Why Poor College Kids Like Us Need to Start Asking for the Help We Need

Growing up, my parents embedded the ideology that I should be happy and grateful for what I have. My mother would say, “Aunque seamos pobres, tenemos un techo, ropa, y comida. Eso es suficiente.” [pullquote position=“right”]Even if we are poor, we have a roof, clothes and food. That suffices. I cherished this ideology because it was true—I had everything I needed and shouldn’t ask for more. Every Christmas when my family didn’t have gifts under the tree, my mother’s words made me feel better about our situation. When we had to eat the same thing for a whole week, I understood the significance of at least having something to eat. This was the ideology that made me appreciate the small, cramped apartments that I have lived in for most of my life. However, this ideology, although I used it throughout my whole life, was one that made college harder for me. I was conditioned not to ask for more. I sat in classes where at times I didn’t understand what the instructor was saying. I could have raised my hand and asked for clarification, but I didn’t. I felt that they had probably explained it clearly and that I was just asking for too much by having them explain to me a problem. Therefore, after class I would do my own research and read my textbooks to try to find explanations for problems done in class. There were times when I would go to tutoring and sit in silence for the majority of the time while the same kids asked questions to the tutor. There were times when my instructor would give me unclear feedback on my essay, but I didn’t want to ask for clarification because I thought that the feedback they gave me should suffice. There were times when I had my work pile up and wanted extensions to be able to put my best effort into assignments, yet didn’t ask for them because I felt that the deadlines given to me were early enough for me to start my work. The number of students at Stanford that come from families belonging to the bottom fifth of the economic spectrum is only 4 percent of the student body. And I belong to that 4 percent. With this in mind, I was always surrounded by students that knew how to ask. They asked for clarification, they asked for extensions, and they just knew how to ask for more. The way they asked and the agency they possessed exemplified how natural this was for them. Maybe they came from resourceful backgrounds or attended resourceful schools that allowed them to ask for more? Here I was, nearly halfway through my first year of college, and I couldn’t even bring myself to ask for more. From my perspective, poverty has conditioned me to value the things I was given and not ask for more. And that socioeconomic situation has shaped the interactions I have with my instructors. My hesitance to speak and my lack of agency is a direct perpetuation of the working conditions of my parents and the socioeconomic situation my family faces. And I’m not alone. Studies show that students from lower-income backgrounds are less likely to ask for help in the classroom. This is an important topic that is often ignored, yet is a challenge that poor students must face. I finally asked my professor for an extension on my research essay. The experience was nerve-racking—I was afraid that my professor would see me differently or that he would simply say no. I drafted the email around five times, each time creating a scenario of how my professor would respond. I eventually sent it. And guess what, I got the extension. It was even longer than the one I actually needed. I submitted my final paper and earned an A on it because the extension allowed me to put in extra effort and thought into my essay. The lesson I learned from this is that sometimes asking for more can help your situation and lead to better outcomes. Although my parents had good intentions, that ideology I was raised with can’t always be used. I realize now I will only stay behind if I simply settle for what I have. I am still trying to learn to seek and ask for more, not because I am greedy, but because by asking for more I will be able to get the adequate resources and opportunities that will allow me to succeed in the environment that I currently exist in.
An original version of this post appeared on LaComadre as Being a Poor College Student and Asking For More.
Guillermo Camarillo
Guillermo Camarillo is a Chicago native currently studying at Stanford University, class of 2020. His intended major is in engineering, but he is still not sure what specific type of engineering he wants to study. He was born and raised in Chicago’s West Side neighborhood, La Villita. Guillermo identifies as a first-generation, Latino, low-income student. His true passions are in STEM, advocacy ...

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