As a high school student, Helen Cunningham ’21 knew she wanted a specific type of college environment — a place where her intellectually curious mind would be especially challenged, and where she could engage in new personal and academic experiences. Cunningham’s father had long steered her toward the public university near her hometown of Portland, Maine, which was his own alma mater. It carried a much lower sticker price than the more selective private universities Cunningham had her eyes, and her heart, set on.

Like many high school students across the country, though, she worried about the cost of such a dream education. Money had been especially tight for her family since 2008, when her father lost his factory job, and her family’s income level hovers near the poverty line. Though her father has since found work by starting his own lawn care company, it’s “just him and a lawn mower,” said Cunningham, a political science major. Her mother works sporadically as a substitute educational technician in special education classes. Medical expenses for Cunningham further complicated her financial situation.

But Cunningham was determined to find a school that could match both her ambition and her pocketbook. She ultimately submitted applications to 20 nationally ranked colleges and universities, including Kenyon, to which she applied early decision.

Kenyon’s sticker price is an eye-popping figure to many families. Cunningham concedes that if not for a generous financial aid package, she would not have been able to attend. Yet each year, around 40 to 45 percent of Kenyon families do not qualify for financial aid and pay the sticker price outright. They can largely afford to do so; as a 2017 study published in the New York Times highlighted, 75 percent of Kenyon families land in the top 20 percent of the nation’s income distribution. Forty-eight percent of Kenyon families are included in the top 5 percent. Just 1.7 percent hail from the bottom quintile of the income distribution.

This lack of socioeconomic diversity can be felt in all aspects of campus life, from the method students use to arrive on campus — whether private plane or a well-loved beater — to an average Saturday night, when some students quietly inform their friends that, no, they cannot afford to splurge on that post- party pizza their friends want to order. It affects the academic experience as well; as Kenyon President Sean Decatur noted, “Families want an educational environment that is enriched with all of the strength that comes with diversity, including socioeconomic diversity.” Studies show that a diverse learning environment produces better thinkers and collaborators and helps students build their ability to empathize and engage with those from different backgrounds.

Lower-income students who do attend Kenyon succeed here. The graduation rate for all students is notably high, and for students eligible for federal Pell grants, the graduation rate sometimes even ticks higher. Yet the academic program and student services that support the Kenyon experience come at a cost, and Kenyon’s budget largely depends on students who can afford to pay the full freight of tuition. Bringing more lower-income students to campus cannot easily be done without jeopardizing the financial future of the institution, absent a significant positive shock to its endowment. What will be required to substantially boost socioeconomic diversity and inclusion at Kenyon — and why will moving this needle be a challenge?

In April 1983, students grabbing copies of the Kenyon Collegian read a blunt front-page headline: “Student fees for 1983-84 will exceed $10,000.” Sam Lord, then the vice president for finance, noted the significance of the figure, remarking that the administration “was aware that the level is getting high.”

Thirty-five years later, conversations of high tuition rates still abound, both at Kenyon and nationally. Tuition and fees for the 2018-19 school year cost $55,930. Throw in room and board, and the total bill adds up to approximately $68,440. “It can feel a bit like ‘Groundhog Day’ in that folks have been having conversations about high tuition rates for a very long time,” Decatur said.

“But I do think there’s something different and more urgent about the conversation this time, and it’s closely related to broader socioeconomic inequality across all aspects of the U.S.,” he added. Both income and wealth inequality have steadily increased since the 1970s, even as average tuition continued its rise. The wealth of middle- and lower-income families was particularly damaged by the Great Recession. According to the Pew Research Center, the median U.S. household wealth fell from $139,700 to $97,300 (2016 dollars) between the start of the recession in 2007 and 2016.

Kenyon’s Board of Trustees and senior staff members all agree that slowing down the rate of tuition increase is a priority, said Vice President of Finance Todd Burson. But because tuition makes up 80 percent of Kenyon’s revenue, the College is heavily dependent on tuition dollars to pay for the expenses tied to providing a high-quality education to its students. Initiatives such as the ones outlined in the Kenyon 2020 strategic plan call for ensuring that an academically excellent and diverse student body is well-equipped for success both at Kenyon and in post-graduate careers. This is done by connecting students’ rigorous classroom experiences with opportunities to apply their learning outside the classroom. This requires funding — to support the Career Development Office as it guides students through internships; to strengthen the Center for Global Engagement and the Office for Community Partnerships, as they help students engage in experiences beyond Gambier; to enhance resources for faculty to develop innovative pedagogies and research experiences for all students. Maintaining the quality of this academic program, Burson said, is integral to the College’s financial stability and success. 

Still, the sticker shock can be jarring, and a turnoff for many families. Scout Crowell ’20, a first-generation student from Ortonville, Michigan, remembers researching colleges with her parents and being dismayed by tuition prices. But after doing the math, they determined that Crowell would receive enough financial aid from Kenyon to make her education here possible.

Colleges with sizeable endowments can afford to be less reliant on tuition increases to support their funding priorities and make up the difference in budget gaps. Kenyon has had a balanced budget for the past 48 years, but its comparatively small endowment means it has accomplished this, after first controlling its expenses, mainly by raising tuition rates.

Explaining the Endowment

In an endowment, a donor contributes money to be invested so that the earnings from the investment can be used to support the mission of an organization. Different types of funds include permanently restricted endowment funds, where a donor has restricted the money for the endowment, and board-designated endowment funds or quasi-endowed funds, which hold unrestricted endowment funds placed there by the Board of Trustees. Kenyon typically pays out around 4.5 percent of the endowment’s market value to support the operating budget and various other programs. 

Prior to July 1, 2018, Kenyon maintained two separate investment pools: an endowment fund and an unrestricted reserve fund. Effective June 30, 2018, the unrestricted reserve fund was combined with the endowment fund. For comparison purposes, this chart reflects the combined total of the funds.

The expenses in the budget aren’t all electricity bills and equipment for science labs; financial aid costs accounted for 24 percent of Kenyon’s budgeted expenses last year. While other expenses have stayed fairly constant over the past few decades, Burson said, this cost has increased from 18 percent of the 1993–94 budget.

The total expense of financial aid varies depending on the financial need of the student body as well as the amount of merit aid granted to students. These expenses are reflected in the College’s discount rate, which represents the share of tuition revenue that is funneled back into institutional grant aid for students. A study by the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO) found that in 2017–18, the average discount rate for all undergraduates reached 44.8 percent; in comparison, Kenyon’s discount rate for its current student body lands around 36 percent.

“It is expected that future students will require more financial aid to afford a Kenyon education, so other revenue sources will need to be part of the solution,” Burson said.

Endowment revenue can help offset financial aid expenses (and, in turn, prevent higher tuition increases). Twelve percent of the financial aid budget currently is supported by the endowment, and the College aims to increase this to 20 percent through a comprehensive campaign, which launched publicly this fall. To accomplish this, the campaign will need to raise at least $100 million for endowed scholarship funds.

The size of Kenyon’s endowment and financial aid budget mean the College must, for the foreseeable future, remain need-aware when considering applications, factoring in a student’s ability to pay tuition when considering whether to admit them. Institutions that are need-blind — a small group of schools that includes Amherst College, Grinnell College and Williams College — can afford to admit students without regard to their ability to pay.

Kenyon meets 100 percent of students’ demonstrated financial need, as calculated using data from an applicant’s CSS profile. This College Board-developed financial aid application is used by most private, highly selective liberal arts colleges because it provides greater detail about a family’s financial strengths and liabilities than the more common Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Approximately 42 percent of students at Kenyon receive some form of need-based aid. This intense examination of applicants’ financial need can lead to tough decisions that admissions officers must make.

“The admissions process is way more complicated than admit, deny or waitlist,” said Diane Anci, vice president of enrollment management and dean of admissions and financial aid. “Every year, prospective students who more than meet Kenyon’s academic standards are turned away because we cannot afford to cover their need, and we are missing out on this incredible talent.”

Some of the toughest students to bring to Kenyon are not the ones with the most need, but rather students from upper-middle-class backgrounds, whose families earn enough income to not qualify for any aid, yet still can’t afford the sticker price.

“That’s a group I worry about a lot,” Decatur said. “Some of the most painful conversations I have had are with alumni, some of whom came to Kenyon through financial aid, who by many measures have done well in their post-Kenyon careers, and who have jobs that are earning solidly upper-middle-class incomes. But they aren’t able to afford to send their own kids to Kenyon.”

One tool some colleges use to address this gap in affordability is merit aid, or scholarships based on ability, not need. Merit aid can be an effective tool for attracting upper-middle-class students, but it can have dangerous side effects; if too many schools use it too often, it can lead to an arms race of sorts, with schools offering more aid to students who might not always need it, leaving fewer funds available for students who need it most. Around 25 percent of Kenyon students receive merit aid for their extraordinary academic abilities and talents.

“At Kenyon, the merit program is a pure one, in that it recognizes students who are at the very top of our pool. It is not a discounting scheme here,” Anci said.

Because Kenyon meets all demonstrated financial need, students generally graduate with a lighter debt load. Forty percent of students in the Class of 2017 who started at Kenyon as first-years used some form of loan assistance — whether federal, state, institutional or private — and graduated with an average balance of $22,025. Data from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study show that in 2015–16, the average debt at graduation for a student receiving a bachelor’s degree was $30,301.

Awarding the right mix of aid to the right mix of students is a complicated process, with high stakes. Amid shifting national demographics and declining student populations in the Midwest, a key recruiting base for Kenyon, the future of the College depends on its ability to attract and yield top students from all pockets of the country. This work matters not just for the vitality of Kenyon, but also for its learning community.

For a lot of people, getting on and off campus might be annoying, but not terribly difficult. But for me, it is awful.

Tariq Thompson '21, on traveling from campus to his home in Tennessee for school breaks.

Finals season on any college campus causes jitters. Stressed-out students hunch over laptops clutching mugs of coffee — for some, lattes from Wiggin Street Coffee, and for others, regular joe from the Kenyon College Bookstore, which offers it for free during finals week. But aside from a heightened sense of anxiety over studies, the end-of-semester exams also signal an expensive time of the year for students, who must pack up and depart campus for winter or summer break.

Despite the joy of returning home to Memphis, Tennessee, and seeing his family, Tariq Thompson ’21 dreads this time of year. He tries to save money by booking flights home on off-peak travel days, but they don’t always align with his exam schedule. Even getting an affordable ride to the airport can cause a headache. Taxis and ride-sharing services to the airport are available, but they can get pricey, given Kenyon’s rural location.

“For a lot of people, getting on and off campus might be annoying, but not terribly difficult. But for me, it is awful,” said Thompson, who describes his background as lower-middle-class.

The day-to-day costs of life at Kenyon, including transportation home for school breaks and for off-campus work and play, factor prominently in concerns over cultural divides in the student body — divides that have been long present, but, like broader rising inequality across the country, are becoming more prominent.

The disparity in students’ bank accounts becomes especially noticeable at the start of each semester, when some students arrive for class with all their required textbooks neatly tucked into their backpacks, and others show up with photocopies of required readings, borrowed from friends or the library. Cunningham said she avoids classes that she knows will have expensive textbook requirements and instead opts for classes that she knows she can find cheaper books for on eBay.

Certain courses at Kenyon have fees associated with them beyond the cost of textbooks. Art classes notoriously require supplies that can quickly add up, and music lessons can carry additional fees. Some classes include travel components to places around the country — an incredible educational opportunity for students, but also one that can introduce an unexpected fee to tuition bills.

“Even in cases where Kenyon provides travel funds and housing funds, for students who are participating, there are often unanticipated costs, and it’s incumbent upon us to find ways to make these courses open to all of our students,” said Thomas Hawks, dean for academic advising and support. “If these courses only serve students who can already afford the trip, then even those students who can participate will lose out on the perspectives that come from including students from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds.”

For students with emergency needs, funds are available; the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (ODEI) offers a Student Emergency Assistance Endowed Fund, established by an anonymous donor in 2012, that can help students obtain emergency funding for travel home, unexpected medical expenses and other urgent needs. The ODEI also offers support for students struggling with academic costs; the office hosts a workshop each year about affording textbooks, and it distributes academic support funds, for which students can apply if they have exhausted their financial aid. The office even offers funds for low-income students to be able to take a free music lesson during their time at Kenyon.

“A liberal arts education is about trying new things and seeing if something that you’ve never tried before is of interest to you,” explained ODEI assistant director Jacky Neri Arias ’13.

Beyond course costs, classroom expectations can be a challenge for students from different backgrounds. Students who do not need to hold a job might have more flexibility in their schedules for night seminars or weekend field trips to Columbus than students who need to balance studies with work.

“Time management is not a bad thing to learn in college,” Neri Arias said, “but it is a huge barrier when you have one job versus having to have four jobs.”

It seems to me that wealthy and low-income students alike are uncomfortable with the pervasive, rippling power that class has in one's life.

Paola Liendo '20, an English major from Texas.

How can Kenyon increase understanding of different socioeconomic experiences? Talking about money and being open about status is important, Cunningham said. When she arrived on campus as a first-year, she struggled to find peers who could relate to her experiences.

“I was really intimidated financially and couldn’t find anyone else who felt like I did,” she said. “I’ve always worked for my money. I’ve had a summer job since I was 14.”

Crowell agreed. “Poor kids at Kenyon don’t talk to each other because it’s an invisible identity,” she said. “The problem is so invisible that people don’t think it exists.”

Neri Arias remembers how she felt as a low-income, first-generation student at Kenyon, and in her work now with the ODEI, she tries to build on her experience to raise awareness over the challenges low-income students might face in connecting with their more affluent classmates.

“Being low-income is not an identity in the same way that being a student of color is. It might be something that you actually want to hide,” Neri Arias said. “It’s not something that is super-obvious, or that you want to necessarily develop an identity or an affinity group over. For some students, it is. For me, it definitely was. But it’s something that we want to let students slowly get used to, because it does take some getting used to at a place like Kenyon.”

Some students might not even recognize they fall on the lower end of the income distribution until they arrive at Kenyon, Neri Arias added. “That can be kind of a tense moment, to recognize that as part of your identity.”

I felt like I crossed a bridge into a new world when I enrolled at Kenyon; I experienced a kind of culture shock.

Zach Sawicki '16, a political science major who grew up in Knox County.

This divide in experiences has been felt for generations at Kenyon. “I was so grateful to receive the financial aid to go to Kenyon,” remembers Anne Grevstad-Nordbrock ’91, a program administrator at Iowa State University. “But when I was there, it slowly dawned on me that there really weren’t any students working jobs on campus like I was. It always felt like everyone was really comfortable. I didn’t feel like my peers really needed to work, and if they did work, it was to advance their research or something else to enhance their education.”

Even now, Grevstad-Nordbrock added, “sometimes when I read the [Alumni] Bulletin, I feel like I just can’t relate to people who are in alumni profiles or class notes who are talking about traveling around the world, or even just sending their own kids to Kenyon.”

Programs at Kenyon help to develop a supportive community for students. During orientation, incoming first-generation students are invited to a special dinner with faculty members who themselves are first-generation or who are specifically interested in supporting first-generation students. Other efforts, such as the Kenyon Educational Enrichment Program (KEEP), the Kenyon Academic Partnership (KAP), Recognizing Each Other’s Ability to Climb the Hill (REACH) and Camp 4 help underrepresented students smoothly transition from high school to life in Gambier. By at least one important measure, these programs appear to be working: The graduation rate for Pell-eligible students regularly ranks just as high as, if not occasionally higher than, the graduation rate for all students at Kenyon — an achievement that is especially notable given that nationwide, lower-income students typically have lower graduation rates than their higher-income peers.

“It’s not just about counting the number of students here, but making sure that our students are successful over the course of their time here,” Decatur said. “Looking at the overall financial picture, though, that actually makes it harder to increase the numbers, because I don’t see a path to increasing the number of lower-income students here by compromising on the level of support we have for each student.”

Endowment support for financial aid is the single biggest fundraising priority of Kenyon’s new comprehensive campaign. This work is off to a strong start; in 2017, with the leadership of former Board of Trustees chair Barry F. Schwartz ’70 H’15, Kenyon launched the President’s Fund, aimed at raising $20 million for an endowed scholarship fund to support underrepresented low-income students. In an additional effort, an anonymous donor offered up to $2.5 million to encourage and match gifts of $250,000 to $500,000 to new or existing need-based scholarship funds.

Kenyon also joined with peer institutions to better recruit and retain students from lower-income backgrounds. In 2016, Anci announced Kenyon’s involvement in Turning the Tide, an initiative that encourages a more holistic view of application requirements, which can ease the burden on lower-income students. Additionally, in 2017, Kenyon signed onto the American Talent Initiative, a coalition of 100 institutions with high graduation rates working together to educate 50,000 additional high-achieving low-income students by 2025. For its part, Anci said, Kenyon plans to build on programs such as KAP and KEEP to help lower-income students find their paths to Gambier and succeed here.

“Academic talent isn’t limited to just the top 1 percent of families,” Decatur said. “There are an awful lot of very talented students who need financial assistance to come to Kenyon. If we’re really going to commit ourselves to being a place where academic excellence is our key criterion, then we have to do what we can to be able to make Kenyon a place for folks who are intellectually curious and really belong at Kenyon in every way except financially.”

Passing for Coastal

Toward the end of my Kenyon career, someone told me they were unsure whether I was from New York or California.

Being mistaken for a kid from a coast evoked mixed feelings in me, because, unlike most of my classmates, I actually grew up in Knox County, Ohio — just off the Hill. I was proud that I could play the part of an out-of-towner, as that’s what I’d been striving for; yet I was a little offended that they couldn’t believe I was, in fact, from Knox County. People from Knox County are not incapable of being successful at Kenyon; we just don’t always have the means, or networks of support, to get us there.

I’m the oldest of four children and a first-generation college graduate who was previously educated in an underfunded public school. Growing up, my family got by on a single-earner, lower-middle-class income. My parents eventually divorced and my mom raised us while working full-time and attending college. From my perspective, privilege meant eating dinner at the table every night and going shopping at the mall before the start of every school year. Vacation was a bike ride down to Apple Valley Lake, where I spent my summers luxuriating on my friend’s yacht (pontoon boat). I bought freedom — a junky ’98 Plymouth Neon — at age 16 with money I made from odd landscaping jobs, and drove it to my dishwashing job at the Kenyon Inn where I dreamed of one day being admitted to Kenyon.

The hard truth is that people like me don’t often get a chance at elite liberal arts educations. The barrier to entry is money, and it simply doesn’t flow through my community in quite the same way I imagine it does through the community of your average Kenyon student. I was accepted into Kenyon because the conditions were right: I worked hard, I’m stubborn and Kenyon took a chance on me. Without programs like the Kenyon Review Young Writers Workshop and KEEP, and a generous mix of scholarships and financial aid, I never would have attended this college, and I certainly would not be where I am today.

I felt like I crossed a bridge into a new world when I enrolled at Kenyon; I experienced a kind of culture shock. Money was one of my biggest stressors. The things that people around me took for granted — nice clothes, travel, connections to art and business, the ability to pursue expensive hobbies, private high school educations, padded bank accounts, unpaid internships — felt unobtainable to me.

I was a have-not in a world of haves. I felt immense pressure to assimilate to the majority, and, simultaneously, I felt the need to defend my hometown. There were nuances, mannerisms, subtleties and habits of the socioeconomically privileged that I knew didn’t belong to me. This weighed heavily on my ego and sense of self-worth. How was I to shape my identity, while always remaining Zach from Knox County, in this environment where I was hyper class-conscious and surrounded by so many strong and confident personalities?

Was I a “low-brow townie” (I can’t tell you how many times I was called a townie, usually in a derogatory sense), or a capable local student with a unique perspective? Could I embrace and defend both, while overturning the negative connotations people attached to me? These are questions the underprivileged ask in privileged environments, where the glaring differences between the two create a “fake it ’til you make it” mentality.

Although I may have looked like the male Kenyon archetype on the outside, I struggled in ways that oftentimes impacted my mental presence in the classroom. While my peers were deep in class discussion, I was spiraling in my mind, worrying about what would happen if I lost my scholarship, how I would I afford next semester’s textbooks, and how to tell my friends that I couldn’t actually afford to go on that spring break trip with them.

Navigating these waters was painful, challenging and, somehow, delightful. I slowly learned to love that which I am and am not, and to abandon my fear of being found out or judged for my status. I opened my childhood home to my Kenyon friends, and they seemed to enjoy it. My perspective was unique and worth sharing.

Today I am living in Boulder, Colorado, developing commercial-scale solar projects. I found my niche in this explosive industry thanks to my liberal arts education, which I use every day. I sometimes wonder how different my path would have been had I not attended Kenyon, or had I come from a more privileged or elite background. Regardless, I’m thankful for my upbringing. Without it, I’m not sure I would be as strong an environmentalist with a deep love and care for rural life. On this side of Kenyon and Knox County, I navigate both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum with understanding and relative comfort. Most importantly, because Kenyon took a chance on me, I am equipped and energized to create meaning and contribute to the world in a positive way.

— Zach Sawicki ’16 studied political science at Kenyon.

Passed Down

I used to think that talking about class at Kenyon was funny. My friends and I would search the Kenyon directory for students we know are rich, and then Google their ZIP codes to poke fun at the lavishness of upscale neighborhoods. We would recount stories of classmates with $400 bracelets and $200 backpacks, shouting, “Can you imagine?!” We did this thinking that these students were the exception. We knew that it was invasive, but humor and solidarity were our only ways of grappling with how little wealth we had in comparison.

Then I read in the New York Times that Kenyon has more students from the top 1 percent of incomes than students from the bottom 60 percent, like me. The median Kenyon family income is $213,500 — more than five times what my mother will make in a year. Yet, other than the occasional high-end backpack or bracelet, you wouldn’t know it by looking at Kenyon students. Here, thrift store fashion is all the rage, and affluent students slip into vintage wear seemingly unburdened by the weight of economic disparity. The vast majority of Kenyon students can take off their ripped jeans and thrift store T-shirts when winter rolls around in favor of name-brand boots and coats — and, admittedly, this performative poverty makes me more bitter than the cold ever could.

In recent months, my friends and I have shouted even louder when people compare living in McBride to living in “the ghetto,” or claim that we get to be here because they pay full tuition, or glumly admit that they just “might never understand middle America.” We wonder how people can complain about the taste of Peirce food so often. There were days growing up when there was literally nothing to eat in my house, but a friend argued to me that Peirce should have meal plans so that more desirable food is made in an attempt to get students to spend money. He seemed to forget that if that happened, my friends and I would probably go hungry. He devalued how wonderful it is to have so many meal options available every day.

This is perhaps one of the biggest difficulties in bridging class divides at Kenyon — it seems to me that wealthy and low-income students alike are uncomfortable with the pervasive, rippling power that class has in one’s life. Class underscores every conversation, every assumption and every understanding that we have of one another, even if we’d rather it didn’t.

It’s hard to hear these flippant remarks when you’re the person in class who never has had the money to go out of the country. It’s hard to be the person who has to work two jobs on top of schoolwork, the person who photocopies entire books from classmates because they can’t afford them, the person who falls behind in class because their poorly funded public schools did not prepare them for a Kenyon education. It’s hard to be the person who can’t afford to simply go home and see family during breaks.

However, existing at Kenyon is more liberating than disheartening most of the time, so I can’t help but feel ungrateful when I ask for a better, less class-defined experience from Kenyon. That’s part of what makes it so difficult for me to talk about money at Kenyon. It is easy to scoff at rich acquaintances. My family is struggling to keep me here, and I worry about money all the time. I dread spring semester because my mom cannot help me fill out financial aid forms, since she still has trouble with her English.

But I’m also here. I’m worried about not having a nice winter coat at a private college while people from home worry about their next meal, or paying rent, or fixing the air conditioning in 100-degree weather. I’m networking. I get to learn in engaging, well-resourced classrooms.

Each day, I have to channel the essence of my Goodwill clothing — a little worn down, a little thrifty, but full of character and stained with grit — to make it through my time here. But I must also acknowledge those clothes came from somewhere. The privilege of wearing those clothes at Kenyon was passed down to me both from people I do and do not know. I recognize it. I cherish it. I honor it. Do my classmates as well?

— Paola Liendo ’20 is an English major from Texas who spends all of her time reading poetry and loving her friends.

Our Path, Too

The gravel on Middle Path will destroy your shoes. That is, if you’re like me and buy the $10 knockoff Converse from Walmart. Over time, holes will accumulate in the soles of your shoes, pebbles will pierce the bottoms of your feet, and you will walk into class one day with wet and blistered skin, worrying if gangrene is still a thing.

During my first semester at Kenyon, it took me a few weeks to realize that not everyone had shoes full of holes. Not everyone spent summers working 60-hour weeks at a fast-food restaurant to pay their tuition. Not everyone woke up early on Saturday mornings to work the opening shift at the library. In fact, I was the only one I knew who lived like this. I had never traveled abroad, bought an item of clothing that cost more than $30 or attended a concert. It seemed like everyone around me was bonding and making connections over these past shared experiences. I wanted so desperately to belong to the Kenyon community I had dreamed about in high school, but it seemed to me that I was, in every sense, an outsider.

Perhaps the most difficult part of this realization was that no one would come right out and say it to me: “We are rich and you are not, and that is why you don’t belong here.” It’s awkward to talk about how much money you have or don’t have. It’s easier to avoid discussing class differences and frame personal wealth as reflective of individual merit and effort. But silencing any discussion of class and wealth allows inequality to persist unquestioned, and refusing to acknowledge the existence of class inequality at Kenyon invalidates the experiences of low-income individuals.

I spent much of my first semester frustrated with myself for not being able to relate to travel experiences, feeling intellectually inferior to classmates who had attended private schools and constantly worried about earning enough money for a flight home over winter break. It seemed like there was this secret way of living, talking and interacting that I didn’t understand. I felt utterly isolated.

What would it be like if my classmates could walk up and down Middle Path in my shoes, following my daily trek as I ran between classes, club meetings and my two jobs? Would they lament not wearing better shoes, only to realize that these are the better shoes? Would they hide the bottoms of their feet while sitting on their friend’s dorm room floor — embarrassed of the way their soles have worn thin?

Questions like these weighed heavily on my mind throughout my Kenyon career. I felt that if the stories and experiences of low-income students on campus were widely shared, life on the Hill would be less isolating. In the “Intro to Cultural Anthropology” course I took during the fall of my first year, I designed an ethnographic research project on the experiences of other low-income students on campus. Drawing from that initial project, I developed my senior honors thesis, which examined the experiences of low-income students at Kenyon and the significance of food in our daily lives. Throughout my research process, I interviewed more than 30 low-income students, held focus groups, distributed surveys and conducted observations around campus. 

Initially, I was nervous that no one would want to talk to me, but I received more than 200 survey responses in a few days. It appeared my project had struck a nerve within the student body. Some of the students I interviewed told me I was the first low-income person they had ever met at Kenyon. Together, we lamented the isolation and shame we had felt, and found relief in admitting our shared, secret love of Taco Bell — a restaurant often described as “radioactive trash” by our classmates. I saw a piece of my own experience in each student I interviewed, but I also learned of new hardships and different ways of making oneself belong at Kenyon.

Working on this project was not only challenging academically, but personally, as well. I had to be vulnerable and listen thoughtfully as others shared the ways they have been hurt and isolated because of their class background. Listening and truly hearing others’ stories was the most crucial methodology of my work. It was not my own voice that I wanted to share with the Kenyon community, but the voices of many.

I came to Kenyon searching for a community that was promised to me in the admissions brochures. However, the idyllic hilltop community I dreamed of doesn’t exist at Kenyon. I doubt it exists anywhere. Rather than presenting me with utopia, Kenyon gave me reality. And it was only by acknowledging this reality that I understood community isn’t about peaceful coexistence. It is not predetermined or guaranteed. We make our community real through our daily actions. Community is the continual, communal desire to unite ourselves in the face of seemingly insurmountable divisions. It is the willingness to listen to others and the vulnerability to share our stories. Community does not expect perfection, but it does require effort.

— Jenna Rochelle ’18 lives in Chicago and works for the Schuler Scholar Foundation, a college access program that connects high-achieving, underrepresented high school students with selective colleges.

Born With a Plastic Spoon: Key Findings from Rochelle's Research

Jenna Rochelle’s anthropology honors thesis, “Born with a Plastic Spoon in Mouth: Food in the Experience of Low Income Students,” examined the everyday marginalization of low-income Kenyon students, particularly in their interactions with food. Rochelle said she chose to explore food because it is an everyday necessity that is laden with significant cultural meaning. What we eat, how we eat and how we talk about food reveals a great deal about our backgrounds, particularly class backgrounds. Rochelle was awarded highest honors for her research, along with the Margaret Mead Award in Anthropology, the Middle Path Partnership Award for Community Service and the Franklin Miller award.

Here are some of her key findings.

1. The majority of Kenyon students prioritize eating organic food, pay more for certain brands that they believe will be higher quality, dislike fast food and frequently complain about the food served in Peirce Dining Hall. In contrast, low-income students tend to view organic food as unnecessary, enjoy fast food and appreciate the constant supply of food at Peirce.

2. Students primarily experience marginalization with food in three categories: eating off-campus with friends, gratitude toward Peirce and conversations about previous food experiences and preferences.

3. The isolation experienced by low-income students is correlated with racial/ethnic identity, pre-collegiate experiences and overall sense of community.

4. White students were more likely to experience intense isolation and actively change their spending habits or acquire oncampus jobs to try and fit in with their peers. Students of color were more likely to actively and vocally resist mainstream food preferences and felt comfortable turning down offers to eat off-campus. While they experienced isolation, they often noted strong communities of friends from similar class or racial/ethnic backgrounds.

5. Students who participated in pre-college programs that exposed them to affluent students at a younger age, as well as a wide variety of food, were less likely to feel isolated.

6. The correlation between racial identity and experienced isolation is largely a result of the lack of institutional programming to address the needs of low-income students. White low-income students often knew no one from a similar class background and were rarely informed of the resources available to them through the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (ODEI). Students of color found community through racial/ethnic groups on campus, such as the Black Student Union or Adelante. They were also more connected to resources available through ODEI.

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