Am I Williams? The consequences of income disparity at the College

How would you respond if someone asked you why students come to the College? Would you point to the mountains and relationships with professors? Would you emphasize the ability to choose classes flexibly, take tutorials and live in the entry system? Would you respond that Ephs come because the Williams experience is special?

If you answered in this way, would you believe me if I told you that some chose this college for reasons other than the unique experience? As a first-generation student whose full-time job prevented me from ever going on a campus tour, I applied to the College without having the slightest idea of what a college experience would be like. I knew nothing about the Purple Bubble or first-year housing, nor about anything that made the College different from other elite colleges. As a low-income student, the College instead enticed me with a generous financial aid package, promises of finally being financially stable and dreams of bringing my family out of generational poverty. For me, the security of the College was always more attractive than the experience.

Logically, most of the lower-income students at the College come here with hopes of future economic stability. I came here to make sure that my mother and I never have to be homeless or worry about our next meal again. I came here so that my family and I can stop cancelling doctors’ appointments because we cannot afford co-pays and medication. I came here so that the future generations of my family don’t have to work full-time during high school to eat and afford school.

My experience at the College and the motivations for why I came here do not fit into the narrative of a typical Eph. Stories similar to mine are never talked about at the College outside of short panels. For instance, admissions and the “I am Williams” campaign do not mention students who skip meals because they are forced to drop to a lower meal plan. That struggle is not deemed a part of the Williams experience.

We all read the statistics on income distribution and outcomes that the New York Times published. (“Report questions upward mobility at the College,” Feb. 8, 2017.) Why are there not larger conversations about income inequality and economic disparity on campus or the different ways in which people experience the College? Are those conversations not vital to improving the experience of lower income students?

When 67 percent of the student population here come from homes that are in the top 20-percent income bracket, the experiences of low-income students are not taken as a vital portion of the College identity. Only 5 percent of the campus population comes from the same income bracket as me, so our struggles are rarely addressed systematically. As a low-income student, my experience at the College is incredibly different than 67 percent of Ephs. The Williams that I experience is being told that I should be grateful that rich donors allow me to be here. The Williams that I experience requires that $1300 of my summer earnings go to financial aid instead of my mother because the College wants to ensure that students with the highest level of need still pay. The Williams that I experience is sitting my black body in the chair of a white administrator’s office and being told, “I’m going to assume you’re on financial aid … Actually, I shouldn’t say anything.”

The struggles of low-income students are not talked about en masse because these narratives do not fit into what people believe about the College. For many people, coming to the College means taking tutorials, being in an entry, studying abroad, hiking in the mountains, etc. Compared to other colleges, Williams is the exception in giving flexibility in choosing classes, opportunities to study abroad and beautiful mountains.

I expected nothing from the College except for socioeconomic stability and mobility. According to the report from the New York Times, the College systematically fails to provide these to students. We don’t talk about the reasons why the College doesn’t prioritize issues surrounding socioeconomic mobility because they do not fit into the Eph narrative. On multiple occasions, the Williams that I experience is being told that if I am unhappy, I should simply leave. There is no systematic outlet for me to express my grievances to the College because, at the end of the day, my poverty and I are not Williams.

Rocky Douglas ’19 is from Houston, Texas.