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Challenging BC’s Blindness to Low-Income Eagles

Mexican music plays on a desktop computer, mixing with a rap song rattling out of a tiny laptop speaker. The Boston College Montserrat office makes for a chaotic yet warm vacation from the silent drizzle outside.

“Frank [Garcia-Orneles] is Mexican and I come from a Mexican background, so the ability to come in here and listen to the music that I listen to … I feel great!” says David Jasso, CSOM '20. “I feel closer to home.”

Frank Garcia-Orneles, Montserrat’s Assistant Manager, and Yvonne McBarnett, the Montserrat Manager, lead the Montserrat office in its mission to serve BC students with the highest financial need. Ms. McBarnett, known amongst her students as Ms. Smiley, says that her self-proclaimed mission is to “empower students to persist despite their adversities and challenges” and “to continue bridging the gap with a welcoming and inclusive space for students.”

In the office’s living room, Ms. Smiley greets a gaggle of students who have gathered to speak to her, and she immediately begins buzzing about, addressing their questions and requests. Jasso, one of the Montserrat student interns, steps out of the now-crowded living room and into the kitchen of the makeshift home-office, taking a seat at the hightop table.

“If it weren’t for centers like Montserrat, we would feel invisible,” he says of the low-income student population.

Immediately upon arriving at BC, Jasso ingrained himself in the Montserrat community, diving in to discover what resources were available. He also took advantage of the opportunities offered at Campus Ministry and the Thea Bowman AHANA and Intercultural Center.

For low-income students on financial aid, tuition and housing are just the beginning of a long list of taxing expenses. Jasso knew from the get-go that he would have to make connections and advocate for himself if he was going to meet the costs during his years at BC.

When Jasso’s mother was terminally ill last year, he obtained the funds through Campus Ministry to fly home to visit her. This year he hopes to receive a grant to go on a spring break service trip, or find a fully funded BC program that works with a population he’s passionate about serving. Cape Cod, he says, doesn’t interest him.

The Montserrat office routinely helps students pay for textbooks and lab equipment, as well as on-campus extras like the Gold Pass. Jasso, however,  is cognizant of the fact that funding larger experiences demands that low-income students search and compete for money—something that not all students are comfortable doing.

For fellow Montserrat intern Abigail Howes, CSOM '19, taking advantage of Montserrat services came with a prohibitive stigma at first. “It was kind of uncomfortable; I’m in this club because I don’t have money,” she recalls thinking. “It’s not the normal college experience to have to deal with that.”

Her desire to have a more conventional BC experience led Howes to a friend group that is more representative of BC’s largely affluent student body, but one that she says is incredibly accepting of her background. Nevertheless, “othering” experiences arise from time to time, like when acquaintances express shock at the fact that Howes is paying her own way through college, or when professors insinuate that students are wasting their parents’ tuition dollars when they skip class.

An “othering” moment that stands out as especially disappointing for Howes was when she came to the realization that she couldn’t afford to go abroad.

“I was supposed to go abroad in the spring to Australia. I don’t know what I was thinking,” she says.It just stinks to think that just because of [personal finances], you can’t do something that for everyone else is not even a thought.” The astonishment other students expressed when she told them of her decision didn’t ice the bruise.

Still, Howes is mindful of how fortunate she is to be on campus. For many young people nationwide, coming to college in the first place is an impossibility. In Howes' case, BC’s relative affordability for low-income students has been an unexpected blessing. “It was the cheapest option for me and that one hundred percent was the deciding factor,” she confesses. “I got lucky, and BC ended up being a place I really enjoy."

Montserrat intern Karen Zheng, CSOM '19, also recognizes the benefits and drawbacks of BC’s generosity in need-based aid. She feels fortunate to have such a substantial tuition package, compared to middle- income students paying an unaffordable full-priced tuition. Yet, the social culture at BC automatically assumes students are wealthy, and this can be isolating to students who don’t fit that narrative. Many of these students feel compelled to buy brand name clothes beyond their means, or to conceal their family’s financial situation.

“Social life here is very expensive, but I feel like coming in I knew what BC was going to be like,” says Zheng, who acknowledges the high price of fitting in on campus.

At the beginning of her freshman year, when Zheng introduced herself as a first-generation Montserrat student, she was met with silence. She attributes this to her peers not knowing how to interact with someone from a different background. In response, Zheng immersed herself in communities that reflected her identity: the Thea Bowman AHANA and Intercultural Center, Montserrat, and Learning to Learn—the BC office that serves first-generation college students.

“There is so much overlap between those communities, it’s funny,” she remarks. “Most of the AHANA community is involved in all three.”

As a Bowman advocate, Zheng is responsible for advancing the values of diversity and inclusion of all races on campus. She acknowledges that insulating herself in the low-income student population limits her contact with students of a more affluent background and thereby limits the audience her work can reach. But, the sense of belonging she finds in the low-income community outweighs the disadvantages.

“For me personally, I hang out with people I’m more comfortable with, which are low-income students,” she explains. “College for me is about being true to who I am and being authentic, and if that means being with people who are of the same socioeconomic status, then that’s what I should do.”

Like Zheng, Jasso also acknowledges that the vast majority of his friends are low-income students with a background similar to his own. For him, this eases the dialogue about what is and isn’t affordable.

“We want to have fun too—these are the four years before we go out into the world. But the conversation usually goes, we don’t have the means, so we can’t do it,” says Jasso, without a hint of tragedy in his voice.

Similarly privy to the reality that not everything is affordable, Howes jokes that when BC students’ parents come to visit, they take a sports team’s worth of people out to eat. “If my parents are coming up, I’m bringing one friend!” she says with a laugh.

Being low-income student leaders at BC does differentiate these Montserrat interns from their peers; their awareness and candidness about money exceeds that of the average student. But, Zheng hopes that if more students of comfortable means find the courage to ask their peers about their backgrounds, they will become more comfortable hearing stories and voices distinctive from their own.

“When you’re asking a question,” concludes Zheng, “that’s a chance for us to engage in conversation so we can educate each other.”

And after all, isn’t learning what we’re all here to do?

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