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BOSTON — When Chantel Brown was a child in rural Morganton, N.C., she savored the illusion that she “could come off as middle class.” That doesn’t take much when one-quarter of the residents live in poverty. But Brown cleaved to the bling she had: her family’s one-story brick home in a one-street subdivision with a fancy name, River Hills.
Underneath that veneer of status, though, her extended family battled every cliché you’ve heard about rural life: low education levels, poverty and “an addiction to something.” Her father, a long-haul trucker, was rarely there. Her mother, in poor health, relied on Brown for help. Her parents struggled with debt. Brown felt the weight of low expectations, of being seen as just another poor black girl from the South. “Even from preschool,” she says, “I knew I was expected to be a teen mom.”
But Brown liked numbers. Or as she put it in her college essay, “my eyes were glued to the board whenever my teacher wrote out a math problem.”
By her senior year of high school, she had taken every Advanced Placement course the school offered. She earned a near perfect score on the SAT Math II subject test. She had a 4.0 GPA. In other words, Chantel Brown was the ideal candidate for an elite college.
Brown was accepted at 19 of the 23 schools to which she applied – including most of the marquee names in higher education. She ended up attending Brown University in Providence, R.I., majoring in applied math and biology. Last May, she graduated and landed a job at The Parthenon Group, a consulting company in Boston, “making more than anyone in my mom’s family makes or will ever make.”
All good – absolutely good – with one exception: The success she has achieved comes with a mother lode of expectations and personal complications. The sudden immersion in a world of relative wealth and opportunity can make it difficult to relate to friends and family back home and even new acquaintances in the workplace.
Brown’s experience epitomizes some of the social and moral tensions that a generation of low-income students graduating from elite colleges in the United States now face as they head out into the work world. For years, Ivy League and other top schools have been aggressively recruiting poor students, many of whom are minorities, as a way to diversify their campuses.
As these brilliant children of housecleaners and bus drivers move through the higher-education system, they are struggling to reconcile what it means to go from being poor to being privileged: Low-income students who are the first generation in their families to go to college now represent about 15 percent of top college enrollments. Many feel an acute pressure to succeed. Many are conflicted about whether to go for a platinum paycheck or save the world. More broadly, many are struggling to navigate one of the most difficult transitions in a modern, developed society – moving from one socioeconomic class to another.
As Brown puts it with simple mathematical precision, “I am trying to work through what it means to be who I am.”
The most exalted schools in higher education don’t come with warning labels: This will change your life. Your relationship with your family. Even how you identify yourself. For generations of privileged students who filled these campuses, after all, the environment was familiar. It was what was “normal,” comfortable.
Related: First-gen students at elite colleges go from lonely and overwhelmed to empowered and provoking change
When elite admissions offices stepped up recruitment of low-income and first-generation students several years ago, they focused on financial aid, not noticing the cultural issues. As a result, these students suddenly found themselves challenged by the social shock of sharing a campus with 1-percenters who had money for eating out, spring break trips and thousand-dollar designer puff jackets.
There was outcry – and organizing. Student groups specifically representing low-income first-gens, such as Penn First and the Princeton Hidden Minorities Council, plus groups such as the Harvard Black Student Association, became powerful advocates and communicators.
Low-income first-gen students also worked across institutions. They have built a movement. In 2014, three students at Brown University started 1vyG, short for inter-Ivy first-generation college student network. In February, the group held its fourth annual conference, at the University of Pennsylvania, drawing 559 attendees from more than two dozen schools. Strikingly, 102 were campus administrators, there to discuss how to better serve low-income first gens. Penn President Amy Gutmann, a first gen herself, gushed in her remarks about how much such students mattered.
“There is a reason we are both here,” Dr. Gutmann said, noting that she and Wendell Pritchett, the provost, were both present on a Saturday morning. “We couldn’t be more excited about what you will do with your lives. There is nothing more important to us.”
In dorm rooms and dining halls, students at elite colleges are having heated arguments about their newfound earning power. How should they use their name-brand degree: To make money? Or to make a difference in society? Last fall at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., four friends fresh off corporate internships got into such a fiery argument about this that they organized a campus forum, “Selling Out: Corporations in a Moral Perspective.” When held in November, it was standing-room-only in the small room they booked. More sessions are planned.
“There is this burden of not only thinking about yourself, what you want to accomplish, but thinking about your race, your community, your ethnic group,” says Nuha Saho, one of the forum organizers. Saho, who was raised in the Bronx in New York City and whose father sells beaded jewelry imported from Gambia, finds it “shocking how much privilege I have now.”
Students like Brown don’t want to be seen as ingrates, turning away from the communities and people who raised them. Yet, by dint of their degrees, they are joining a different social class, acquiring tastes and sensibilities they can’t undo. Career offices help with résumés, interview prep, even networking, but not with making sense of social divisions.
Related: Column: New research offers home to first-generation college grads
“I wish I’d had somebody keeping it really real about this transition,” says Victoria Shantrell Asbury, a sociology graduate student at Harvard who moderated the November forum and was a low-income first gen undergraduate at Stanford University.
The low-income first-gen identity has become a powerful campus force, she points out. What happens when you graduate?
“Am I still low income?” asks Asbury. “So much of who I am, so much of my identity is wrapped up in that.” Yet family members see the elite degree and suspect a new identity. “I don’t know if we have any food that you eat,” one told her on a trip home.
Just because you can land fancy jobs doesn’t change basic things you lack that well-off peers take for granted. Think: money for apartment security deposits and work wardrobes. There’s no access to professional networks and little advice to weigh career options. Asbury didn’t know what to make of her first job contract offer. “I can’t go to my mom, who earned $25K and no benefits, and figure out if this is a good offer,” she says.
Even once you get settled in a new job and apartment, the tension between past and present can pop up in subtle and unsubtle ways.
Brown admits that the view of Boston Harbor from the Parthenon Group reception area above Rowes Wharf, which she shows off on a crystalline March day, was important in her decision to work there. The room, with its rich blue carpeting and crisp white trim overlooking a matrix of colorful, bobbing boats, exudes financial security.
Brown looks every bit the young professional: hair in a workplace ponytail, neat gold earrings, glasses with clear frames. She marvels some days as she traverses the brick and cobblestone sidewalks from the South Station subway stop to her office: “I am like, ‘Whoa! I am not meant to be walking in professional attire to a corporate job.’ You still wonder how it happened.” Brown is now firmly middle class, but her earnings are not fully hers. She sends home $600 to $700 a month for cellphone bills and to cover her nephews’ karate lessons.
“It’s a pretty large portion of my budget,” she says. When there was a glitch in her mother’s disability check, she got a phone call seeking money. Despite tight family connections, she has new tastes in food, clothes and travel. “Now, I won’t eat at Olive Garden,” she says of her family’s special-occasion spot. And despite her generosity, her mom judges her decisions. “Why are you traveling?” she will ask. “You should save that money.”
Brown loves her job but knows co-workers have different backgrounds. It’s one reason she found company perks during her summer internship that were meant to impress – Red Sox tickets, open bars, concerts, dinners – awkward. “I was very appreciative, but other people were expecting it and not treating a server or a bartender that well,” she says. “I was thinking, ‘That could be my cousin.’ ”
Related: Three lessons on beating the odds, from a first-gen college student
New research backs up the idea that low-income first gens experience familiar economic, social, and cultural barriers when they get to the workplace. Nicole Stephens and Andrea Dittmann at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and Sarah Townsend at the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California interviewed 30 first-generation MBA students about the college-to-work transition prior to business school.
Their research, not yet published, revealed feelings of class isolation when co-workers bonded over skiing and golf. Some from low-income backgrounds responded by avoiding such conversations and working extra hard “to prove they fit in.” Others who were open about their low-income background suffered, says Dr. Stephens, and found it “harder to connect with their elite peers.” The takeaway is that even if students absorb new social cues and expectations in college, says Stephens, “it’s not as though they become middle or upper class in the way they understand themselves.”
Low-income students often have fewer built-in shock absorbers at home, too. One gift wealthy parents give their children is the belief that they deserve to be successful, and the parents usually are a model for what that success looks like. Students from privileged families are exposed to sophisticated dinner-table talk about financial- and career-planning options and decisions. If they choose to make money after they graduate, their parents usually reinforce the choice. If they decide to try to save the world, their parents will often support them financially – and boast to friends about their work.
For low-income first gens, career decisions are more complicated. The presumption that they will – or at least should – cash in their “golden ticket” of going to a top school and receiving substantial financial aid can be strong.
“There is a huge amount of pressure to show that educational investment produced the types of outcomes your family and community expected it would,” says Stephens, the Kellogg professor. “Middle- or upper-class students have the luxury of making mistakes. Students from working-class backgrounds – that one mistake can send them back down the economic ladder.”
Still, attending an exclusive school is hardly all onerous. Elite companies like to recruit students from elite campuses. A review of recent career center surveys of seniors (from Harvard, Amherst, Princeton, Yale, Northwestern, and Brown) shows about 40 percent of graduates taking jobs at financial services firms such as Goldman Sachs; tech giants such as Google, Facebook, and LinkedIn; or consulting companies such as Deloitte or McKinsey & Company. Because corporations struggle with a lack of diversity in top ranks, they are looking to hire more minorities out of school. That’s why low-income first gens on prestigious campuses report being flooded with opportunities.
“You don’t have to choose banking,” says one Harvard grad from Brooklyn, who requested that his name not be used. “You have to actively not choose it.”
Related: At a corporate giant where one-third of employees are first-gen college grads, staff tries to give back
He had “no intentions” of pursuing finance but filled out an internship application on a whim – and got it. “Before you can think of anything else, you are being told, ‘Hey, you can make more money than you have ever seen in your entire life.’ ”
Now he works for a Wall Street firm, earning six figures. He’s 22. It’s a trip for someone who in high school lingered at McDonald’s for hours “having bought one small drink.” He may now work 60 hours a week, but having grown up with adults who toiled at physically exhausting jobs, banking, he says, “is not difficult work.”
He has a nice apartment, sees friends and family, and indulges in Omaha steaks. But the job has had an effect. “I am seeing myself changing already,” he says. “I am talking about ‘this decision in the incentive structure’ instead of ‘the right thing to do.’ ”
Many low-income first gens agree that climbing the corporate ladder is both intoxicating and worrisome. “You hope not to get trapped down the rabbit hole,” says one. As another puts it: “You will get comfortable with that lifestyle. You will send your kids to private school. You won’t be able to quit.”
While pursing work that has a “social impact” is a signature issue of millennials, low-income first gens and students of color often feel that burden more intensely. As more pursue corporate jobs, notes Cengiz Cemaloglu, one of the Harvard forum organizers, there is often “judgment in the air” from peers.
After interning at Goldman Sachs, Cemaloglu took a job with ReD Associates, a consulting firm with an anthropological research spin that he could morally get behind. Yet he hears it’s “such a waste of your potential” because it is corporate. “If I’d taken a job in a social impact field, I would be a different kind of person in people’s eyes.”
That calculus troubles Anthony Abraham Jack, an assistant professor at Harvard who studies race, class and culture at elite institutions. He says it frames “a false understanding of what upward mobility is for us.” Dr. Jack, a low-income first-generation student at Amherst College himself before earning a Ph.D. at Harvard, says economic success does not require rejecting your roots.
“It’s really important that we don’t perpetuate this myth that if you are poor or black or Latino that you must go through racial erasure or socioeconomic erasure, that you must be cleansed by white wealth to make it in America,” he says. While many are conflicted, he says some low-income first gens struggle more than others.
Just as those who have gone through college support programs or private high schools acclimate better to elite colleges – he calls them “The Privileged Poor” – he argues that they also find corporate jobs less fraught. “It doesn’t scare you to go to Goldman Sachs, to go to Chase, to start your career,” he says. “You’ve already heard the ‘sellout’ comments. You already know how to be of your community but not always in it.”
For some, this is precisely the moment when low-income first gens, particularly African-American and Latino students, must use their shared identity to forge new financial and career paths.
Related: We must offer underprivileged students more than a meager ‘stay in school’
“We are what wealth creation looks like,” says Jonathan Jackson, who graduated from Washington University in St. Louis in 2013. After working at LinkedIn, he co-founded Blavity, an online site about the black millennial experience. He wants to be among those putting a new, nonwhite face on the popular image of wealth and power.
Rudy Torres has long sought to serve kids from his East Los Angeles community, a Latino neighborhood where low-riders cruise storied Whittier Boulevard on Saturday nights. But two years after graduating from Brown University, he lives in the same ramshackle stucco structure from which he set off as a celebrated student with an Ivy League future.
The house could be a metaphor for his post-graduation state, a jumble of construction lacking a logical floor plan. As the California sun streams through avocado and orange trees out front, the home’s interior is shadow and confusion. In the living area, his grandfather watches TV. Nearby, a purple-walled alcove that used to be a closet is fitted with a mattress and serves as a bedroom. It used to be where Mr. Torres slept. Now his sister has claimed it. For the past year, says Torres, “I have been sleeping on the couch.”
Returning home has brought emotional upheaval. Torres tries to rescue his father, Alfred, from a swirl of destructive forces; Alfred struggles to keep a job, stay out of jail. Torres fears the four jobs he has had since graduation echo his father’s experience. His family, he says, “expected me to go into banking and be making money.” Yet he faces the daily fact that “I am living a similar life” – Ivy diploma or not – as before.
Online, he scans the career boasts of college friends. This one started a grad program; another “just got an offer from Deloitte,” says Torres. “Is anybody going to write about depression? Share their unemployed adventures? How they found their first job after struggling for five months?”
Recently, a friend helped him see that what’s he’s facing is “a common experience among peers that no one has the courage to talk about.” They created a website, As Told by You (astoldbyyou.us), to collect stories to show that “no life is linear.”
Top colleges have dazzling post-graduation results, but rarely mention the social networks privileged students bring with them. Sixteen percent of Yale’s class of 2016, for example, secured jobs through “a personal contact or family friend.” What if your family friend is a fast-food cook?
Even as low-income first gens begin to define their demographic power, they feel confusion. Is this the moment to serve your community, or ascend the social ladder, gaining money, power, prestige?
Torres is a wiry, high-energy, talented musician and deep thinker, trying to match challenges with positives, trying to bring balance to his life ledger. He purposely did not pursue corporate jobs at graduation, opting for the less clear-cut path into nonprofit work. Six months ago, he landed a job at the Southern California College Access Network, a coalition of nonprofits that encourages kids from low-income families to go to college. He bought a car – a black Prius – and recently ran the Los Angeles Marathon (4 hours, 23 minutes) after training for months with a work colleague.
Gaining his footing has taken longer and been more difficult than he imagined, but Torres says, in perhaps a coda for many of his first-gen brethren, “I think I have finally hit my stride.”
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.
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