This is part one of a piece written by Suzy, one of SAFER’s amazing summer interns. Look for part two on strategic organizing in the next couple of days.
Many college students in the US grew up believing in the same narrative. It starts with high school graduation, then it’s followed by the pursuit of a college degree, and it is guaranteed to end with a lucrative career and financial security.
By omitting the reality of student loans, a shrinking job market, and a failing economy, this narrative is, at best, an American fairy tale.
The reality behind being a college student hit me pretty hard from the beginning. After being offered a hefty scholarship to a school in New York City, I took advantage of the offer without any hesitation, eager to live my dreams of going to school in the city. I had borrowed just enough to cover what my school didn’t provide in tuition and housing costs, confident in my ability to balance a job and schoolwork.
However, when my dad was laid off from his job two months into my first year of college, it became clear that my parents would not be able to provide me with a safety net. Since then I have balanced 2 to 3 jobs at a time, all the while struggling to do well in 5 to 6 classes a semester. I even had to transfer to a program that was less challenging, so that I could reconcile my work schedule with my class schedule.
When money is tight, and your schedule is tighter
I always prided myself on my opinions, and my drive to change the status quo. When I noticed some glaring disparities—like the way the men at my coffee shop earned two dollars more than the women***, the rate at which my friends were being sexually assaulted, and the fact that no more than two gender studies classes were offered per semester—there was no way I was going to ignore them. Yet, I found that getting other people sufficiently riled up about it would take a lot of time and effort that I couldn’t spare, as long as I wanted to maintain good grades and keep my hours steady at work.
Rhiannon Auriemma, a junior at Eugene Lang College, understands my dilemma with organizing on a tight schedule. “The main disadvantage to being a low-income student activist is really a time disadvantage. I couldn’t afford to live on campus so I commute and I have a really demanding job on my days off… I haven’t been able to take a leadership role because I knew I wouldn’t be able to fully commit myself.”
Working your way through school is a tricky thing to do, and being a student activist isn’t any easier. You can burn out in no time if you don’t have the support you need to further your cause. Things like time, money, and contacts are all very crucial to carrying on a movement. And as a low-income student trying to revive the feminist movement at a school without a gender studies program, I was hard-pressed for all three of those things.
I had barely any time to manage a feminist group, much less meet on a regular basis without detracting from my hours at work; I had no time to run around the school and chase after bureaucrats for administrative approval, thus limiting my chances of gaining any funding; and I had a limited amount of friends or professors who had any interest in feminist analysis. It’s also difficult to foster a community in an urban setting like New York City where there are so many outside distractions and so little time. Things were looking pretty bleak.
Luckily, I found solace in my school’s Low-Income Student Alliance (LISA), a student-run support group for working-class students. There were plenty other students who, just like me, followed the social protocol of attending college, without any of the financial privilege that most students at our school had. Coincidentally, they were hosting their first meeting at the same time and place as the feminist group; thus, a beautiful and productive conversation was started, in which we discussed the intersections between gender, race and class. I realized that my issues as a low-income student were connected my issues as a woman of color. I also realized my issues were similar to many other people attending my school.
***Due to the gendered wage disparity, all the women eventually quit the coffee shop in unison, and the management caved and sold the place.
Stay tuned for part two…
Cross-posted at Feministing Campus