The Bottom 60: Furman's Unseen Students

In the most recent edition of The Paladin, Furman University's on-campus newspaper, Courtney Kratz, the Opinions Editor, wrote an article about the apparent, yet rarely discussed issue of wealth on Furman's campus. More specifically, Kratz touched on the astonishing fact that according to a New York Times study in 2017, Furman University has more students in the top 1 percent than in the bottom 60. Going further, the average median household income of the students on campus is labeled at $181,500, which safely puts those families in the top 20 percent of American wage earners. Furman University, for lack of a better term, has a socioeconomic diversity issue and Kratz highlights it well in her article.

I say all of this not to shame those students who come from these households, which is an issue I took with The Paladin's version of the article. Nor do I share this story because I think Furman is wrong in their approach to admitting students, because I don't think they are. Instead, I wanted to share the viewpoint of a Furman student who doesn't come from the top 1 percent, the top twenty percent, or anywhere close. I want Furman students to realize, just as Kratz stated, that the run-down shops of Poinsett Highway are not a grotesque eyesore you must pass to get to downtown, but rather a reality of living for so many. When I refer to the amount of money my family earns, it's not in the "top percent" of anything, it's immediately labeled in the "bottom," as if it needed any more clarification.

My family is from rural West Virginia where the nearest Walmart requires the planning for a day-long trip because of the distance you'll need to drive to get there. I didn't grow up in West Virginia though because my parents packed up their lives and moved to Asheville, North Carolina when I was a baby to work harder with the hopes I could have a brighter future. That doesn't mean life got easier though. I grew up in a trailer park and when we finally moved, it was to a very small modular home, a mansion in the eyes of a former trailer park kid. This is still my home today and when I told a girl I was dating from Furman about it once, she refused to believe I lived in such a meager house, calling me a liar as if I had somehow brought shame upon her by being poor.

That's not an anomaly though. During breaks, I've never invited anyone to stay at my house when they're in Asheville because I know it's not what they'll expect. When people see me around campus with my L.L. Bean Boots, my Apple Watch, or my new iPhone, they expect me to fit the mold of the average Furman kid. They don't understand I bought these things from the salary of the five jobs I work in the attempt to assimilate into a culture I had no other way of earning my way into. When kids complain about the Dining Hall I laugh, sometimes out loud, thinking about the times my mom drove us to a nearby church to get boxes of food because we couldn't afford enough that week. Of course, my mom didn't tell me we couldn't afford it, she never would, because growing up her and my father would sacrifice anything to give me a life they thought I deserved. Even today my parents work a total of four jobs to put me through Furman since I'm not quite poor enough to earn need-based aid according to some ridiculous government standard, but I also couldn't afford the private school needed to take enough AP's and SAT-prep courses to get merit-based aid.

When I told my mother I wanted to go to Furman she didn't shake her head and say, "No, we can't afford that." Instead, she looked me in the eyes and said, "It's really expensive but if you're willing to work hard at it and take advantage of every opportunity, we'll figure it out." And so figuring it out is what we've done and what we'll continue to do. The loans pile up and even though it's easy to complain, I try not to, knowing that I'm lucky enough to be here and take out loans to get the education Furman University offers in the first place.

Courtney Kratz has a line her article that resonated with me. She writes, " when the majority of our student body - who come from the top 19 percent - compare themselves to the top one percent, they begin to think of themselves as less wealthy than they are; they start to see themselves as middle class. They lose the ability to recognize what wealth really looks like." While the point of my article isn't to wealth-shame, Kratz has a point. I've sat idly by as my friends complain how poor they are, or how long they'll be paying off their student debt before seamlessly transitioning into their discussion of purchasing tickets the next big concert in Charlotte or spending Spring Break on a Caribbean cruise. Sometimes it's hard not to shake them and tell them about the nights you stayed up as your parents argued down the hallway about what bill to pay and which bill to skip this month because you just didn't quite have enough to pay them all.

In reality, being a student at Furman without the economic means behind you is just plain difficult. How am I supposed to tell my friends I can't afford to go out to eat with them again for the third time this week? What do I tell them when they ask why I don't get the scratches and dents in my car repaired? How do I bite my tongue and prevent from lashing out when they say they're sorry about my dog passing away but add that I can always get a new one, not understanding that she was my anchor in this lifelong struggle when no one else would join me? Why don't people believe me when I say the only reason I have Vineyard Vines clothes is because I worked there, not because I can actually afford it? Am I supposed to chuckle along as my peers brag about using their parents' credit cards for irresponsible purchases just because they can?

The truth is Furman University is an amazing school and I wouldn't sell my experiences here for any amount of money. The truth also is that it's impossible to fit into this campus when you don't roll up on move-in day with the financial backing that people expect of you. People can't comprehend why I don't laugh at their law or medical school diversity statements where they quote "Hillbilly Elegy" like they somehow lived it. People can't comprehend that just because there are "scholarships" for things doesn't mean we can suddenly afford it now. People just can't comprehend why I call my high school friends for hours just so I can talk to someone who knows the way my world really works.

This isn't meant to shame those who make up the student body at Furman University or tell the admissions department that they need to do better. Nor is this an opportunity for me to label myself as a victim, because there's nothing I hate more than the pity and sorrow from those who don't truly understand. Instead, this is my attempt to tell Furman students, and perhaps students across the United States, about a peer of theirs that didn't own a suit that truly fit him until last year, and only then did he make the sacrifice to buy one because it was required for events on campus. This is the story of, albeit not a lot, but enough Furman students who walk with you to class, are assigned to your group projects, and who work with you at your work study, but also work three other places too. This is a story of those in the bottom 60 percent who somehow find a way to make it work despite the uphill battles. This is also hopefully an eye-opening opportunity for us as a student body to make a better effort to include everyone into our exciting campus.

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