I didn’t know what being rich looked like until I attended New York University as an undergraduate. Everything I had ever known about the fortunate ones among us was from Forbes features and the uber-popular VH1 show, The Fabulous Life — and they typically only profiled celebrities, not private citizens who’d managed to amass considerable amounts of money. Growing up, I couldn’t fathom living a life of luxury where, instead of worrying if I had enough to pay for basic necessities, I was able to go on multiple vacations a year, dine at fancy restaurants regularly, and frequent high-end designer stores to the point where they know my name. My concept of what it was like to be a high earner was greatly limited by my lack of understanding of what it actually meant to have great wealth.
That is, until I went to NYU. For context, according to a 2017 report by the New York Times, the median family income of a student from NYU is $149,300, and 62% come from the top 20% of all families in the United States. Comparatively, my family’s collective income (just my mother and me) at the time classified us as near poverty, based on the national poverty threshold. So it would be an understatement to say my life and the lives of my peers were worlds apart. Because while so many of them relied on their parents to pay their tuition, I was dependent on scholarships to afford it.
At first, the wealth disparity didn’t faze me. Sure, a lot of my peers were able to go on lavish spring break trips while I worked long hours at our school’s main library for income, but as a black woman from a low-income household, I was already used to having to work twice as hard as my counterparts to achieve anything I wanted. “That’s just life,” I’d tell myself, but deep down, it did make me question why I couldn’t also enjoy my two weeks of vacation in a far-flung resort.
Despite not being able to enjoy certain luxuries myself, I did reap some benefits of my proximity to people who were well-off. One example, in particular, comes to mind: Back in 2012, Rihanna ended her epic 777 tour (she traveled to seven countries in seven days to promote her album Unapologetic) in New York at Webster Hall, a popular concert venue and dance club hybrid. When a friend and classmate of mine (let’s call him Sean) heard word of it from Twitter, he started texting someone (I didn’t know who at the time) while I was lounging on the couch in his dorm room. “Are you ready? I just got the okay,” he said, peering over at me mindlessly scrolling on my phone. “Ready for what?” I responded. “Rihanna, duh.”
Minutes later, we rushed over to Webster Hall. Surprisingly, both the general ticket and VIP line were packed, so we waited in the latter for what felt like forever (it was probably only five minutes, to be fair). Once we got to the front, Sean greeted the bouncer with an air of familiarity, as if they were the closest of buds. He must come here a lot, huh, I wondered. Then, he leaned in, whispered someone’s name I couldn’t make out, and we were immediately let in for free, no questions asked. Befuddled, I tapped him on the shoulder. “Wait, I don’t understand, how did you pull that off?” He smiled. “Don’t worry — have fun!” That night was (and remains) one of the best experiences of my life. Who gets to see Rihanna live at no cost? I somehow did, because of my connections. Talk about mind-blowing.
Later in the week, once the excitement wore off, I learned that Sean knew the son of the owner of Webster Hall. He was the person Sean had texted back in his room asking if he could get us both into the concert. Going to exclusive events was was normal for Sean, who came from an upper-middle-class family and tons of close friends with parents who owned buzzy establishments all around New York City. His life was nothing I had ever seen before, except in movies.
Despite his privileges, he was a pretty understanding person, never going out of his way to makes me feel inferior for not having as much as him. But on the other hand, Sean, like most of my colleagues with rich parents, lived in a bubble, far removed from the lived realities of people who had to work in order to survive, or to be able to afford to take an unpaid internship. This became apparent in one of my classes, when a classmate made a narrow-minded joke about nannies. “Come on, we all know what it’s like knowing more about your nanny than your parents,” she said to a sea of nodding heads during a conversation about having busy parents. While my mom was also always busy, it was only because she worked a lot in order to provide for us. The classmate probably didn’t mean any harm by the joke (it kind of seemed like a cry for help), but it stung nonetheless. I realized my life truly couldn’t be any more different than the lives around me.
Despite it all, if I had a choice the redo my college experience all over, I would still go to the same school. I wish, though, that NYU (and universities in general) made it a priority to have a diverse student body — and not just racial and ethnic diversity. Economic diversity is equally as important. While I learned a lot by being exposed to rich kids, I can’t say there was an equal exchange of information, as I was one of the few low-income students a lot of my peers seemed to have ever interacted with. And what a shame. We all should (at least once in our lives) be able to see how the other half lives.
Shammara is the editorial assistant at The Financial Diet. When she’s not copy-editing or writing about her financial woes, you can find her on Twitter sharing her thoughts on beauty and fashion trends and pop culture.
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