A White girl’s guide to: Socioeconomic privilege

Photo courtesy of Brittany Wells and Marley Bangert | Staff Writer Brittany Wells continues her series and highlights how Xavier attempts to support students from low-income backgrounds.

So much of how we navigate the world is the result of those around us knowing how to unlock the doors between ourselves and our success. For first-generation students or students coming from a low-income background, it is often as though they spend their whole lives learning that the keys are glued to the ceiling and the ladder is wobbly and untrustworthy. If you watched many members of your community fall off the ladder or never saw where anyone found the ladder in the first place, I’d imagine you’d have trouble finding the key, too.

Dr. Daniel McSpadden is the director of TRiO, a student support service where eligible students can receive access to grants, academic resources and most importantly, stories. A first-generation college student himself, he seeks to use his own story to re-write the endings of his students’ stories.

“I want them to hear my story,” McSpadden told me as tears welled up in my eyes. “I try to share the good, the bad, all of it…they appreciate that because they see that ‘OK, it’s just like me, a person just like me, and if he can, then I know I can.’”

What made the difference for McSpadden was a sense of community, a big group of cheerleaders back home who knew what he was capable of and held him accountable for achieving it. While in school he found himself saying, “All these people are rooting for me, all these people are in my corner, so I have to do well.”

This intricate intersectionality between being a first-generation college student and coming from a low-income bracket is no news to TRiO, whose students qualify for the program in multiple ways.

I spoke with a student in the program who knows the impact of stories first-hand. She noted her hard work as a defining factor of her success but added that for some students, it’s not that simple.

“It’s more a matter of the support that they have,” she said. “Some people who are born into situations where they have a lack of funds, they either…have people pushing them to do better than what they have, or they have people telling them they’ll never get out of their situation. I was blessed enough to have a mother who always pushed me to try my hardest and to go to a school that believed in me and believed in all the students. I think that anyone in any financial situation can have the life that they dream of and can be as successful as they want to be, but they do have to have a support system in place.”

No student can be successful if they feel alone in the world, and this lone wolf syndrome is more powerful than you may think. As an education major, I learned very early the significance of my role as a mentor. Children do best when their parents can provide all that they need for success. But there is hope. People like McSpadden exist, and at a place like Xavier, success is possible.

According to the student, TRiO “has for one, provided a community for me where I don’t feel as ashamed to not be able to handle college funds on my own, and knowing that there are other methods of paying rather than just taking out loans, and hoping for the best…You can move as far as you want, but if you have so many things pushing you back much harder than you’re moving, you really can’t get past it.”

McSpadden, and others like him, have stacked their stories high enough for students to reach the key glued to the ceiling.

Further resources on the topic can be found at the Student Success Center in the Conaton Learning Commons or at TRiO. Further reading can be found in Sam Killerman’s “Middle Upper Class Privilege Checklist” provided by Arizona State University. Additionally, the Dorothy Day Center for Faith and Justice offers various service opportunities to work with youth affected by poverty to teach them that they are more than their circumstances and to encourage their growth.

Question socio-economically privileged people don’t want to ask:

If there’s all of these opportunities for people to get out of poverty, aren’t poor people responsible for their poverty? Aren’t they in some way at fault for being poor?

Student: Not necessarily. You hear of instances where someone gambled all their money away, and sold their house, and now they’re in poverty … or where someone has an unfortunate addiction and now they’re in poverty, but that isn’t always the case. Some people work hard their entire lives and life just doesn’t seem to work out in their favor. Constant tragedy happens, or they are taken advantage of, or robbed, or various things, and they keep working and just are unable, it seems, to move past the financial situation they are in. Overall I would say no one is completely at fault, because even in situations where someone makes a choice that directly leads to them losing funds or being in poverty, something caused them to make that wrong choice.

Author’s response: The essential balance is understanding that while there is hope, and there are opportunities which people in poverty can take, that many people in poverty are there for reasons far beyond fiscal irresponsibility and laziness. Furthermore, regardless of how people came into poverty, damning them as a group is not only ineffective, but harmful to progress. The solution? Storytelling. And more importantly, storylistening. Yes, it is crucial to understand how someone ended up in poverty to help them get out, and stay out, but based on the anecdotal evidence I have collected, the best thing you can do is encourage them, and see them as more than their poverty. People need people. Be a part of somebody’s people.

Brittany Wells is a first-year Montessori education major and staff writer for the Newswire from Cincinnati.