Not Rich at Leiden University: Coming Down from the Ivory Tower

Not Rich at Leiden University: Coming Down from the Ivory Tower

Many students with a lower socioeconomic status have very different experiences in higher education in comparison to their wealthier peers. How can we make Leiden University more inclusive towards students with a low income, working-class, or first-generation background?

Barriers and obstacles in higher education

When we assume that academic achievement rests solely on a student’s merit, we tend to forget the impact that class and wealth can have on higher education. For students with a low income, working-class, or first-generation background, studying involves an ardous climb up the ivory tower. In the end, we may even leave university having had fundamentally different experiences in comparison to our wealthier peers – despite following the same programme, attending the same courses and receiving the same diploma. So why don’t we end up with the same education as our peers?

Without some sort of financial aid in the form of grants and loans, university is not even an option for many poorer students. This help is rarely unconditional – from interest rates for student debt, to academic conditions for continued financial support – and often adds to the pressure we already experience. Some of us are unable to get by even with this help, forcing us to work alongside our studies to afford basic necessities and study books. The time we spend working is time our peers are free to spend on studying, internships, leisure, and rest. It is not difficult to imagine how this might affect our academic performances and career aspirations. Neither do we have access to any accommodations based on our financial situations. Due to formal requirements for extenuating circumstances, we only have access to help when our financial stress manifests itself in other things, such as mental illness.

Other issues likewise stem from students’ wealth and class. A first-gen student who is unfamiliar with a university environment may not know how to interact with the university and its staff. That might mean they are less likely to get involved in university politics, or approach a professor to discuss their progress or aspirations for the future. Or they might not know who to go to with a problem. They may not even feel comfortable participating in class. When university culture is the source of the problem, it can be difficult for students to ask for and receive help.

Not Rich at LUC

Being a student with a lower socioeconomic background can also be an isolating experience socially, especially given the social taboos surrounding money (and not having it). Not Rich at LUC was born in response to these issues at Leiden University College, Leiden University’s literal ivory tower. Inspired by a similar initiative at the University of Michigan, together with two of my fellow LUC students, Hannah Gläser and Veronika Blažkova, I set out to carve out more space for students like us by setting up a network based around advice, support, and awareness. By virtue of its higher tuition fees and liberal education, LUC is often perceived as a collective of financially privileged, mostly international students who all live inside their own bubble. While this depiction is not entirely false, those of us who are first-generation or who attend LUC with financial limitations remain unseen by those both outside and inside of our community.

Not Rich is a network and a community, a place where we could share resources and stories of frustration among peers who understood us. In our first year, we succeeded in hosting support group meetings, creating a comprehensive document of (financial) resources and tips which will be handed down to each new cohort and even embedding our network into LUC’s mentoring programme. This upcoming academic year, Not Rich will continue providing support and advice to students, as well as expand its activities to the entire college by holding discussions and raising awareness on the subjects of wealth and class. Coming from a lower socioeconomic background is nothing to be ashamed of; our knowledge can enrich discussions if we are only empowered and comfortable enough to share, which requires some action on the university’s part.

As Leiden University continues to act on its commitment to diversity and inclusion, I hope to see three initial developments in relation to supporting socioeconomic diversity at the university (aside from mitigating or removing financial barriers to access). Firstly, students who experience issues stemming from their socioeconomic situation require institutional support. For example, students should not have to demonstrate increased mental strain resulting from a change in their financial situation – the latter should be enough. Secondly, we need more first-generation or low-income students on any boards or councils at the university. Even if they cannot maintain a full term, students with these backgrounds should be consulted more regularly on decision-making processes. And lastly, I ask the university – and particularly its students - to consciously reflect on the privilege and elitism contained within university culture. Maybe it is time for us all to come down from the ivory tower.

Links to:

Jip Haaglanden

Hoe zit dat | For financial and/or practical advice and support

The Meeting Point | Furnished as a living room, the Meeting Point provides support, advice and community building for both refugee students and other students who need a little extra help navigating Dutch student life, for example international students, students from the Caribbean part of the Kingdom and first-generation students.