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Lithium Trying to navigate elite college culture when you’re not elite

Oct. 21, 2020
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As a low-income student at a top-tier university flooded with wealth and status, I faced a certain amount of financial insecurity throughout my undergraduate experience. My freshman year signified my first foray into the world of elite wealth in an especially immersive way. My knowledge of luxury had been confined to the limits of New Jersey suburbia: white Range Rovers, manicured lawns, in-ground pools galore. Though the county where I grew up is known for being particularly affluent, this wasn’t my own experience. Abercrombie & Fitch was my idea of high fashion—I’ll never forget the exhilarating high of being 13 years old, nostrils and lungs screaming for air as my eyes peered through the dimly lit, cologne-laden store. Shrouded in darkness and surrounded by swathes of creams, navies, and aggressively American denim, the VIP Club ambiance of retail stores was my version of a trip to SoHo. So while I knew that Louboutins were the heels with the red soles, nothing would have ever prepared me for the absolute culture shock I received during my freshman year at Columbia. 

For most of my first year in college, I clung close to campus, electing to partake in “on-campus” activities and nightlife, while many of my classmates embarked on costly Uber rides downtown, spending my entire summer’s earnings in one night on a table at a club. After that first year, I became much more financially savvy, making use of work-study jobs and babysitting gigs as a means of funding my own way downtown (via subway, of course.) However, more difficult than finding a way to make enough money to grab the occasional dinner and drinks with friends was becoming acclimated to the culture of an elite university like Columbia. I had always known individuals with significant wealth, but for the first time in my life, I was surrounded by a very large portion of this demographic. The key difference? Many of these individuals showed their wealth in a much more explicit way. Students donning head-to-toe designer outfits coagulated together in hordes, like beautiful blood clots. Every seemingly mundane trip to class, the library, or the dining hall became an opportunity to absolutely stunt, to show off their elegant and edgy style in a public setting that put my Urban Outfitters jackets to shame. By the time my freshman year came to a close, I realized that I had hardly tapped into my supply of sweatshirts and leggings—track practice felt like the only time of day that it was socially acceptable to wear casual clothes. 

Columbia—like many elite universities—has a longstanding tradition of upholding prestigious ideals, so it’s no wonder that this culture of elitism extends into various factions of student life. The sense of community engendered by elite college culture can be observed through the way certain individuals from privileged backgrounds advertise their wealth and come together as a result. At a purely psychological level, the impact of socioeconomic status on thoughts and behavior is quite significant. People from similar socioeconomic backgrounds, while not necessarily seeking each other out, may come together as a result of exposure to similar lifetime experiences that have subsequently formed similar thoughts and perspectives. The community-building amongst these students at elite colleges is due in part to their knowledge of a specific lifestyle that is both sustained and encouraged by multi-billion dollar academic institutions. This show of socioeconomic solidarity ultimately results in cliquey exclusivity. This is not to say that individuals who display their wealth are intentionally attempting to designate anyone outside of their financial bracket a social pariah; rather, the grouping of these individuals becomes inadvertently and especially exclusionary when considering the financially diverse context of these institutions. Outward displays of wealth become key identifiers, delineating those select individuals as members of upper-echelon society. Each Van Cleef necklace and Gucci belt becomes a microcosm of the exclusivity fostered by elite college culture; the mere sight of these items is enough to communicate a certain degree of information about a person’s financial background. The unwritten rules that already govern all of elite-university life become exceptionally, aggressively transparent. For those students who do not come from wealthy backgrounds, elite-college life—largely dictated by the overwhelming presence of a privileged populace—becomes increasingly difficult to navigate without onerous amounts of stress and anxiety. 

One harmful effect this kind of atmosphere can have on students is the mounting pressure to keep up with what’s deemed socially acceptable; it becomes all-consuming for many who are insecure, introverted, or simply trying to connect with a group. Finding friends, for many, is equated with determining who has the funds to sustain the idealized college lifestyle. Friend groups tend to form on the grounds of accessibility—i.e. those who can afford to frequent Lavo often flock together, seemingly naturally. Many people become obsessed with the need to demonstrate a certain level of wealth, even if it isn’t an accurate portrayal of their true financial circumstance. During my time at Columbia, I knew girls who would spend hours online, poring over hundreds of fake designer items to find the closest replica of high-end products. One such girl would lie about where she lived, claiming to be from a particularly affluent town both in conversation and her Instagram bio. In reality, her hometown merely fringed on the wealthier one—but she justified her flawed logic on the grounds of geographical proximity. 

On another occasion, this same girl became frantic after realizing that she was working a busy shift of the work-study job we both held at Columbia’s fitness center. “There’s a basketball game during my shift! So many people are gonna come to the gym and see me working and know that I’m poor!” I remember the distinct feeling of frustration at her words—this girl wasn’t “poor”; she was quite average as far as socioeconomic status at elite college campuses is concerned. I can confidently say that while she might not have been able to flaunt a genuine Goyard bag, she was receiving an all-inclusive four-year education at an elite university from her parents, a luxury that many low-income students at the very same institutions don’t enjoy. The desire to maintain a specific, socially approved facade extends so deeply into many students’ psyches that the mere threat of its decay is enough to incite mental panic.

On a number of occasions, I’ve heard affluent students use the term “poor people” to describe classmates who simply don’t fall within the bounds of their own financial hemisphere. Not only is this rhetoric grossly insensitive, but it also lends itself to a perverted ideal, in which normal becomes the new “poor” and “poor” becomes the new destitute. I remember being scoffed at by an international student for mistakenly pronouncing Givenchy, as I regressed to sounding out the letters phonetically like some freakishly tall kindergartener. I was embarrassed and confused—none of my friends from home would’ve known how to pronounce it either. And here I was, an intelligent woman at an Ivy League institution, left feeling utterly and intellectually decimated for not knowing how to pronounce a brand of luxury French couture. Here, in these havens of Canada Goose coats and Cartier Love bracelets, the experience of those wearing lived-in American Eagle jeans is defined by a strong and inescapable sense of inferiority.

Illustration by Gabriella Shery