The Economista: Being Low-Income at an “Elite Institution”

Credit to Olivia Cummings
Credit to Olivia Cummings

Welcome to The Economista! My name is Andy Pham and I will be giving you weekly tips and tricks on how to budget, save money, and have inexpensive fun at Brown!

“Brown is an elite institution” is probably a sentiment that isn’t new to you. Whether it’s the professors or Brown’s various means of publicity, this is a phrase uttered quite often. But, what does this mean? And what does it mean for low-income students?

Coming to this school as a low-income student, the whole concept of attending an “elite institution” terrified me. My fears ranged from worrying about being behind everyone else academically – due to school-resource differences – to thinking that everything around Brown would be too expensive for me.

Although I adjusted a lot, I still have daily concerns and it’s okay if you do too. I think the biggest factor in gaining some comfort at this school was the number of resources available to the students here, and using them. Even though this list could use some expanding, the ones that are present have helped me incredibly.

One that helped me a lot was the Catalyst program. Catalyst is a pre-orientation program that is aimed at underrepresented & “disadvantaged” first-years hoping to concentrate in STEM. This program gave me a lot of courage to take on STEM at Brown. Yet, it also managed to teach us a lot of leadership skills while we all made close friends in the process. I definitely recommend applying to this program.

For those that find STEM to not really be their thing, there are two other pre-orientation programs that are also helpful. There is Excellence at Brown and TWTP, both of which are fantastic. Excellence @ Brown focuses on helping incoming first-years develop their writing. TWTP (which I also attended) works to teach first-years about issues such as racism, classism, heterosexism, and more – so that they can become more aware and knowledgeable of the systematic injustices that still exist in this nation.

Even these programs only lasted for several days, the communities still exist. TWTP coordinators continue to share information and support with the TWTP community. I also still have Catalyst get-togethers where we all talk share our concerns and support. It’s a nice thing to do to remind yourself that you aren’t alone on the struggle bus.

Catalyst also connected me with the New Scientist Program (NSP). This is a mentoring program that pairs you up with another undergraduate STEM concentrator, so that you have someone to turn to when you have questions.

Mentoring has also been another big resource for me in general. You are really given the opportunity to create a web of mentors and advisers at Brown. It’s rare for me to ever feel like I have no one that I could turn to when I need a specific question answered. For example, I also have the first-year standard Meik and adviser, a First-Gen mentor, and an individual academic coach. Thus, you don’t necessarily need to know everything about college and what you’re doing (as some of your higher income peers might seem like they do). There will always be people to answer your questions, and if they can’t then they usually can direct to someone that can. That’s what makes this mini-support system so great, especially for someone who did not have the luxury of having any expensive college advisers in high school.

Another great resource that has helped me a lot is the academic center. Through the academic center you can sign up for small tutoring sections and writing center appointments. I am currently signed up for tutoring in neuroscience and chemistry, and both sections are incredibly helpful.

This free resource helps when I find that I do fall behind my peers in some aspects. It is something that I cannot really change. I can’t change the fact that my friend’s school offered neuroscience as a course but mine didn’t. There’s nothing that I can do about the fact that my other friend’s school encouraged their students to apply for QuestBridge while I didn’t know anything about it and missed that opportunity. Yet, that’s okay. Brown has things like tutoring and one-on-one writing appointments to help me.

You shouldn’t feel embarrassed or ashamed for using this resource either. In fact, I know people that are jealous of me for being able to get into tutoring when they couldn’t. Thus, you find that you’re not really alone as you think you are. I found a lot of people struggling with the same things as me and it helps a lot to know that.

In terms of not being able to afford to do fun activities, I found that Brown has ways of providing that as well. In general, Brown’s many student groups and organizations always have a lot going on. From free acapella concerts to big festivals with free food and karaoke, you can surely find something that suits your tastes.

There are even a lot of cheaper things happening off campus. For example, sometimes there are promotions at Downtown Providence’s nightclubs where you only have to pay $1, $3, or $5 for entry. Couple that with using someone’s Uber code to get a free ride, and you have an inexpensive night of fun and dancing (my friends and I have enjoyed doing this). However, if this is not your thing then as I said, don’t worry there are plenty of things out there that you’d probably enjoy.

Thus, Brown does have a lot of resources and activities out there that appeal to low-income students, such as myself. Despite knowing people that are millionaires and children of wealthy CEOs, doctors, etc., I still have my fun and I can still get my work done just as much as they can. However, if you find that these don’t work for you then I know the financial aid office can be helpful in helping you navigate finances. CAPS (counseling and psychological services) is also there to talk as well if you find that you’re not comfortable with your support system – which could include RPLs, mentors, advisers, friends, and more.

I hope sharing some of my experiences and what has worked for me was helpful to you! Thanks for reading!

I am open to any and all ideas, and will be happy to answer any questions you may have! If you have any suggestions, questions, or comments you can e-mail me at andy_pham@brown.edu . Thanks!

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