When I was at Williams, I had a general awareness that some kids had tons of money, and some kids had less, and some kids had a lot less. I always kind of envisioned myself as being somewhere in the middle, where I usually had enough money to go to the snackbar if I wanted to, and was able to go on spring break trips with the rugby team. Even today, I have no real idea where I fell on the student wealth scale, except that I was pretty sure I wasn’t at the bottom or the top. I had friends who had to think more carefully about their spring break plans, and also some who seemed to be able to afford just about anything they wanted. What I didn’t remember noticing back then was these differences in wealth having much effect on anyone’s day-to-day life at Williams. It seemed like most parties and other events were free to students, and I’d never heard of anyone who couldn’t be, for example, on the rugby team because they couldn’t afford the dues. There simply weren’t that many things that I wanted to spend money on. (Because I didn’t turn 21 until just before graduation, I never spent a lot of time at the Purple Pub. I suspect that one could have run up quite a tab there).
When I read this eye-opening 2016 article written by Zach Wood about the effects of his family’s poverty on his Williams experience, I wondered whether I was being completely naive and overlooking obvious effects of wealth on what people did every day. Here is an interesting quote from article, which I would encourage everyone to read in its entirety:
Unlike most students, I’m not only managing my coursework and campus activities, I’m also preoccupied with family concerns and financial hardship.
While I try not to let these issues interfere with life on campus, it can be difficult to focus on my work and other responsibilities as much as I would like to. Often, it’s frustrating because I go through each day feeling as though “my best” is never really “my best” because so much of my time and energy is spent trying to solve problems that many of my peers don’t have to deal with.
Three days before helping my uncle, the ceiling of my bedroom caved in. This was my vacation, meant to be a chance to relax and spend time with family. Instead, it was a reminder of the poverty I’ve always thought my mind would allow me to escape.
I was midway through a book I was reading for a sociology paper and I wanted to spend Thanksgiving break studying for final exams, applying for summer internships, and doing paid research for a professor to help my dad pay for my education. But my poverty had left a hole in the ceiling and made these goals difficult, if not impossible.
I spent the next three hours cleaning up the debris and trying to find a way to cover up the gaping hole. The most difficult part was securing a wobbly plastic sheet over the hole by sticking tacks into the drywall without weakening portions of the ceiling that were already insecure.
When I go home for the holidays, I live with my dad, my grandma, my uncle, and my sister in a small, dilapidated two-bedroom house. Because we have four to five people living in such a cramped space, finding a place to do school work is a challenge. So when the ceiling caved in beside my bed, my work space mostly disappeared.
After rearranging the books, bags, and boxes stacked in the corners of my room — so that they were out of the way of the leaking water — I went downstairs to try to create some space at the kitchen table to work at temporarily. The noise from the television and family members cooking and talking made it difficult to focus, but that narrow spot at the edge of the table was the only space available.
My grandmother was sitting in the only chair left in the house, so I found two large suitcases, filled them with books, stacked them on top of each other, and sat on top of that. It wasn’t comfortable, but it was my only option.
A few minutes later, I tried to check my email on my laptop and realized that we hadn’t paid the Internet bill. There are no computers at my house and I’m the only one who has a laptop, so when I’m away for college, paying that bill is one less thing for my dad to worry about. (Fortunately, we were able to pay the bill the next day after my dad received his check from his second job as a valet.)
I didn’t often think about money (though I do remember getting a checking account at the Williamstown Savings Bank), which may have meant that I had more than most. I just don’t know. And I don’t know how many of my classmates might have had to deal with issues like those described by Zach Wood.
The College has seemingly put forth a lot of effort over the past 20 years to bring in kids from a wider range of socio-economic circumstances (how successful that has been is certainly a subject of debate). Can those on campus now, or who have been there recently, tell us whether wealth differences amongst students seem more impactful than I remember? Or have the disputes over race/ethnicity/sexual orientation overshaddowed some of these other possible flashpoints. Does the location of the College make a difference in how wealth affects people’s experiences at Williams? At Columbia, for example, I would imagine that money would have an enormous impact on everyone’s day-to-day experiences, simply because there is so much to spend money on in NY. What are your thoughts?