More Than Just a Number: Stories from Low-Income Students

Editor’s Note: Written by Lijia Liu, this article is the first in the series More Than Just A Number, highlighting the experiences of low-income students at Swarthmore and bringing attention to their perspectives.

When she arrived for her freshman year at Swarthmore College, brightly-colored flowers, verdant grasses, and sun-speckled foliage amazed Jasmine Betancourt '20. "In Arizona, there's a cactus and a little bush and that's it," she laughed.

Betancourt hails from Mesa, AZ, a city nestled within the Sonoran Desert just an hour east of Phoenix. Arid, dusty, and blazing hot in the summer, Mesa is a far cry from the town of Swarthmore, where residents can afford to have lush lawns, dainty gardens, and occasionally, tree houses.

The difference between home and Swarthmore, though, is not just physical. "My community is very low-income, so being in that atmosphere made me aware of how there's a lot of pressure for me to be able to provide for my family and improve my community," Betancourt said.

Betancourt identifies as a low-income student, and is co-President of SOLIS (Swarthmore Organization of Low-Income Students) as well as a QuestBridge scholar. QuestBridge is a non-profit organization that supports talented low-income students in their search for college admissions and employment opportunities. But the very definition of being low-income can be subjective, and there is much diversity within the community of low-income students at Swarthmore.

"I hesitate to assign a number value to how much you have to make to count as being low-income, but I think it has a lot to do with people who have a hard time accessing resources, and people who worry about how they are going to pay for something," Betancourt said. "What might be taken for granted may be central to the concerns of low-income people."

Guillermo Barreto Corona '19, a SOLIS member from Bellevue, WA, also believes that it is difficult to use specific criteria for classifying someone as low-income.  "I think to be a low-income student, you have to think of yourself as one," he reflected. "Being low-income is one of those things that you just cannot group people in, because there are many different factors that come into play, like location," Corona said.

For Betancourt and Corona, being low-income is an identity that they choose to associate with, at least for now. "I'm still going to identify as low-income until I somehow get out of this. My one dream is to get enough money to buy my parents a house," Corona chuckled.

Such self-identification was little more than a passing thought for Vanessa Jimenez-Read '20, a QuestBridge scholar, until she attended high school. "Before, I knew my dad was unemployed. We made less money than other students and I was on free or reduced lunch, so that was different from other students. But I just saw it as my reality, and not really as an identity till high school when I was around a lot of middle class and upper-middle class students," she recounted.

"I started realizing that I can't do all the things that they can afford to do, and I don't have access to all the same resources that they do. For example, my house is in a cheaper neighborhood, and they get to go on trips abroad every summer or spring break. I just started noticing these small little things. By the end of my senior year and when I'm applying to college programs, I'm seeing this low-income identity and started to identify with that more closely," she explained.

Subtle differences set low-income students apart from their peers, and not necessarily those that are immediately observable. "You can be going around and wearing this big fur coat, and no one would think you are low-income, or you can be wearing these brand new sneakers," Corona said. "I hate the idea that low-income people can't buy some good things from time to time. If they want to make big purchases, that's because they are proud of the money they earn. These visual markers are not as prominent in being low-income, unlike race, gender, or other things."

Transportation costs, for example, are one of the less-visible concerns shared by low-income students. Betancourt remembers driving 36 hours from Mesa to Swarthmore with her parents and sister, instead of flying to campus and making a much shorter trip.  "For the price of one plane ticket, we were able to pay for gas so that all four of us could come. It wasn't the most ideal situation, but it was the way we could afford to get both my parents out here along with all of my stuff," she said.

Jimenez-Read, whose family lives in Jacksonville, FL, also encountered difficulties in paying for transportation. While she intended to attend Swatlight, she could not afford the transportation costs for her travel to Swarthmore. Swatlight is a program in spring for selected students, including those from low-income backgrounds, who are admitted to Swarthmore via Regular Decision but have yet to decide if they want to accept a place at Swarthmore. Although Swarthmore offered to pay for all the participants' expenses, this offer was not extended to Jimenez-Read because she was admitted to Swarthmore through Early Decision and QuestBridge's National College Match program.

On a daily basis, low-income students may find it challenging to connect with friends or peers if they cannot afford to participate in the same social activities. "If you make friends with a rich person, they always want to go to Philly, and they always want to do these fantastic things. Eventually, you just have to say 'No, I cannot do it', and then you just distance yourself," Corona said.  

"Despite the campus having a pretty wide acceptance, it just seems that we're forgotten by administration, by students, sometimes even by ourselves," he added.

For low-income students, it is important that they feel a sense of belonging independent of their financial situations, but fostering a truly supportive environment can be easier said than done. Even in Swarthmore's classrooms, where the liberal arts tradition encourages open discussion, some students may unintentionally make remarks that are highly personal to low-income students but merely theoretical or academic for others.

"One time in my class, we were talking about unemployment benefits," Jimenez-Read said. "A student said that you could just be sitting around, saying that you're looking for a job, and still get unemployment benefits. The whole class laughed and I thought, 'What the heck?'"

She paused for a moment. "It was weird because my dad was on unemployment benefits while I was in middle school, and it just rubbed me the wrong way. They didn't take into account that there are people in this room who could have experienced that."

Although low-income students encounter various challenges at Swarthmore, these challenges do not necessarily blemish the students' college experiences. "On Swarthmore's campus, I don't really feel like I'm singled out in any way. I feel like I'm just another student, and I feel like my peers and my professors don't look down on me when they realize I'm low income," Betancourt said.

While pursuing a biology major, Corona felt supported by his professors and instructors, especially Jocelyn Noveral and Elizabeth Vallen. When he struggled in Vallen's Biology 001 course his freshman year, Vallen offered plenty of attention and help, fueling Guillermo’s continued interest in biology.

"This recent year, I'm extremely proud because my past research was done internationally in Brazil. At this point, I've travelled all the way down there [to South America] when before I've only travelled to Canada, an hour away from where I live," Corona beamed.

Even though she is far away from home at Swarthmore, Betancourt still keeps her community close to her heart as she wants to help others after graduating from Swarthmore. "I'm planning to do a special major in Education and Political Science," she said. "I want to work specifically in educational policy reform to make the educational system as a whole more equitable for everyone."


Note: Swatlight was erroneously referred to as Discover Swarthmore in the paragraphs describing Jimenez-Read's experiences. The mistake has been amended to reflect Jimenez-Read's concerns more accurately.