I didn’t know I was low-income until I arrived at the College


Content warning: mentions of food-related restriction and mental health.

It’s the little things. 

It’s not being able to go out with friends often, sure, but it’s also researching the fact that WATA is free for students before applying, and making sure it’s a walkable campus. Or avoiding majors/minors like art, or literally any science with a lab, because you see the word FEE in bold letters on Open Course and get scared.

It’s sneaking into a campus building when it’s closed because you know that there are blankets inside.

It’s unsuccessfully unlearning a scarcity mindset. It’s a lot of stealing that isn’t really stealing, like taking handfuls of condoms from the CSD or stuffing backpacks with free pads and tampons or snatching free food from people tabling in Sadler, all justified internally with a “just in case” because you never know. In the dining halls, feeling the need — not want, but need, urge, compulsion — to go back for seconds and take cereal and fruits to-go, even if you won’t eat them because you’re so used to not knowing where you’d eat next. And now, with Marketplace assigning monetary value to foods instead of normal swipes, it’s fighting panic attacks because you feel that you’re not worthy of food that costs that much, that by eating you’re spending too much on yourself, even though you know logically a swipe is a swipe. It’s eventually avoiding Marketplace altogether.

In high school, I didn’t know any better, because I was a low-income kid from a rich-ass county, and I was resourceful, and I was lucky. My friends (who were all wealthy — excuse me, “well off”) gave me rides to the grocery store in the cars that their parents bought them, let me sleep on their couches, shower in their personal bathrooms and eat food at their table without repayment. I found opportunities to go to county and state-funded summer camps when I wasn’t working. I had teachers who believed in me and told me that I was going to go to college, and so I did. I made it here.

Perhaps this is the “socio’ in “socioeconomics.” Even though I didn’t have much, I felt like I did because I lived in an area so rich that people had money to spend on people like me. And they were willing to, likely because I was a “good” poor kid, one who tried so hard to integrate into their lifestyle, who never drank, never did drugs and had the cultural capital to speak and act the way that they liked. So it was easier. Accessing resources at the College, however, was very different, especially considering that I did not identify myself as first-generation low-income on any forms, as I didn’t believe that it applied to me until I saw my FAFSA. As such, I missed out on what I know is a great program through STEP. However, it was too late for me and for many people I know. 

If you are a low-income student like myself and need help finding resources, I implore you to go to organizations such as Blot, W&M Vox and Campus Kitchen for tangible needs like food, clothing or sanitary products. And please reach out to the Office of Community Engagement to see if there are funds that can fill your specific needs. These are the places that I have found the most help (both personally and from talking with other low-income students), and where they are actually able to materially help you.

The reason that I write this article is this: there is a wonderful culture on campus of trying to uplift those in our communities. I see students clamoring for equity and justice across the world, which is amazing. However, much of this comes from wealthy students with no understanding of low-income communities and needs. I mean, I haven’t even talked about the culture of a school whose median parental income was $176,400 in 2017, let alone the elitism and classism from other students. If you truly want to help low income students, there are specific school policies you should be working toward: ending forced hospitalizations of mentally ill students by the Dean of Students and Student Accessibility Services, making sure that Residence Life can properly house students with no other options over all breaks and that W&M Care Support Services can have some authority in that, and creating funds or programs that reduce barriers to students’ futures (such as unexpected medical bills or a lack of a cell phone). Think global, act local. Start changing the school environment for the better.

This author is a student at the College of William and Mary and has chosen to remain anonymous. If you would like to respond, email fhopinions@gmail.com.


  1. THIS ARTICLE. While my family is not low income, we faced a lot of economic hardship trying to send three students to college all at once. My parents, siblings, and I had to make a lot of sacrifices to get my sibling and I here (my other sibling is at GMU) and seeing the wealth on campus was shocking. I have had students ask me if I just couldn’t get into W&M when I said I went to community college first, others be legitimately shocked that I’ve never gone to Europe, or that I couldn’t just live off campus instead of taking out hefty loans for on campus housing. My mental health alone has been a barrier that highlights the wealth disparity on campus, many of my worries and stressors are ones many people I know on campus have never experienced and might not ever experience (and no one should have to!!!!). Recognizing that mental health, economic disparity, and other unfair disadvantages like race, sexuality, and more, have serious effects on your fellow students is so so important. It’s difficult to take a mental health day when I know that not coming into work or skipping too many classes means I don’t have enough money for food or won’t have time to truly catch up. To quote the author, think global, act local.


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