketing to end. I wish Princeton didn’t tout its economic diversity with statistics while providing no real space for low-income students to feel both comfortable and independent. I wish that all the hard lessons I have learned about real life didn’t mean nothing, because I’m in a place where low-income hardly exists and those difficult lessons I learned don’t apply to networking and studying. I wish that other students would understand that the “orange bubble” affects different students differently. That being stuck in the wealthy campus of Princeton can feel like losing one’s identity and background.
I wish that despite all of these frustrations, I didn’t simultaneously owe Princeton everything, my education, my future (likely successful) career, and my relationships. Although I have more financial aid at Princeton than anywhere else in the USA, the debt of gratitude will always weigh on me, reminding me, these beautiful buildings aren’t for you. Going to school at Princeton as a low-income student sometimes feels like suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, trapped, but provided for with the best opportunities. An outsider with no other options than to be grateful that someone donated enough money for you to get an education.
I wish the facade wasn’t so beautiful that I fell for it.