Yang: Visible, Yet Invisible
By Lorelei Yang, Staff Columnist
Published on Friday, May 18, 2012
Conspicuous consumption — the idea of buying lavish goods and services to display one’s wealth — is a hallmark of contemporary America. If the credit crisis of 2009 revealed one thing about our cultural identity, it was our obsession with the acquisition of things. Clothes, shoes, property, the latest and greatest in technology: We want them all, and we want to flaunt it when we have it, particularly on college campuses where much of a person’s social identity is formed by their socioeconomic identity. Dartmouth’s culture of consumption — particularly as practiced by those among us with the means to fully engage in it — makes students on financial aid and those from low-income families particularly visible and, paradoxically, simultaneously invisible on this campus.
Most obviously, students on financial aid may work on-campus jobs that involve interacting with their fellow students. DDS jobs in particular make these students’ financial circumstances readily apparent in a manner that not everyone feels comfortable with. However, while these students’ employment is so visible, their fellow students often seem to treat them as if they are somehow different and less worthy of note when they wear their neon green DDS shirts at work. In many ways, the treatment of student workers in our dining facilities affirms an observation that I’ve heard a number of times: that “Dartmouth makes you really aware of the fact that you’re on financial aid.”
Even in their day-to-day lives, students’ financial circumstances can also make a huge difference in how they experience Hanover. While eating out or ordering EBA’s on a regular basis may not be a problem for those of us who can rely on our parents’ credit cards, doing so may not be an option for students who rely on their work-study money to support their education and whose parents cannot afford to bankroll extra frills on top of their tuition. In this way, the ability to eat out without using meal plan money or participate in shared-expense activities with their friends can become a barrier for students of lesser means.
Compounding this is the fact that many people are uncomfortable discussing money, and so when someone proposes that a group of friends should split the cost for a purchase, or that they should participate in an activity that carries a certain monetary cost, it may be difficult to acknowledge one’s circumstances to one’s friends. In this way, students of lesser means often find themselves in the uncomfortable position of needing to acknowledge their financial constraints but not knowing how to enter into that conversation.
For many, the difference between those of greater and lesser means is also often evident in the way they dress. The insularity of life on a college campus and in dorms, where friends see each other multiple times a day and come to know each others’ wardrobes in a way that generally wouldn’t happen in the “real world,” makes the clothes people wear a significant marker of their socioeconomic statuses. Since many students are brand-conscious and many embrace a certain “look” to affirm their socioeconomic statuses, the clothes they wear often become yet another way in which those with the eye for it may distinguish between those who do and don’t have consumption power.
When out of Hanover, the differences in students’ financial situations can become even more apparent when it comes to where we respectively vacation, travel with our families and call home. Hearing their friends casually discuss going on trips that they personally can’t afford can be an alienating experience for students who can’t share those experiences. Study abroad programs, where unexpected costs often crop up in the form of weekend outings and touristy expenditures, are uniquely problematic for students of limited financial means. Thus, some forgo them altogether. For those who go on study abroad programs, finding themselves in a foreign country without the opportunity to work an on-campus job for some extra cash exacerbates the have and have-not dichotomy that is already inherent to life in Hanover.
These problems, however, are not insurmountable. Although the administration can’t do anything to change students’ families’ spending powers, there are numerous adjustments, including providing more low-visibility work-study options and providing a stipend for students on study abroad programs to make up for their lack of work-study opportunities, that could make the experience of being a lower-income student at Dartmouth more comfortable and less alienating.