Affording NU: Low-income student experiences should not be overlooked

Allie Goulding, Development & Recruitment Editor

In this series, a writer explores the everyday struggles of being a low-income student at Northwestern.

There isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t worry about money. But for many of my friends and classmates, money isn’t — and has never been — an issue to consider.

That was my biggest shock when I came to Northwestern. I grew up in a low-income, single-parent household with four siblings, so I was used to pinching pennies, never asking for money to go to the movies or the mall with friends. When I decided on NU, I knew that it was a private university, but I didn’t quite realize the extent of what that meant money-wise until I got here.

The first few weeks of freshman Fall Quarter, I quickly learned that a very large chunk of people on this campus had more disposable income in a week than I’d ever had in my life. My friends were going out to eat two, three, sometimes four times a week. They went downtown to Chicago every other weekend. They went to various shows and performances on campus every night they could. It was overwhelming.

I thought at first that I could sustain a lifestyle like that. I received my financial aid reimbursement for the quarter, and it was the most money I had ever seen in my bank account. I thought I had money to spend, and I spent it as I wanted. But after two weeks, I realized I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t spend it as I pleased like my friends. I learned that I needed to budget my money in order to survive the rest of the quarter.

I distanced myself from the groups of friends that wanted to go to Chicago or see campus performances every weekend. I couldn’t afford it, and they didn’t understand it.

“But it’s just $5,” they’d say about a theater performance.

But $5 can pay for a used novel I might need for class next quarter.

“But it’s just $10,” they’d say about a movie.

But $10 can pay for my train rides into the city for Journalism 201-1 assignments.

“But it’s just $25,” they’d say about dinner.

But $25 meant much more to me than it ever would to them.

I felt bad saying no — awful, actually. I thought it would mean that I would lose my friends, and in some ways, I did. But I also found a group of friends — at The Daily, in fact — that understood hanging out didn’t need to mean spending money. To them, having fun meant grabbing our cameras (some borrowed from The Daily) and going out to find the best views from parking garages. That’s all I needed: friends who understood my situation and didn’t make me feel like a burden because I didn’t have money to do what they wanted to do.

Though my close friends understood the socioeconomic issues that played a part in making our plans, everyone else I met on campus still didn’t recognize the issue.

In class, professors would say a textbook was only $300, but that it would last the entire year. They failed to recognize that for low-income students, fronting $300 for the entire year isn’t always possible.

At the dorm I lived in for two years, the current exec board talked about non-res dues as being “only $70.” They failed to recognize that $70 is two months’ worth of groceries for someone like me.

And even here at The Daily, the place I love the most on campus, people will regularly band together to order dinner from Postmates or UberEats, failing to recognize that not everyone can afford to do that every day. Or, when deciding what Daily-branded attire we want to order for the quarter, people make decisions without seriously considering if the cost per person is going to be a burden to anyone in the newsroom financially, like it usually is for me.

I could point out a host of examples of the blatant disregard for other peoples’ socioeconomic status at Northwestern. Not enough people point out the classism at NU. Not enough people correct their friends when they say or do things insensitive to low-income folks here.

No one wants to be a burden. But it happens every day here, and it’s not discussed enough.

Allie Goulding is a Medill junior. She can be contacted at [email protected] If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected] The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.