The Low-Income Experience at Stanford
by Heather Buckelew
Although Stanford is an extremely diverse campus in comparison to most colleges across the country, its diversity is only just beginning to take socio-economic issues into account. Stanford defines low-income students as those coming from families which make less then $60,000 a year. This is approximately 15 percent of the campus. On the other hand, almost half of Stanford’s students come from families making more than $300,000 dollars a year. It is clear from these numbers that low-income students are a minority on campus. Ironically, this is a gross underrepresentation of a large proportion of the United States population. Despite these statistics, this article does not question further the scarcity of low-income students at Stanford, nor does it seek to vilify the university for this issue. Instead, this article attempts focus on the experience of low-income students at Stanford and the ways in which we can all work to better serve the needs of this important, diverse community.
The low-income student community at Stanford is as diverse as the student body itself. While some choose to identify with class labels, others shy away from being associated with a specific socio-economic demographic. In a similar vein, students from rural areas often have a different experience than those from urban areas. Low income students come from varying levels of hardship which is primarily attributed to a relatively limiting socio-economic status. These experiences range from those who enjoyed idyllic middle class childhoods, those whose parents sheltered them from the more unfortunate aspects of poverty, to students who were severely abused and malnourished as children. Consequently, each member of this specific community will experience Stanford differently; each one with varying degrees of difficulty.
Many (but not all) low-income students experience similar problems at Stanford. Students from low-income backgrounds often grew up with different cultures and experiences from their peers. In a sense, this is a positive phenomenon: it reinforces the multi-dimensionality of the Stanford student body. However, there is a common trend among low-income students which is described by the overwhelming sentiment that their peers do not value their life experiences.
Siobhan Greaterox-Voith, a 2008 Stanford alumna who directed Stanford's First Generation Program, did her undergraduate honors thesis on the experience of low-income students at Stanford. Upon applying the study to other elite schools, she found a compelling support of the Stanford experience for low-income students: most felt as if their experiences were not valued and that their classmates were not open to discussing issues surrounding social status. In the course of my time at Stanford and working in the community I have heard a number of stories that reinforce this sentiment. For example, I heard from a current sophomore that she lied about what her parents did so that she wouldn’t be embarrassed in front of her roommate. A number of students have also said that when socio-economic issues were discussed in class, they were not given the opportunity to challenge their peers or were told that they made other students uncomfortable.
Low-income students have a vital role to play in this circumstance. They must refuse to be shamed into silence. They must value their own backgrounds. Further, the Stanford community also has a responsibility to help these students by providing a safe forum for discussion of these issues. Low-income students do not want to silence peers with a higher-income background. However, they do want the mutual respect of having their voices heard.
Even still, this is one small hurdle in the context of other, greater challenges which low-income students face. These include harassment, attempted suicides, family crises, bigotry, and emotional distress. These are not problems that anyone at Stanford should have to deal with. Luckily, there are ways to combat this.
Stanford should add a full time staff member to Vaden who has experience with working class culture and issues related to poverty. This requires someone with an understanding that there exists cultural and experiential implications that are decidedly different from the norm at Stanford.
Stanford does an outstanding job with providing financial support to low income students, but it should also make sure that there is a support system in place to help students academically when things go poorly back home. The best way to do this is to reestablish the position of the first generation, low-income administrative liaison which was cut last year. Stanford should provide a full time go-to person for low-income students. This should be combined with administrative efforts to highlight class issues in university programs such as FACES, Crossing the Line, dorm programming and staff training. This will go a long way in helping these students be more successful at Stanford. This will also ensure that everyone at Stanford experiences, to the greatest extent, the merits of a diverse campus.