Poor at Harvard, Or Why I Gave

Last year I was at home on winter break scavenging for something to eat in our understocked pantry, when my mom came home from work and burst into tears at the kitchen table. Before I could ask what was wrong, she sat down on the floor, still crying, and explained that work that day had been particularly rough. “I’ve started getting arthritis,” she explained helplessly. “My arms and hands hurt every night. There is no way my body can keep this up, but I don’t have nearly enough saved to quit and still get your sister through school.”

Being poor at Harvard is not like being poor anywhere else. Despite the administration’s “best efforts” freshman year to engage us all in discussions of socioeconomic disparity, most of us at Harvard refrain from discussing personal wealth. Perhaps as a result of this hushed attitude, poverty too often is seen as a mark of failure rather than a situation into which one is born. This attitude is of course not openly expressed. Instead, it manifests itself as a pervasive undertone in many conversations.

Over the last four years, I have become highly aware of the economic disparity within the Harvard bubble, and I am dismayed by how often it is swept under the rug. I know teammates who have skipped dinners because practice ended after dining halls had closed. I know friends who send home money every month to their parents. My own mother is divorced and working two manual jobs to help put me and my younger sister through school. However, I don’t tell many people that most of my clothing is secondhand, or that last year my income as a dorm crew captain was nearly half that of my mother’s. Here, such admissions are taboo.

When facing the issue of economic disparity among students, I think that the Harvard administration does a much more admirable job than its students. Over 70 percent of students are on financial aid, admission is need-blind, and parents earning under $65,000 annually are not expected to contribute to tuition. Grants are available for research and travel, and many school social events can be subsidized through the Social Events Fund.

Harvard students, on the other hand, can at times be incredibly naive. And there have been many times, either in the classroom or in casual conversations, when I have wanted to interrupt one of my peers and explain to them a simple fact that I learned early in life: Money. Is. Important. This is a difficult lesson to learn if you have never dealt with economic hardship.

I decided to co-chair the Senior Gift campaign this spring because Harvard’s financial aid program literally changes lives—it certainly changed my own. I felt like it would be a great chance to raise money for a cause that I really cared about. But I was surprised to find some of my classmates responded with antagonistic or occasionally aggressive attitudes when I asked them if they were considering making donations.

Many of these people explained that they didn’t want to donate because they didn’t feel that they had positive experiences at Harvard, or because they thought Harvard already had “enough money.” For the record, I love that many of my classmates are passionate about other causes in the world. However, when people tell me that they don’t think Senior Gift is important, what I hear is, “I don’t care about financial aid enough to donate to it.”

Hopefully, some of the things I have shared here about economic disparity at Harvard will change your mind on that point. And even if they don’t, at the very least, I hope you will respect the Senior Gift as a valid cause that means a lot to some of your classmates. Please don’t respond aggressively or act antagonized when someone asks you if you have considered donating to Harvard’s financial aid.

Why? Because when I come to you to talk about Senior Gift, I am coming to you as a classmate asking you to donate to a cause that has changed my life. Because making a Senior Gift donation that is earmarked for financial aid is the absolute best way to raise money for this cause—you will be both giving money and contributing to higher participation rates, thus raising alumni donations. Because my mother will have to work fewer years as a gardener battling arthritis since I received this gift from Harvard four years ago. Because when I approach you in the dinning hall to you to talk about it, I am trying to give that same gift to another family.

Again, talking about money at Harvard is hard, and I am not trying to make anyone uncomfortable by sharing my personal experiences. I do not want to guilt people who are fortunate enough not to face these problems into donating, nor am I trying to claim that every student on financial aid feels the same way about these issues that I do. I am simply asking you to take a second and think. Think about economic class at Harvard. Acknowledge the gift that Harvard has given to countless families through their financial aid program, and respect the huge economic disparities found here as a blessing and not a curse.

Our socioeconomic diversity should not make you feel awkward or ashamed—it should make you excited to learn from your classmates and proud of the community that you create together. And personally that is a cause to which I will gladly donate any day.


Cayla C. Calderwood ''14, a Senior Gift campaign co-chair, is a social studies concentrator in Leverett House. The opinions expressed here are her own and not those of the Senior Gift campaign.

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