I recently went to the farmers market in Clark Park, and I’m ashamed to admit that, as a senior, this was my first time going. I met up with two friends and made the walk over. The first thing I saw at the first booth was a sign: “Cash or EBT only.” The first thing I felt was relief because I had my EBT card with me in my wallet. Like many Work-Study students, I qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, so every month I get money loaded onto my EBT card and I then use that to pay for groceries.
That relief was short-lived, and soon replaced by a wave of anxiety. I was with two friends who weren’t in the same position as me and wouldn’t be using EBT. As we walked through the booths, I wasn’t thinking about the apples on my left or the kale on my right. Instead my mind was spinning as a multitude of questions swirled through my mind. Is there a way I can break away from my friends to use my EBT card? Is there any way I can use it discreetly? Should I just cave and pay in cash? Do I even buy anything? Is it weird if I don’t buy anything?
I finally broke away slightly and just settled on lemon bars and a whoopie pie. I handed the owner my card quickly, hoping that it’ll be a quick and seamless exchange. However, the way it works is that the booth gives you a slip of paper with the owed amount, and you bring that paper to a separate booth where they swipe your card and sign the slip. You then bring that signed slip back, where you can then get the food.
After that, I didn’t feel excited about my lemon bars. Instead I felt embarrassed. I felt embarrassed that I was the only one of my friends who had to use assistance to buy food. I know I shouldn’t have been embarrassed for using something that’s been helping me financially, but that’s how I felt. That’s an all too familiar feeling that I’ve felt here at Penn over the past three years. The past three years have been a constant, internal struggle of feeling less-than as a first generation, low income student. I have always been over-critical of myself and put much personal weight into being "perfect." So quite often I look down on myself
, and I'm afraid that people will also look down on me because I don't have the same resources as other Penn students.
Growing up in a single-parent household in Harlem, New York, I only ever interacted with people who looked like me, who thought like me and who were in similar financial situations as me. When my friends and I would hang out, there was never a feeling of inadequacy because of money. We did simple things like hang out at the park and splurge on the McDonald’s dollar menu.
When I got to Penn, things changed. I was suddenly surrounded by hundreds of people who didn’t look like me, who didn’t think like me, and who were in very different financial situations. I found myself constantly trying to keep up with the people around me. I said yes to BYOs, I went to brunches, I went to birthday dinners, I bought Penn gear, all in an attempt to fit in with the people around me. I found myself putting up a façade around people, where I wanted people to see me like everyone else, like a person who didn’t need to worry about money and who could just swipe their credit card with no extra thought. Meanwhile behind the scenes I worked extra hours anywhere I could, I never really went shopping, and cut corners at every opportunity.
The FGLI community has been the most supportive group during my time at Penn. They’ve given me the opportunity to bond over shared experiences and share supportive resources in a safe space. I’ve experienced nothing but love and support from my FGLI peers.
Recently, someone on a now-deleted “UPenn Crushes” Instagram post asked if they should risk their fortune to date someone they found out was FGLI, and that they could always get a prenup. This implies that FGLI status is somehow a threat to someone else’s finances and that marriage would end in the FGLI student stealing their money. This makes FGLI students seem as if we’re hungry for someone else’s money when in fact, we came to Penn so that we can have money of our own.
I was disappointed, shocked, hurt, and, unfortunately, not surprised.
Penn has a classism problem. Privileged students look down on and think differently of FGLI students. It has always existed, but seeing it written out so publicly is painful. It’s painful to see how easy it is for us to be ostracized by our own peers. FGLI students aren’t a liability, or a risk that needs to be discussed via Instagram poll. We’re not some type of niche group to be fantasized over. Bringing this up in such a casual and nonchalant way is insensitive to the hundreds of FGLI students who have to work twice as hard everyday. It also makes it clear how blind some students are to the struggles that FGLI students face. Some are instead concerned about their own wealth instead of thinking about ways in which they could support their FGLI peers. Penn often boasts that we’re a community, but in reality there’s a strong separation between the classes at Penn.
It’s things like this, the subtle and casual showing of classism, that makes it so scary for FGLI students to navigate relationships—both romantically and platonically—at Penn. Many FGLI students, including myself, already have to constantly fight off impostor syndrome—the feeling as if we don’t belong here—on a daily basis. Now we have to also battle against being marginalized from the outside for something over which we have no control.
I wish I could end this by saying that I’ve made some amazing realization and don’t feel inadequate in social situations, or that the classism at Penn doesn’t hurt. But I would be lying. But I’m trying. I’m trying to not be afraid to explain my financial situation or that I can’t afford to do certain things, or that yes, I have an EBT card, and I’m going to use it.