The difficulties of being a working class student

How differences in socioeconomic backgrounds can affect student experience

Cowan feels Queen’s should be doing more to include students from less affluent backgrounds.
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Post-secondary institutions are more open and accessible to certain societal classes than they’ve ever been before. 
 
Issues regarding racial, religious, sexual and gender discrimination have been—at least in part—addressed to better serve and accommodate increasingly diverse groups of students. 
 
However, an area of importance in the student experience often left unaccounted for is the difference in social classes between young people. 
 
With the rise of more financial and social diversity in Canadian universities, Queen’s has yet to confront the discrepancy among students who come from varying socioeconomic backgrounds and upbringings. 
 
New initiatives and policies, both from the federal and provincial levels, have allowed working-class students to access post-secondary education. Despite financial aid, however, students from low-income or working-class backgrounds still face challenges even once in school. 
 
Similar to other groups facing adversity on campus, these students should be accommodated for their unique needs. 
 
Coming from a family with two working-class parents, I can speak with authority on this subject.
 
For someone from a low-income background, the ability to trade upwards in terms of class is one of the most important reasons for seeking higher education—namely, because you’re aiming to leave yourself better off than where you came from.
 
From a young age, my parents instilled in me the important and essential benefits of higher education. They desperately didn’t want me to relive their lives and pushed me to succeed in school.
 
Although I made it to Queen’s with their help, most financial barriers I currently face arose once I arrived on campus. 
 
Paying tuition presents challenges, sure, but a fair share of the monetary drawbacks I’ve experienced have been indirect. 
 
Taking part in the university experience and its culture has issues that aren’t as straightforward as paying out your debts. In other words, the costs to attend post-secondary education go beyond just tuition and textbooks.
 
There are costs associated with almost every part of the university experience. Some post-secondary essentials are underfunded or not funded at all by the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP), such as extra-curricular club fees, rent and food. 
 
This can ultimately make some students feel like outsiders because they lack the resources necessary to fully participate and integrate into the complete university experience. 
 
Understandably, some of the issues facing students hailing from less affluent backgrounds concern their schooling. For instance, taking notes in a cheap notebook while your peers click away at their MacBooks can have a profound effect on one’s sense of belonging. 
 
But plenty of issues students face actually extend beyond the confines of a classroom. 
 
The element of one’s social life, for example, often flies under the radar in regards to how financial insecurity affects student wellness. Going out with friends comes with costs that prevent working-class students from fully enjoying their time at university. 
 
When young people pursuing post-secondary education are tasked with paying off their financial debts, they run the risk of missed opportunities to make friends, meet partners, and live a happier, more balanced lifestyle like other students. 
 
Whereas students from upper-class families can choose whether they’d like to have a job during the academic year, the less fortunate can’t due to crippling debts and living expenses. 
 
Most of the time, they must sacrifice either their grades or social lives—or both—to simply stay afloat.  
 
The ability or capacity to network is also often unavailable to students from working-class backgrounds. People underestimate the weight family connections can hold on one’s professional and academic career. It can make a big difference. 
 
It can be as benign as professional advice or internships—regardless, you’re left off with more job prospects coming out of university. These types of socioeconomic differences for less affluent students diminish their chances of more easily shifting over to the middle or upper-class after school. 
 
There’s nothing wrong with networking or using connections to progress. But Queen’s should at least compensate and understand these avenues for career advancement aren’t available to everyone. 
 
The greatest barrier these factors create, is the sense of inclusion working-class students must try adversely hard to join. 
 
We’re a product of our experiences. The differences between how middle and working-class people communicate may seem trivial on the surface, but they eventually aggregate into a larger social dissonance.
 
It creates a divide in our understanding of each other. 
 
Things such as private versus public education or owning versus renting property might seem like small differences among people who share similar socioeconomic standings. 
 
Over the long term, they create drastic differences in values, beliefs and even ways of communicating. 
 
These differences in experience often make working-class 
students feel like they don’t belong or have a place amongst people who have much more than they do.
 
It results in them not knowing how to enter the culture of higher education and wealth, let alone be successful in it. 
 
When people talk about their European vacation or family cruise upon their return in September, I feel like an alien—because I have no frame of reference for what that’s like. 
 
Altogether, these barriers have the potential to be detrimental to working-class students’ careers and futures, which defeats the purpose of why people should pursue post-secondary education.
 
The access we have to higher education should improve our ability to advance into different social classes—not impede it based on our socioeconomic upbringings and backgrounds. 
 
This issue needs to be addressed institutionally. These factors makeuniversity life more difficult for certain students more so than others.  
 
At Queen’s, an effort could be made to connect current working-class students to alumni who’ve achieved upward mobility after graduation. It could serve as an inspiration to less affluent students while also offsetting their inherent lack of networking opportunities. 
 
There could be student groups and clubs who’d work to connect working-class students with each other—in effect, combatting their sense of isolation and offering them a sense of belonging.  
 
While perhaps not immediately breaking down the barriers less affluent students face, these small changes would make subtle but tangible differences. 
 
They could create a sense of understanding and comradery between people from diverse financial backgrounds—and help a large group of young people reach like-minded goals on a level playing field. 
 
Cade Cowan is a fourth-year Politics major.

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