What It Was Like To Be Poor In The Ivy League

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Being an identical twin, I got used to standing out a little more than the average person as a child. An ordinary walk around the grocery store would often lead to strangers pointing at us. We looked so similar as kids that we had to wear nametags to kindergarten so our teacher could tell us apart.

On top of that, growing up in a relatively homogenous town in Minnesota as a Latinx immigrant, it was easy to feel different. But while it’s hard to think of things more isolating than growing up in poverty, one thing comes to mind: Being a poor minority student in the Ivy League. It not easy feeling like you are the only person there who didn’t come from a wealthy family. After working tirelessly throughout my childhood to get above a 4.0GPA in high school, it took a toll on my psyche to feel like I still didn’t belong.

When most people think about the typical college experience they often think of cheap meals like ramen, late nights partying, and some studying. But life on an ivy league campus isn’t your average college experience. Not even close.

But my time there wasn’t easy. The academics were the least of my worries.

I shared a bedroom with my twin brother my entire life until I left home in Minnesota at eighteen years old to attend the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. It’s part of the fabled ivy league, which includes 8 of the most prestigious universities in the world, and is widely considered as the best undergraduate business school in the world. I arrived alone with my entire life packed into a single suitcase because that was all I could afford to bring with me on the flight to the East Coast.

My high-interest savings account had a few hundred bucks from my summer job, which was somehow supposed to last me the school year. Being broke prepared me to share a bedroom and share a cramped space with a roommate, but it didn’t prepare me for anything else.

Not having enough money to cover the taxi ride to Penn, I took public transit from the airport, which dropped me off a few blocks from campus. As I walked up to the outside of my dorm, the realization that most of the other students were being dropped off by their entire family hit me like a ton of bricks to the chest. I hadn’t even been in my adopted city for more than an hour, and I already missed the warm embrace of my mom and the comforting presence of my two brothers. I was embarrassed that no one was able to come and drop me off, and I was worried my new classmates might wonder whether I was loved by my family or not, even though I knew my mom and brothers would have given anything to be there with me.

I tried to hide the tears as my roommate’s parents helped him quickly unpack and set up his half of the room before they left to go shopping for more things, while I quickly stuffed my clothes in the tall dresser designated for me. Later in the day, one of my hallmate’s parents noticed that I was alone and kindly asked if I wanted to join their family for dinner. A voice in my head was screaming at me to say yes, but I nervously said I should stay and finish settling in. The truth was I was embarrassed and didn’t want to have to answer questions about why my family wasn’t there.

Poor in the Ivy League
My dorm at UPenn freshman year.

Graduating from Penn, an Ivy League university, changed the trajectory of my life.

If it sounds like I am complaining about having gone to an Ivy League university, let me make a few things clear. No other single experience or community has more profoundly affected my life positively. It even changed my children’s trajectory as well. Going to Harvard and Penn allowed me to go from being a Latinx immigrant, raised in poverty, in a single-parent household, to earning more than 6 figures in my first job out of college. My. First. Job. Even writing that feels silly to someone who grew with a household income that bounced around the poverty line. Going to those schools opened doors to me that were never open to my parents. It opened doors that are closed to most people.

The fact that I was able to attend a university with a financial aid policy that said that students who come from families that earn less than $100,000 per year could attend for free is not lost on me. The thought that I received a degree that cost a quarter of a million dollars still gives me chills. The profound impact my college degree has made on my life has been nothing short of mind-numbing. I am one of the lucky ones. But it wasn’t all rainbows and sunshine, and I learned a few lessons about money along the way.

Poor in the ivy league
The eight universities in the Ivy League.

At first, I thought the move-in weekend was a car show.

I vividly remember wondering if the German automobile industry was sponsoring my university’s move-in weekend. The procession of proud parents entering to drop off their children for college seemed to indicate that you could only participate if you were driving a Mercedes, BMW, or Audi — cars that I was familiar with from TV. The cars were all stuffed to the brim with mini-refrigerators, televisions, bean bag chairs, and other items that I definitely could not afford. It was a far cry from the suitcase I lugged into my dorm by myself.

But it wasn’t the huge amounts of bags and gear that everyone else was hastily bringing onto campus that left a lasting impression. As I mentioned earlier, it was easily the fact that entire families were there to drop off their children at college. I couldn’t wrap my head around how my fellow freshmen from across the world were able to have their entire families there with them. Those flights alone must have cost thousands of dollars.

Throughout the semester, I met the children of celebrities, hedge fund managers, and other titans of industry. I also met other students who came from backgrounds more similar to mine, and some who came from even rougher backgrounds than I did. Broken homes, victims of abuse, and even homelessness. But meeting people that I could relate to seemed nearly impossible.

poor in the ivy league
A row of Mercedes Benz, similar to what I saw on my move-in day.

I was embarrassed and felt the need to lie about being poor…

Birthday celebrations for my friends often included trips to restaurants off-campus. But I never had the cash to spare for a meal that wasn’t included in the campus dining plan, so I always had to come up with an excuse for why I was unable to attend the birthday festivities. Being poor when surrounded by people who aren’t poor, ultimately forces you to come up with lies or excuses as to why you are too busy to join for costly outings. Mostly, out of fear that they won’t want to be friends if they know the truth. I also had a healthy dose of shame, as if it were my fault I was poor.

Seeing my hallmates go on these outings was painful, and I wondered what it’d be like to try sushi or Indian food for the first time. Spring break often involved exotic trips abroad and winter break trips to the Rockies to hit the slopes and rub elbows with the rich and famous. Something I had only ever seen in movies. But my school breaks consisted of going home to Minnesota and working to earn extra money.

Am I hoping to get your sympathy? No, because I realize that many people currently face this reality. I had a credit card (which I opened on my eighteenth birthday in order to begin to establish credit and increase my credit score) so I could always have said yes to my friends and lived beyond my non-existent means, but I was sick of being poor and wanted to do everything I could to try to change that. During that time, there wasn’t a single month where I carried a balance on my credit card.

… But I knew living beyond my means would only make things worse.

I also could have borrowed thousands of dollars in student loans to give myself more breathing room, but it never felt like a good option since I knew I’d need any money I’d make after college available in case my mom or siblings had a financial emergency. I had seen creditors harass my mom, and I could think of nothing sweeter than to one day be able to tell them to stop calling because we had already paid.

When my freshman roommate asked me why my mom never visited me at college, I told him that she just didn’t have the time to visit since she was constantly working. While that was true, since my mom really was always working around the clock, the real reason she never visited was that she just never had the money. So, instead, we were forced to speak on the phone to stay in touch.

Today, we still talk on the phone daily, a ritual from not being able to see each other in those trying early college years. This taught me that distance and financial difficulties are not good enough excuses to let relationships fall by the wayside, but rather a reminder to foster those relationships and make them even stronger. It is those relationships that will buoy you during your darkest moments. My brothers and I finally bought her a plane ticket so she could see me graduate 4 years later. It was her first vacation in over a decade.

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Even though I had something in common with all of my classmates, I only seemed to notice the ways in which I was different.

On the first day of classes, amongst all the guys wearing Sperry boat shoes and women sporting Longchamp bags and Lululemon leggings, I felt like I was the only student who didn’t have a trendy new outfit. Did I somehow miss the memo about the unofficial dress code? Surely, everyone else had coordinated their outfits. When you can’t afford those things, you become hyper-aware of everything you have, and even more aware of the things you don’t have.

Today, it’s easy for me to take a step back and realize that comparing myself to others is the fastest path to misery, but as an eighteen-year-old thrust into a foreign place with peers who seemingly had it all figured out, it was basically impossible to avoid it. I was an outsider, and I knew it. I didn’t look like them. And I definitely didn’t feel like them or sound like them. I had been poor my entire life but never felt as poor as when I was surrounded by people who seemingly never had to worry about money. I started college in 2007, the relatively early days of Facebook, so I can’t imagine what it must be like now, with Instagram being the museum of choice on which to display the rosy perfect life that no one actually has.

But then I realized everyone struggles with their own problems. Even people who seem to have it all.

While I felt like the rest of my classmates were lucky to have attended prestigious private high schools and boarding schools, I was surprised to see that they were also stressed about pending midterms, papers, and exams. Their lives weren’t as perfect or easy as I had thought. I think about the classmate who grew up in an exclusive Southern California community and would travel to and from boarding school on the family’s private jet. He confided in me that he was having a hard time adjusting to college, the last thing I’d thought we’d have in common. It was during these years that I began to realize money can’t buy happiness. Money is incredibly important and not having it can lead to misery, but it won’t solve all of your problems. I learned that lesson the hard way, but I am glad I did.

As I compared my childhood to the stories I heard from my peers of parents who were too wrapped up in their careers to give them attention, it dawned on me that the traditional definition of success might not be what I expected. It wasn’t easy losing my dad to cancer when I was only seven, and I still remember seeing all of the other dads on the sideline of the soccer field and wishing I had my dad there to cheer for me. But I will always be grateful that our mom showered us with love and attention whenever she was home with us, something that many of my classmates couldn’t say.

Obviously there were some classmates who were wealthy, had amazing families, didn’t have family issues, and were truly incredible human beings, but that wasn’t the case for the average person I met.

Poor in the ivy league
My proud mom and me on my graduation day from Wharton. Her first visit to campus.

As I got ready to graduate, I was blinded by money. And I learned I already had the most important things.

As graduation approached, I was lucky to have landed what was then my dream job of working in investment banking on Wall Street. Lured by the money, I had a general idea of what I’d be doing, but even more important to me at the time, I knew I’d be getting paid a lot. Enough to help my mom pay some of her monthly bills and still be able to save. Naively, I thought I’d be making enough to never have to worry about money again, but New York City has a funny way of making even rich people feel broke.

Now that several years have passed, I can look back and reflect on the way I struggled with the shame and embarrassment of being poor at an Ivy League university. Was the experience worth it? Definitely. I grew an incredible amount during my four years on Penn’s campus. I learned about myself, the world, my heritage, and to be proud of who I was. Would I have done anything differently? Of course, but it’s all part of my journey.

For starters, I wish I would have known that I wasn’t alone and that I’d make an incredible group of friends. A diverse group who didn’t care from where or from whom I came. They simply judged me based on my character and my actions. During my first years on campus, I wish I hadn’t been embarrassed to say I couldn’t go out to dinner because I didn’t have the money. I wish I could have had the confidence to know that I deserved to be at this elite institution like the rest of my classmates. I wish I had known that I wasn’t the only one who struggled with this “imposter syndrome”.

While I do wish I had this knowledge back then, I am proud of my experience. Whether it was luck, hard work, or a combination of both, I am proud that I was able to live within my means by budgeting and graduate with only $5,000 in student loans, a fraction of the national average, thanks to generous financial aid. I am proud that I graduated and did better academically than I could have ever imagined.

I’m proud that I was able to leverage my undergraduate degree to work on Wall Street followed by an incredible fashion start-up. I’m proud that I learned how to start investing the little money that I had while I was in college.

Going to Harvard for graduate school and getting my M.B.A. was the cherry on top. But my proudest college moment wasn’t graduating or getting my dream job. It was seeing my mom beaming with pride at my graduation – validation for the tremendous courage she had to raise three sons by herself as an immigrant. Yes, being a poor Latinx at an Ivy League university was isolating and may have felt embarrassing at times, but I now realize that I didn’t have anything to hide. With more confidence in myself and less fear about what others think, I’ll be able to make my dreams come true. And so will you.

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18 thoughts on “What It Was Like To Be Poor In The Ivy League”

  1. We loved this post and could relate to much of it. We are both first-generation college students and went to elite universities where we had experiences that felt challenging and confusing. While we didn’t grow up in poverty, we grew up working class and did not have a ton of exposure to people who came from extreme wealth until we showed up at college. We can definitely relate to the “imposter” feeling that you mentioned. Colleges need more groups and clubs dedicated to low income and first generation students! Thank you for this post!

    Reply
    • It makes us so happy to to hear that you were both also able to overcome your circumstances! We can’t agree with you more. The more we talk openly about these experiences and feelings, the easier it’ll be for the next generation to seek help and guidance instead of just internalizing and trudging through.

      Reply
  2. I have to admit, I got really emotional reading this post. I am a daughter of immigrants who grew up low/middle class, and I felt wildly out of place when I attended an Ivy for undergrad. We were lucky enough to be within driving distance, so my heart broke when I read how your mom didn’t even see your school until the day you graduated. It is amazing what parents will do for their children.

    College is a great time to be exposed to the real world and a bubble all at the same time. It sounds like you picked up some very valuable lessons that will carry forward.

    Reply
    • Thank you for not only taking the time to read and comment, but also sharing a bit of your story. It means a lot to hear from someone who can relate to that experience.

      Reply
  3. Loved the story Camilo,

    Though I would have to say you were still better dressed then most Apollo people lol.

    Thanks for the continued education on these topics.

    Reply
    • Oh man, you’d be surprised at the things people would do to try to fit in. Buying clothes is the tip of the iceberg.

      Reply
  4. hi,
    Great write up.
    I wasn’t privileged to attend an ivy league but the situation is much the same with my university in Nigeria. There are countless occasion whereby all my thinking and focus was finding ways to fit in.
    back in 2008, students were driving cares worth $40,000 and i can barely pay my tuition.
    Anyway thanks for sharing you experience and life lesson.
    Thumb Up?
    Simon Abolaji – Moneypedals

    Reply
  5. Wow, Camilo. What an eye-opening account of your experiences in the Ivy League. I didn’t go to an Ivy League school, but I went to a ‘prestigious’ private university and I totally see where you’re coming from when you talk about the silent divide between the rich and the not rich. I’m impressed with your grit and I’m sure your family was SO proud to see you walking across that stage!

    Reply
  6. Wow. Great story and wonderful experience.

    Being surrounded by extreme wealth when you’re of much more modest means can be a painful and embarrassing experience – but it gives lessons, values, and empathy for others that wealthier people may never learn. I’m struggling to reconcile my desire to save my kids from this experience with the fact that it was one of the more powerful development events of my life.

    Thanks for sharing and best of luck on the rest of your journey.

    Reply
    • Thanks so much, Paul! And 100% agreed on reconciling having our own kids be sheltered from those experiences while missing out on extremely valuable lessons on fundamental values and empathy.

      Reply
  7. In the view of F Scott Fitzgerald ” The very rich are different from the rest ” They have an inner sence of self importance and annointed entitled position in the human scheme that sets them aside from the common rabble . Appearing at these annointed ethereal institutions clothed as someone from the lower elements of society should alarm one to the fact that they are out of place ignorant of their assigned role and place in the design of society which allots the “better” their proper seat.in a word “know your place” and dont put on affectations of grandeur before your betters. Humility is the way.

    Reply
    • Yes, humility is so important! One day when Jeff Bezos is on his death bed – in spite of all of his wealth – he will want the same thing we all do, to feel loved.

      Reply

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