“The Poor Kids’ Table”: Organizing Around an Invisible and Stigmatized Identity in Flux

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Abstract

Research has demonstrated that the low-income, first-generation, and/or working-class (LIFGWC) student experience of higher education can be alienating and isolating. Because social class status is not often visible, LIFGWC students, who are the minority on 4-year college campuses, may have difficulty finding others with whom they share similar experiences and, therefore, be less likely to integrate socially. In order to alleviate the pain and discomfort of the LIFGWC experience in higher education, students have worked to start groups for LIFGWC students on college campuses across the United States. In this study we use ethnographic methods to better understand the formation and maintenance of one such group at a small, selective liberal arts college in the Northeast. Through the inductive analysis of interviews with 16 students affiliated with the group, we identify two central themes. First, the invisible, individualist, and fluid nature of social class identity made for a unique challenge in organizing and recruiting members for the group. Second, the group leaders’ decision to engage in awareness-raising activities was met with hesitancy by some members. Students differed in their availability or level of comfort to engage in social class based activism on campus and in their existing ties to the campus community, both of which shaped their further involvement in the group. We conclude by outlining policy implications and future research directions informed by our findings.

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