Poverty is invisible on a college campus. But it is menacing and unrelenting in a high school only 20 minutes from Ohio State, a high school in Westerville where there is a lot of socioeconomic diversity — poor kids are highly visible. I spent a couple of hours at this high school this past Friday and left wondering how many of the poor kids will make it to college.
This one scrawny white boy was going up to other kids in the lunch line soliciting any extra money so he could buy lunch. He was unsuccessful, and I saw him go sit down and pick some food from one of his friends’ lunches. I had a flashback. I thought about high school, its unforgiving space, where the lunch tables are the most segregated areas (outside of academic tracking).
My heart broke for him, and I pulled out a five from my wallet and went up to where he was sitting. I said to him, “Hey kid, come here.” He ran over, and I said, “Why are you not eating lunch?” He replied, “I don’t have any money because I’m poor.” I gave him the money and his face lit up. It was like his birthday.
“Why are you doing this for me?” he asked. I told him, “I remember being poor in high school and being hungry and ashamed. Go get your lunch.” He bounded to the lunch line waving his $5 like it was $500, and the sustenance that the cafeteria provided was his Cameron Mitchell’s meal. I left the school that day with mixed emotions. I provided a meal for one kid, but there are so many students who need food and some other intangibles.
So how do we get that kid to college when he cannot even afford lunch? According to Postsecondary Education Opportunity, a higher education research group, in 2003, 8.6 percent of the nation’s poorest young adults earned bachelor’s degrees by age 24. That is up from 7.1 percent in 1975, but the increase is not much. Poor people are still not going to college. And it is even harder for them to complete their degree.
The bachelor’s degree has replaced the high school diploma in the path of earning wages that can support a single person or a family. The growing gap between the poor and even the middle class, let alone the wealthy, is so wide that poor kids like, the one at the high school in Westerville, become invisible.
As undergrads are counting down their swipes, and off-campus upperclassmen, graduate and professional students are budgeting to their last penny, we need to remain mindful of our privilege and access. If we are waiting for someone to tell us what to do to help, we are already wasting time.
There are a million ways to be involved to help address the needs of people who have less than enough. If you are looking for a leader, look in the mirror.