Princeton Hidden Minority Council member voices concern with socioeconomic discrimination in classrooms, eating clubs, and student organizations

“People are in a whole another world here,” says Princeton student after PHMC hosted week-long event for first generation, low income students

Last week, the Princeton Hidden Minorities Council, an organization dedicated to improving the experience of first-generation, lower-income (FLI) students at Princeton, hosted a series of events to raise awareness and provide resources for FLI-related issues. The Tab sat down with a member of PHMC by the initials of M.B. to discuss her Princeton experience and insights from “FLI is Fly week.” The student requested The Tab to withhold her full name.

What made you identify strongly with being ‘first-generation, low-Income’ at Princeton?

I went to a public school up until middle school. Then I went to a private high school with a scholarship. I knew there was a huge wealth disparity between me and the students there. But I didn’t feel the class difference as much as I did in Princeton. It might be that these things take time to process, or I was too focused on my academics. My class was very small – there were only 53 students. Everyone pretty much did everything together. The only way you see a clash between different classes is when you go to a friend’s house and see that his/her nanny’s house is larger than your house. In terms of academics, there was never anything that I couldn’t do because of my family’s income.

When I got to Princeton I more or less expected the same thing; I was already financially independent from taking on jobs in high school, so I thought that would just continue into Princeton. But people are in a whole another world here. My reality would never become their reality and vice versa. My freshman year was particularly suffocating and confusing – everyone had read a book I didn’t, everyone knew about something going on that I didn’t. My sister is at Stanford, and even her experiences were very different from mine. I couldn’t ask her about eating clubs or lawn parties.

But luckily for me, the Hidden Minorities Council was established in 2015, so I reached out and got involved. I enjoyed speaking to the upperclassmen who gave advice about majors and handling life at Princeton.

You mentioned the disconnect that students here have with their lower-income peers. Can you give some concrete examples?

At Princeton, even if you are on full aid, there are still a lot of small things that can hinder your experience. If you join a club sport or a dance club, the assumption is that you are going to be paying for a full set of gear or a group sweater and T-shirt.

Another example is when you try to sign up for classes and get turned off by how many books you are required to buy. I didn’t learn this until sophomore year that really, you only read a couple chapters from the books. The books are typically $12 a piece, which is fine, but then you have to buy like seven for each of your classes. Meanwhile, science textbooks and language textbooks are ridiculously expensive, and there’s also Pequod, which always makes me ask why am I paying 100 dollars for something to be printed when you can make an electronic copy and I can print it? Professors don’t generally tell you that there are copies of books available in Firestone or online. And that’s just one aspect of academic life. In photography classes, students are required to buy a memory card and a hard drive. Lewis Center does have cameras and it gives out a fund that covers certain things, but for a lot of students, they don’t even know the fund exists. And for many, it is demeaning to have to essential say, “I am asking for more funds because I can’t afford this.” There’s a lot of the assumption that money is there without the question of can all Princeton students afford this.

So it’s frustrating for me to constantly ask myself why is my Princeton experience so determined by what I can afford. And this feeling continues to escalate as you go through the years – especially at the midway point in your sophomore year when you’re deciding between an eating club, a co-op, dining plan, or going independent. All of these decisions are based on your financial status. For students who are low-income, the financial concern comes first. If I weren’t low-income, I would definitely be in an eating club. I do see the perks of it and the benefits it. But it just doesn’t make sense to choose that option.

And what’s happening is not just because of what Princeton does as a university. It’s also the history and tradition of eating clubs and the members of the eating clubs themselves not realizing that yes, financial aid does cover the food aspect of the club, but it doesn’t cover the social aspect. A lot of my friends who joined didn’t realize there was a hidden fee – such as a $100 in cash for a ‘milk’ or ‘slush fund,’ another term for alcohol. Asking for $100 in cash from everyone is like assuming that they just have the money set aside that’s not needed anywhere else.

Princeton Cap and Gown Club

There’s also the practice of front-loading done by some clubs. The idea is that you pay more in the fall – around sixty percent – than the spring semester to prevent you from dropping out of the club. One of my friends had to go to a student treasurer – another issue in and of itself – and say that “my financial aid comes 50-50, not 60-40”. She then had to write a ridiculously long, and for her, very shameful and apologetic email addressed to the grad board explaining why she cannot pay 60-40 due to financial reasons.

Do you notice this assumption among individual students as well?

Oh definitely. They make the assumption that you will buy a new dress every time there’s a formal, or that you can go to a friends’ birthday dinner and split the check and still have to pay $30 per person. If your friends want to do something for spring break, unless they are aware of your situation, it’s uncomfortable to tell your friends that ‘I really can’t spend $300 for a break vacation this year’.

Or they question you in a demeaning way ‘why aren’t you buying this year’s class gear’? Yes, even if it’s “just” $15 for a Columbia sweater, it’s still $15. And it is class gear, which should be free. And there are other questions of ‘are you coming to my show tonight?’ I love my friends, I think they are all amazingly talented and artistic, but $8 dollars a show really adds up.

There’s also a spectrum of opinions when it comes to having to take a paying job over a non-paid extracurricular. For some, there’s this perspective of “I don’t understand why you would prioritize a paid job over a very prestigious, non-paid internship.” They find it hard to understand where I am coming from, but there are some things they do that I find hard to understand. I hear this from students in my group who share their experiences confidentially all the time.

Can you speak more about your freshman year experience?

I entered this institution knowing that this place was not made for me historically. And for students who come to school knowing that they are walking into a home that didn’t historically welcome them, this is not a good thing. Princeton needs to work on its branding and the way it sends its message to those who enter knowing that Princeton was not a place for them and will never be.

As this is often a related conversation, how do you think your cultural identity played a part?

I identify as Vietnamese or generally Asian. I was very connected to my Asian heritage in high school. But at Princeton, I noticed that there’s a difference between Asian immigrants and Asians. There are Asian students here who are third or fourth generation Princetonians, and they will have a very different experience than someone like me. I almost cringed away from some Asian American identity groups because the type of students and the work that one does there isn’t wholly inclusive of what I need and what people like me need. Which is a shame. I love being Vietnamese, and part of why I’m independent is because I love cooking Vietnamese food. But I shy away from being Asian because there’s the assumption that all Asians on campus are rich and privileged, which is very problematic.

What was your favorite event during ‘FLI is Fly week’?

I’d say my favorite event was split between the Resources fair and the Capstone dinner. PHMC is a fairly young organization and it hits a very sensitive topic in a way that sometimes when we have events, not a lot of people show up. But this year we’ve done a lot reaching out to a diverse range of identity groups. It was really nice to see over 100 students show up at the Resources Fair. And it’s more encouraging to see students and the adult representatives coming in for hours to provide the support. For our Capstone diner, we had an excellent speaker who was once a speechwriter for a senator. He brought a refreshing perspective about resolving the conflict between making money for your family and really wanting to do good work for the community—those two things will be in tension not matter how far you get away from college. This is something that many in the audience are thinking about.

What are PHMC’s plans going into the future?

The freshmen who are coming in in Class of 2020 and 2021 will experience a very different environment. There is much more administrative support and awareness of FLI issues. So we will change our programming accordingly. We are also putting in a bid for the First-Generation Conference that began four years ago at Brown. I think Princeton is at the perfect time to receive a conference of this scale that draws over 300 students from colleges across the country. If we get the conference, it will be a big deal in terms of pushing the FLI identity to the forefront of students’ minds, because you can’t ignore something of this scale happening on campus.

PHMC receives the 2016 Journey Award at the Princeton University MLK Day Celebration

Princeton University