Before this summer, I’d never had a four-digit balance in my bank account. I’d managed to earn a couple hundred dollars that I burnt on books and dorm supplies during the first few weeks of fall semester, but that’s as close as I’d gotten. The rest of the year, I got by scrubbing toilets in the couple of hours I could find scattered beneath papers and in the cobble-stoned cracks between club meetings.
I started my trip to Manila with a full bank account thanks to an internship grant I got through the Harvard Office of Career Services. There’s been an unusual freedom in being able to grab a takeout meal or Uber around Manila—two luxuries I avoid during the school year. Here, I can enjoy them without a second thought because I know the money’s there for me.
I’ve grown as a person, traveled to Asia for the first time, and learned about an entirely foreign culture—all at the sticker price of $5,000 dollars. My mind can’t help but wonder the opportunities and life experiences that come with $10,000, or $15,000, or more. It makes me realize that making money, as much as I hate to admit it, is very important to me. This realization does not come from my summer experience alone.
Harvard is—to put it simply—rich. The campus sits on multimillion dollar real estate. The administrative offices are adorned with glowing mahogany furniture. The recent house renovations have made our living spaces look like high-end hotels. The celebrity and guest speakers that have been the gems of my time here come with a hefty price tag. Even so, I like this new, alien world I’ve found myself in. The Harvard brand and the success of this school’s alumni were major selling points. What I didn’t initially realize was that the pursuit of money means very different things to very different Harvard students.
There are students who’ve grown up in these spaces and understand what it means to interact with this kind of currency. Whether it was because of a prep school or a parent, they at least understand what their place amongst the affluence is, even if it isn’t a position of complete possession. But there are many students who don’t even know where to start navigating a new environment so saturated with cues of the wealthy elite.
These are disproportionately first-generation students of color, whose parents did not attend college. In the Class of 2019, 45 percent of first-generation students come from households with a yearly income less than $40,000, and 94 percent receive financial aid. With the proven ties between educational attainment and income, it’s no surprise that first-generation students are not accustomed to the kind of affluence that Harvard demands and exudes.
Demographically, I’m one of the most ill-equipped to navigate this money-soaked landscape. In the United States, Latino families are impoverished at higher rates than their white counterparts, and immigrant families have been experiencing economic downfall at faster rates. Out of any racial group in the Class of 2019, Latino students are the most likely to be first-generation college students. My simple cream-colored home, filled with the chatter of rushed Spanish during routine phone calls to relatives in El Salvador, is a stark contrast to the expensive white marble I walk on in Cambridge.
For first-generation Latino students, college is a place where we’re suspended between two worlds, and this builds a set of hardships based on both economic and racial marginalization. While we’re in this zone of uncertainty, Harvard supports us financially through their ever expanding financial aid program, but throwing money at a problem is not enough. Being at Harvard, especially for first-generation students, is a key step in leaving a world we love and respect in the name of socioeconomic mobility. To possess money is not synonymous with understanding the culture of wealth.
Full, comprehensive support from the administration would address the social cues and codes of this new culture. The lack of a pre-orientation program for first-generation students is a gap in the current support system. More uniformly available first-generation tutors, tailored mental health services, and mainstreamed personal finance services would strengthen the institutional support these students receive. The problem is as much about not knowing the difference between semiformal and black tie as it is about not having enough money to attend the events that require these attires.
While we may not all reach the kind of financial success of the people who name the buildings of this school, odds are we are going to be richer than we’ve ever been because we graduated from Harvard. If the American Dream is alive anywhere, it is in the story of a child of immigrant parents who made it into the gates of Harvard University. The catch is that socioeconomic mobility is not simply increased comfort. It’s also psychological and even physical stress that Harvard offers on a silver platter. When I take a bite, I just hope I’ve been provided everything I need to stomach it.
Ruben E. Reyes Jr. ’19, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Leverett House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.