Monday, February 7, 2011

Being a lower income student in an "elite" institution

The Straits Times had an article today, "Non-grad parents, but they made it to top schools". No transcript available, but very briefly, it talked about how only a minority of students today in top schools in Singapore hail from households where parents are non-university graduates. It also had some short interview-like snippets from the minority students.

In truth, the title of this article was disingenuous. It would have been more accurate to characterize these students as coming from low-income households rather than with non-grad parents. Perhaps some editor from the Straits Times wanted to avoid any association with that hot potato issue of income inequality.

Reading some of the students' comments stirred some memories. I too, was a lower income student studying in a top school. My family isn't poor by any measure, but disparities were still stark. Some background here.

The truth is, top schools have had a skewed income distribution for several years now. I certainly felt it keenly almost two decades ago. It is NOT a recent phenomenon.

On the off-chance that one of those kids might read this, here's the two cents worth of my reminisces, and some advice, if they will have it:

It is entirely understandable to feel a sense of being apart from your peers who come from much more privileged backgrounds. I call it that sense of "otherness".

Newsflash: It never goes away entirely. So, deal with it as best as you can.

Here's why that feeling of otherness never fades away entirely.

Today, in secondary school, you might feel inadequate because you can't afford to tote the latest iPod, iPad or iPhone. Or you might decline to join your friends at Starbucks or Cafe Cartel, or wherever it is young folks today hang out.

When you reach JC or in the early years of university, some of your wealthier peers will start experimenting with alcohol and clubbing. A few will start driving when their parents gift them with new cars. You'll probably still be taking public transport.

If you do well in school and decide to take up a scholarship to fully fund your university studies, congratulations, you'll have a fairly generous allowance to live on. Finally, some cash in hand!

Unfortunately, that's about the same time your wealthier peers, who might be studying abroad in the same university as you, start talking about ski vacations at Aspen, Whistler or Lake Tahoe. Or weekend getaways to New York for Restaurant Week (Nobu apparently is a great deal). Not exactly your average student's weekend plan.

[For the record, a scholarship allowance probably could pay for these luxuries in moderation, with cutbacks in other areas. But if you were raised in privation, you would find it difficult to justify the expense.]

And when you finally start working, you might see your better-off peers land prestigious unpaid internships, get a new car as a gift from their parents, or have their lavish wedding or new apartment paid for by family.

If you've been following so far, you would probably start wondering why any kid would voluntarily hang out with richer folk after they've grown up when the risk of feeling inferior is so great.

The problem is, when a student joins a top school, whether they realize it or not, important parameters for their social life are being set that will persist for years into the future.

There's a reason socio goes with economic in socio-economic status.

A person's education and upbringing determine their ambitions, drives, values, concerns and perspectives.

A student that has attended a top school will share a very similar set of characteristics (for want of a better word) as their peer group in their school, irrespective of financial background. But, family finances will impose very practical constraints that prevent the student from truly feeling a sense of kinship with their peers.

On the other hand, while a student attending a top school will empathize with someone who comes from a similarly less privileged background, they won't be able to identify with them because their set of characteristics are completely different.

This is just a very convoluted way of telling those lower income kids who attend top schools that they might find that they don't feel like they truly belong anywhere. Now, and in the future.

I first realized this to true when I had the privilege of serving as a man (that is, a corporal. I sooo did not want to liable until I am 50.) during NS. My platoon mates came from fairly average backgrounds, and their concerns were quite different from the friends that I had in school. Some clearly had family problems, and even today, their worries concern more about things like saving up for their parents' medical bills.

In contrast, friends I know from school are generally concerned with weighty matters like, which are the top MBA programs to apply for, what are the opportunities to work as a quant in a hedge fund, or is membership in One o-15 marina a good investment?

The problem is not that I can't appreciate why no one should attend an MBA program outside the top 8. The problem is that I can. Just like I know that getting Wilmott certification is advantageous for working as a quant. I just don't see myself getting hung up over stuff like that. Nor could I ever see myself discussing matters like this over a mess tin of Maggi noodles with my platoon mates during an outfield exercise.

This incongruity between social and economic status is something that any lower-income kid who attends a top school is going to have to grapple with in the years to come.

Do I have advice for lower-income kids who attend top schools? Absolutely.

First, if at all possible, get a part-time job. It can be at McDonalds, Starbucks or just giving tuition. It's something I didn't do as a kid, and I wonder if I made the right decision.

This might sound like irresponsible advice, but hear me out.

It's enormously empowering to make, and spend, your own money. On a practical note, it gives work experience at an early age, and it exposes you to different perspectives. Even minority lower income kids are cloistered to a certain extent in a top school. For once, you'll meet people who don't view not getting an "A" in Physics as an absolute disaster.

As for time taken away from studies, there is always enough time. It's only a matter of priorities. You don't need to top the class in a subject, especially if there is no financial incentive to go with it. If you were smart enough to get into a top school despite being financially disadvantaged, you're smart enough to wing an "A", if just scraping in. Don't work beyond what's required to get the maximum marginal benefit of good grades. That's valuable time you could be spending on something else.

As for how you might spend your income, there's no need to splash out on designer goods. You probably couldn't keep up with your peers anyway. But it would be nice to pay for the occasional meal out or movie.

And not to have to ask parents for the money to attend the school prom, and to actually have something nice to wear to it, priceless! Really, not having money just makes the awkwardness of the teenage years that much harder to bear.

Second piece of advice comes courtesy of Tim Ferriss, author of the 4-hour Workweek, whom I had the pleasure of transcribing an interview of on mturk not long ago.

Diversify your identity.

This is, in fact, very good advice for anybody. Ferriss advises the start-up founders he consults for to take up at least two activities outside of work, one of which is a sport. The rationale is that start-up entrepreneurs have a tendency to get caught up with and obsess over their companies. If they had a bad week at work because of setbacks, which are common with start-ups, it can still be a good week if they, say, clocked a new personal best for their running, or finally succeeded in their personal project at home.

Diversifying your identity is a way of avoiding or delaying burn-out.

I never experienced burn-out as a student, but I have often regretted spending as much time as I did on studies. I tell myself I should have cut loose and relaxed a bit more when I could.

If you're a lower income student in a top school, you're already under enormous pressure to "succeed", which makes it all the more important that you don't burn-out.

This is why having a job could be useful. If you make coffee part-time at Starbucks, you can be the best barista you can be, instead of just another student.

If not a job, instead of angling for a leadership position in school, take up a CCA just for FUN. If you go to church or temple or mosque, volunteer a few hours a week. It can be very helpful to step out of the bubble that a school, especially a top school, can resemble.

Go widen your social circle a little, get some perspective, and grow in different ways. As a person, you'll grow to become more resilient, not to mention much more interesting.

8 comments:

dexuan. said...

I've read your other article about elites and I must say our backgrounds are similar in almost every extent, except that I am a tad younger and I did teach tuition from secondary school.
You have a very well written article here that covered every aspect that I personally believe in too. Good job. I hope the kids in school today will be able to read this.

dexuan. said...

I've read your other article about elites and I must say our backgrounds are similar in almost every extent, except that I am a tad younger and I did teach tuition from secondary school.
You have a very well written article here that covered every aspect that I personally believe in too.
Good job. I hope the kids in school today will be able to read this.

eggtOfU said...

I never knew that someone can actually share such similar sentiments as me, though I would have expressed it in way stronger words. Your objectivity makes it a very good read. Thanks!

hee²sheep said...

i think that your article is very well written! =D but can u enlighten me on why you deliberately set out a difference between "low-income households" and "non-grad parents"?

mjuse said...

To hee2sheep,

because there ARE non-grad parents who are actually remarkably wealthy, although they are less common today than yesteryear. they're typically the towkay type that own and run their own business.

the overwhelming similarity among the students featured in the straits times article was their low income background, not so much the non-grad status of their parents.

Patricia said...

I simply LOVE your candid, devoid-of-self-pity narration! I'm also grateful to you for sharing, and to my daughter for recommending this as a must read.

I could identify with every point you made, as it brought memories of student days which were a serious of broke intersperced with funds (monthly allowance). Just that my wealthier friends got a bigger allowance.

Your advice to students to take up a part-time job is very sensible. Financial freedom is (literally) the freedom of movement! If you dont have $$ you have to be homebound.

Again, a big THANK YOU

Patricia said...

I simply LOVE your candid, devoid-of-self-pity narration! I'm also grateful to you for sharing, and to my daughter for recommending this as a must read.

I could identify with every point you made, as it brought memories of student days which were a serious of broke intersperced with funds (monthly allowance). Just that my wealthier friends got a bigger allowance.

Your advice to students to take up a part-time job is very sensible. Financial freedom is (literally) the freedom of movement! If you dont have $$ you have to be homebound.

Again, a big THANK YOU

Life In Technicolor. said...

hi,

i chanced upon this and it is beautifully written. i graduate from uni in a month, and im one of the "better off" kids you described. still, know that i relate to many of your opinions, especially when it comes to knowing people who look for nothing more than wot may seem quite superficial/inconsequential to others.

its not just your background that makes the difference- its what you value in life that counts. i'm definitely living proof of that. yes my car and (insert other material good) make make it better or easier, but if the material things are just that, then people should be allowed to look beyond them regardless of if they are rich or poor.