Disco Lights and the Divide
Updated: Mar 2
Columbia’s small but mighty low-income community transformed my first year.
By Raquel Turner
With heaps of time and a hefty dose of quarantine-induced nostalgia, I decided to spend part of April cleaning out my childhood bedroom. I rifled through my bookshelf, filled to the brim with titles I only recognized from Common App supplement questions, and I stumbled upon a notebook. It was unassuming and gray, with a BIC pen still hooked on the side. When I opened it, I was greeted with a list I had written last summer of things I should learn before I left home for Columbia. It covered everything from philosophy (“What are My Philosophies?”) to modern politics (“What are major conflicts of today?”) to miscellaneous subjects (“Latin phrases?”). I’m embarrassed to admit it now, but only a year later, the list offers a valuable starting point from which to reflect on my first year of college.
I made this list shortly after I was accepted at Columbia last December. After coming down from the ecstatic high of opening the acceptance email, I was left with the question my list was really tip-toeing around: What next? The faster the Columbia Class of 2023 Facebook page was flooded with resume-style introduction posts detailing long histories of lab research in pristine New England boarding schools, the faster my feelings of inadequacy seeped in.
For the first time in my entire life, I was faced with the reality that I may have been top of my class, but I was at a poorly funded public school in an undesirable school district. My unfortunate high school English teacher had to drag us through the few texts we read. If I struggled to understand the allusions to hysterical realism and feminist essays in my peers’ introduction posts, how would I keep up in a class discussions? More importantly, if this was the quality of conversation that my peers were used to, if their requests for restaurant recommendations weren’t capped at $8 a plate, if their pictures of choice all had exotic vacation destinations in the background while mine were taken in front of a bush, how was I ever going to make, let alone keep, a single friend?
Looking back, my fears weren’t completely unfounded. Columbia’s student body is made up primarily of members of the upper and upper-middle class, with 62% of students hailing from the top 20 percent of the population, according to the New York Times. Meanwhile, just 5.1 percent of Columbia students hail from the bottom 20 percent. This is a staggering difference. For another comparison, the average annual income at Columbia is $150,000.
The year I applied to Columbia, my parents made $11,000 combined. Though I didn’t know these numbers then, I felt this divide before I even stepped foot on campus. I spent the eight months between my acceptance and orientation watching documentaries, reading, and working three jobs in hopes that, through sheer force of will, I could attain the elite knowledge and culture that I imagined my public school upbringing had not offered me. Having been surrounded largely by lower-income families my entire life, I had no frame of reference through which to understand what higher-income spaces were like. I was forced to come to the conclusion that to continue succeeding at rates that I didn’t see in my own community, people with higher incomes must be vastly intellectually ahead of me in some way. With this disheartening knowledge in mind, I braced myself for a hard and lonely year.
What I didn’t know at the time was that while the percentage of low-income students at Columbia is small, the group is incredibly strong-willed, and its members create a community despite the unlikelihood of their presence on campus. I stumbled into this community by accident through my suitemate, who, lucky for me, was a low-income student as well. Because she was part of a summer program geared mostly toward underprivileged incoming first-years, she had already done all the hard work of meeting people she liked, and I liked her, so I was spared the initial scramble of finding people to sit with in the dining halls.
Personalities vary widely within our friend group, but we all share an understanding of each other’s circumstances. We knew that our fun would not be found in any club in Chelsea. In fact, we never even stepped foot in Mel’s. We shared two fake IDs between the nine of us, and we usually all drank for the price of three craft beers. For the most part, the only parties we willingly paid for were at Casa Latina and Q House. We preferred making our own fun in the comfort of our dorm rooms with a stolen disco light and a speaker. And I don’t think we missed out on much. We concluded ourselves that if we were going to have fun, we were going to do it on our own terms, with whatever we had around. Sometimes, we’d sit around trying to hypothesize what it was that the upper 20 percent did on their weekends. “Do you think they have as much fun as us?” one of us would ask. Smiling, we’d always agree on the same answer: “Of course not.”
The nine of us were only a small part of the larger community of low-income students at Columbia. Because of the community’s size, those of us in the first-year class seemed to all know each other, or at least know of each other. In a way, we created an imagined elite within our own space. We didn’t have the money or the erudite wit of Blair Waldorf, but we did know exactly who was hooking up with whom, what betrayals had occurred, what friend group had just split, and whose good side to stay on. Our community was incredibly inclusive and culturally rich. It was also passionately political, with student activism as a main focus. I learned that some of the most effective, determined, and authentically intersectional student activism on campus is planned and carried out by low-income and POC students.
My theory as to why this is? A large part of what unified us as a community was our sense of otherness on campus. A friend once told me that as he was preparing for his freshman year, many people were insistent on reminding him just how much he belonged at Columbia despite his circumstances. Though he knew they meant well, this constant encouragement only served to remind him that in some way, Columbia was not made for people like him. When you are such a small minority on a large campus, it is hard not to notice all the ways that this institution was not designed with you in mind. You are reminded again and again as you struggle to buy books, as you apply for the Dean’s Student Assistance Fund just to afford a winter coat, as you swipe through Instagram and see your classmates eating food that costs the equivalent of your biweekly salary. Part of what makes low-income students so close is that as much as we are reminded that we have a very small, tentative space on campus, we are insistent on always carving out more room for each other.
I spent most of my first year enjoying my time in the safe space that this community created for me. But still, I worried. One afternoon, I met a few classmates for coffee. As we walked back to campus, we began to describe our friends. The first classmate said that most of her close friends at Columbia were Latinx. I replied that mine were, too, and that, coincidentally, we were all low-income. We began to theorize about why this might be, coming to the conclusion that maybe we gravitate toward people who have similar experiences as us because we tend to have fun in compatible ways. The last classmate chimed in, saying that she didn’t have this experience; she had friends of all different cultures and income groups. When I heard this, I began to worry that maybe finding comfort in my close circle only meant that I had closed myself off from anyone outside of it.
I thought back to the conversations I had as I washed cups behind the bar at work over the summer before my first year. As the bar-goers began to feel sociable, they would often start asking me about my life, usually ending with a conversation about Columbia and my future. They would remark on what a great opportunity Columbia would be, all the diverse groups of people I would meet. As the conversation faded, I would jump back into my daydreams, in which my perfectly diverse friend group and I sauntered around downtown, taking advantage of all New York has to offer. As the year progressed, I wondered—was I missing out on this? In finding my niche on campus, had I somehow become exclusionary about the people I let into my life?
I know now that this wasn’t the case. It is an immense privilege to spend time with anyone who piques your interest. Sure, I’ve established a lot of good friendships with people outside of my income bracket. We’ve eaten lots of JJ’s together and had many eye-opening conversations. But when Friday night rolls around again, the reality is that I simply cannot afford to go out with them. When you have the money to occasionally eat an expensive meal or go to a concert together, these friendships become easier to strengthen and maintain. And of course, when you are friends with somebody who relies on cheaper pastimes than you’re used to, you don’t have to worry about turning them down. But for me and most of my close friends, the only consistent option we had was each other, and for that reason, if not for that reason alone, we stuck together.
So, in a way, the fears I expressed last summer weren’t totally off. I did have trouble keeping up with my wealthier friends, I did feel out of the loop when I spoke to my boarding school-educated peers, I did feel in some way financially inadequate almost every day. But I came to realize that though my Facebook post was significantly less impressive than I would’ve wanted, the reason I was on that Facebook page to begin with was because of my resourcefulness, not because I knew a long list of Latin phrases. And luckily, that very resourcefulness would lead me and others like me to create our own artistic, troublemaking, outspoken, and open-minded family on campus. We were more than friends or a community; we were a group for each other to come back to—one that was understanding and safe after a long day of being reminded that we would have to work two or three times as hard to achieve the same success as our classmates.
Instead of trying to memorize the teachings of Aristotle, maybe I should’ve learned how to dance. That would’ve come in a lot handier.