This article discusses marginalization and acts of violence and may be triggering for some readers. Wellness Together Canada may be contacted for mental health support by calling 1-866-585-0445 or by texting WELLNESS to 741741.
Queen’s was always supposed to be a class gateway for me. There was no other reason why I
would willingly enter a business program.
This is why in Grade Twelve when I took a field trip to a nearby private school for their university fair, I made a beeline to the Queen’s booth. Although my high school had its own recruitment fairs, Queen’s never sent representatives.
When I asked for a pamphlet, it was given to me with hesitation. When I asked specifically about the Commerce program, I was told it was difficult to get into. Without any rationale behind this messaging, Queen’s inherently sold itself to low-income students as an exclusive and prestigious place.
Very few people at my high school applied, and even fewer were accepted.
Notably, many of them seem better off for it.
When I was accepted, I was excited at the prospect of being surrounded by people who faced similar challenges and worked equally hard to make it to this institution.
It wasn’t quite like that.
I love the people I met at Queen’s. But I was one of very few who had been told it may be out of reach.
Queen’s doesn’t publish any data on where exactly its students are coming from, it was very clear that most in the Commerce program attended private schools where it was a given they would be accepted into Queen’s, Western, and better American universities.
This was confirmed in my fourth year when a group of students released Part I of the Smith Transparency Project, a study that revealed students overwhelmingly come from private and elite public schools in wealthy parts of Vancouver and the Greater Toronto Area.
A lot of my time in first year was spent explaining to classmates I wasn’t in a gang growing up—despite the fact I’m five foot four and did considerably fewer drugs than most of my peers throughout undergrad—and slowly drifting apart from my friends back home who had chosen more diverse spaces to enter into upon high school graduation.
The Queen’s environment was isolating enough for low-income students, with talk of extravagant vacations and tax havens.
The most painful part was how the institution contributed to this isolation.
Despite OSAP and draining my savings from four years of summer jobs, there always seemed to be expenses I was struggling to meet. Orientation was a nominal fee to some, but for me the hundreds meant a lot. Commerce students were expected to have a selection of business formal attire, which I didn’t.
Among these already daunting expenses, the meal plan stung the most.
For thousands of dollars, and usually with no access to a kitchen, students in residence must opt into a meal plan that provides nineteen meals a week—not enough for three meals a day. A sample plan given to me as a first year suggested supplementing the two unaccounted meals by eating out with friends every week.
It was simply expected I’d have disposable income to drop on food in one of the blandest cities
This kind of treatment continued throughout undergrad, and it was never discussed. Low-income students were few and far between.
Since we were told we shouldn’t be talking about money while surrounded by students who have so much of it, we didn’t announce ourselves.
While Queen’s has a few programs meant to ease the financial burden of attending this school, such as Swipe it Forward, they aren’t well advertised.
The persistent stigma of being low-income and facing issues like food insecurity is a barrier that hasn’t been properly addressed and continues to prevent students from accessing these programs.
Besides, as someone who broke the bank on this ‘prestigious’ degree, it remains gravely disappointing to me that my residence fees didn’t feed three meals a day.
When I continued to work hard throughout Queen’s for scholarships and other funding sources, it came with emotional labour that continues to impact my mental health to this day.
With every grant I was selected for, there was an expectation—and sometimes a requirement—that I would write a letter thanking this institution and the wealthy alumni that gave this poor little brown girl a chance.
I was grateful for their support, of course, but when you are repeatedly asked to smile and pose for a photo only to be accompanied by a caption that tells the world you’re underprivileged, you start to feel resentful.
Now I’m at an institution that provides similar support without asking me for a sob story, I know my discomfort was valid.
To top off my time at Queen’s, once I finally found an on-campus job that reduced my financial burdens and introduced me to so many incredible people who would form a fundamental part of my support system, I found student employees were treated with even less respect than the students we serve.
When I expressed my solidarity with Muslims abroad who were having their holy sites bombed and raided during the holiest day of Ramadan, I was met with verbal harassment and threats of violence.
That was a hard time.
The worst of it took place when this treatment was implicitly condoned by this institution’s Principal, who distanced himself from providing the right to safety I should have had in my role as one of Vol. 149’s Editors in Chief. He wasn’t my boss. But worry not, my bosses also didn’t care that I feared for my life.
While I was at Queen’s I was sure I was complaining too much. I was told, constantly, how lucky I was to even be allowed on campus.
Now I’m an alumnus, out of the Queen’s bubble, I know that wasn’t true.
Myself and all other low-income alumni faced insurmountable barriers and worked hard for the opportunities we got. That’s setting aside how complicated our experiences became for those of us who were racialized, queer, or otherwise minoritized.
Collectively, we deserved better, and I know that remains true for those who are still at Queen’s.
That’s why when prospective and current students reach out to me, I’m completely honest about my experience. Queen’s will get you to the place you want to go. But it won’t pay for the therapy you’ll need afterward. And no one will quite understand what these four years did to you.
To this institution: there are so many alumni and students who distance themselves from this place because of the trauma it’s inflicted. Despite this, hopeful public school graduates still move into Victoria Hall each year.
You might want to think about honouring these students the way that they deserve.
Aysha is a Comm’22 graduate and former Editor in Chief of The Queen’s Journal.
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