Us college students seem to have a lot to complain about — stressful classes, struggling relationships, severe lack of sleep and, perhaps most of all, lack of income. With tuition costs climbing every year and the adolescent population increasingly the target of consumerism, finances are a real issue for college students, who more often than not are without a “real job.”
I mean, we’re always scavenging for discounts on movies and train tickets, scrambling to maintain our first credit cards and painfully waiting until next tax season to get back those few but hard-earned dollars. In fact, we’ve become a running joke, a stereotype. The “poor college student” is a popular subject for internet memes and our own self-deprecating jokes because it feels relatable, and thus, funny. It’s basically our defining characteristic — isn’t it?
The answer may not be as straightforward as one might think. In reality, a good portion college students of this generation are not as “poor” as their own jokes make them out to be. And ironically, it’s not entirely a good thing.
I grew up in a fairly well-off community, where money never seemed to be a problem for anyone I went to school with. And though my own financial background was no different, my family has always been especially frugal. After immigrating from China and slowly building themselves from extreme low-income roots, my parents’ careful spending habits inevitably stuck with them. They vowed to raise their children with the same humbleness, which, in high school, both exasperated and embarrassed me.
Despite their good intentions, I couldn’t yet understand what my parents were preparing me for. Like too many children I grew up with, I could not grasp the true value of a dollar and what one must go through to earn it.
Now, regardless of the diversity of student backgrounds at the University of Michigan, there is still a substantial population of students who, with family money, sport new Macbooks, frequent restaurant visits and lavish study abroad trips. And though many of these students like to make “poor” student jokes, that’s the thing — financial instability is far from a joke. In fact, it is a legitimate problem for many college students and their families, whose struggle cannot even begin to be felt by us in the upper-middle class.
In this way, “poor” student jokes began to ooze of privilege, becoming less and less funny every time a well-off student used it as a complaint, or even worse, an excuse. And this seemed wrong to me, as if we were unable to admit to cheating past the natural struggle of college — the rocky search for independence and self-sustenance necessary for reaching adulthood. Being financially independent at this time of my life somehow felt like an obligation that I owed to myself; each time I spent a dollar that was not my own seemed to add to the stagnation of my growth.
So this summer, I set out to fulfill that obligation: in order to continue working and complete summer courses in Ann Arbor, I must be responsible for my rent, food and summer tuition. And though this was my first time, doing so made me increasingly aware that these are everyday burdens for others. While my modest undergraduate salary seemed barely enough, I’d finally gotten a taste of financial responsibility, which, surprisingly, has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.
Though I was far from poor while growing up, my parents had planted a certain mindset within me, in fear that I’d fail to appreciate the things I really need in life at the expense of the things I do not. I’d been carefully trained to budget, save and, above all, appreciate — skills that, as I paid my first electricity bills and purchased my own groceries, I could finally exercise in the real world. And though I’ve had to cut down my budget significantly, I do not feel sorry for myself, nor do I complain — to do so would be denying the reality of so many others to which I, despite my whopping three months of experience, have no right to make claims.
Even so, there is so much that I have learned. It takes the hard work of supporting yourself to truly fathom what not to take for granted — something that simply throwing around the “poor student” excuse cannot achieve. While I have the comfort of knowing that my parents’ funds will always be there for me when I need them, this isn’t true for everyone; what’s common to us all is the gratification in knowing the most essential things in life can be achieved on our own.
So next time you call yourself a “poor college student,” really ask yourself: are you? Though I am sincerely happy for those who may never have to struggle through this infamous stage, many American students do in fact work to support themselves — and it’s time to recognize its value.
In short, I would never oppose relief from the financial burden of college, but I’ve found that being financially responsible as a student is an indispensable facilitator in the transition to adulthood. The beginnings of financial independence may reek of panic and stale bread, but the aftertaste is a raw sense of accomplishment and a proactive attitude that will remain throughout adulthood, even if tax exemptions do not.
So, I’d like to raise my free plastic water bottle for a toast: here’s to all the college kids like myself, regardless of our families’ financial backgrounds. College sure costs a fortune, but the growth we could get out of it? That’s priceless.