An article from the Boston Globe explores exactly what its title specifies--"What is it like to be poor at an Ivy League school?"
I didn't graduate from an Ivy league school per se, but the Ateneo de Manila University comes close to the elite environment this article talks about. The sons and daughters of politicians, doctors, lawyers and business tycoons come to study in ADMU. I knew this from the get go. I had the option to study in the University of the Philippines or UP, but I got a full scholarship in ADMU. Having come from an exclusive girl school, Miriam, where I already felt the pangs of not having money to throw for parties and trendy things, I feared that I'd be left out in ADMU. But the full scholarship was too good an offer to pass, so I chose the Ateneo over UP.
True enough, my social standing stood out (at least to me) from the very first day of my freshman year. I noticed the branded clothes of all my classmates, their expensive bags, the smooth, fair skin of moneyed Chinese-Filipino men and women. I remember adjusting my dress-my-best Penshoppe blouse and suddenly feeling, well, drab.
The article painfully resonated with me. I didn't think it was something worth writing about until I read about how other students coming from a poor background "felt so out of place she might as well have had the words “low income” written on her forehead".
It can't be helped, I guess.
It's no one's fault that I felt the way I did. Perhaps it was MY fault for developing some form of inferiority complex. But to be honest, even as I reflect on things now, I don't know if there's anything that can be done about this. The article talks about forming organizations, unions or events to help low income "saling pusa" students to feel at home in the shiny world of elites. But won't doing so merely single out the students further?
The place where my social standing really stood out was in sports. I tried out for the varsity track and field team and got in. I trained as hard as I could under the hot, burning sun, while listening to teammates talk about their new Nike or Mizuno shoes. As a sprinter I needed to have my own spikes. Being that spikes cost around 5-6K Pesos at the time, I bought a second-hand pair from a classmate who used to do track in high school. When my teammates commented about how nice my shoes were, for the first time, I actually felt like I belonged.
But of course that was short-lived. I couldn't really bond with the team because they went out to parties and drinking sessions which my meager baon couldn't afford. I overheard a couple of comments about me being a kill-joy or not being very sociable but the truth was that I just couldn't afford the kind of lifestyle I was trying to live.
It's very true what one of the students in the Boston Globe article say, "Friends paired off quickly. “You’d get weeded out of friendships based on what you could afford."
Thus, I left the team.
Fast forward today, with a good, stable job, I've been able to pursue the sports that I love and gain some successes by winning in races and Muay Thai fights. I feel like I've fulfilled some childhood dreams at last. Issues resolved.
But here comes the realization. I am my social standing and it's not something that I need to play down or hide. I didn't come from a privileged background and IT MATTERS. Because I became who I am. I navigated my way through the glitz and glamour and still found my small awkward place that pushed me to make friends in a different way. I learned to take up a part time job in order to afford myself small luxuries like dinners out with privileged friends. Whenever I felt small and inadequate, I leveraged academics, skills and talents to prove myself to MYSELF. "See, there was another way to get here," I found myself saying. It wasn't social climbing, I don't believe it is. It was resourcefulness and learning the ability to adjust to difficult situations.
Most of all, I learned to believe in myself.
I'm glad I didn't go to UP just so I wouldn't feel left out. I'm glad I trusted my gut which said "this is where you belong" when I stepped into Ateneo grounds.