March 13, 2020

Re: COVID-19 and poverty-class students

Dear Canadian University Leaders:

I write to you with fingertips quivering over the keyboard. I do not want to further expose myself to ridicule and shame. Yet, I must publicly come out of the social underclass closet because this situation is far more important than my shamed self. As universities grapple with containing the COVID-19 (corona virus), there is something crucial missing from the conversation. That is, how this pandemic is impacting students from poverty.

First, I will provide crucial context. The storyteller Okri (1989) speaks to, what I make visible, the dominant colonial social class narratives planted in us and which need to be problematized:

In a fractured age, when cynicism is god, here is a possible heresy: we live by stories, we also live in them. One way or another we are living the stories planted in us early or along the way, or we are also living the stories we planted—knowingly or unknowingly—in ourselves. We live stories that either give our lives meaning or negate it with meaninglessness. If we change the stories we live by, quite possibly we can change our lives. (p. 46)

            This is central to the urgent conversation that I ask you to engage in. Specifically, how might dominant social class narratives (e.g., bootstrap, rags-to-riches, and the (un)deserving poor dogmas) shape your understandings of poverty and poverty-class students? Second, we must consider that social class continues to be excluded in equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) policies and practices. This includes Universities Canada, who your university may be a member of, that continues to fail to add social class to their EDI lens. There are historical reasons for this. Simply put, Canadian universities were not founded to address systemic social stratification and inequality. Third, poverty-based discrimination continues to be legislated in Canada. Finally, there are not a lot of us. Actually, no one knows the statistics because universities do not track this information. But, we are in university. Even under normal circumstances, it is not an easy landscape for us to navigate. Now, things are extremely complicated by the impacts of this virus.

You may very well tell us to do the following, which I will address and debunk:

  1. Just go to the foodbank:You might be surprised who uses the foodbank and how it is used. This charity model is not helpful. You might be further surprised at the generosity of spirit of poverty-class students. There is a tendency to worry about others before ourselves.
  2. Financial aid:Most students from poverty who I have met and interviewed have had horrific experiences trying to access emergency funding. And, it takes time and proof of need. Students are consistently shamed. They are told to go the bank and take out short-term loans that they cannot possibly repay in the fixed term contract.
  3. Money management:The literature is clear in espousing the belief that we do not know how to manage money. Actually, we would not survive if we did not know how to manage money. Further, this blames the individual without understanding that poverty is a failing of our colonial society.
  4. If you struggle maybe you shouldn’t be here: This idea stems from the hard truth that Canada was colonized based on classism. And, who deserves to be in higher education and in particular taxpayer-funded universities.

Imagine poverty-class students who are losing their jobs. Imagine single mothers who cannot access alternative childcare. Imagine students who may very well find themselves not being able to pay rent, utilities, tuition fees—and, buy medication—or purchase food. Imagine how these students experience these stresses. Imagine how this moment in time echoes across a lifetime. Imagine how not being able to pay your electric bill can be the tipping point for being pushed out of university and the erasure of dreams.

I do not purport to have some magical answers. All I can offer is a few things to consider, which do not require drawn out committee debates. These are simply in-the-meantime ideas that can, quite possibly, positively shape a life in the making.

  1. Stop the registrar from sending out tuition fee overdue notices immediately. Communicate to students that they will not be deregistered from their courses because they are unable to pay their tuition fees. No university will go bankrupt because a few poverty-class students cannot pay their tuition fees.
  2. Provide a point-of-contact for poverty-class students whose lives are shaped by poverty. Please do not assign this crucial role to someone with no understanding of how poverty shapes lives.
  3. Look at Amarillo College in Texas (https://www.chronicle.com/interactives/20190403-amarillo). They are an exemplar of supporting poverty-class students. They understand that not being able to pay a utility bill was causing students to give up and quit school. They provide immediate support to pay these bills. Contact the utility companies; make arrangements to support these students.
  4. Open your university 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Although there are no statistics available to the number of students who are living precariously (e.g., couch surfing) or who are homeless, this is an escalating problem.
  5. Arrange with your university’s pharmacy to ensure that students are able to get their medications.
  6. Consider that students too often have to make difficult decisions between buying food and medication or printing their papers at school.
  7. Centre this conversation. Yes, social class is a messy business. Lean into the messiness.

I draw on King (2003) to round out this, what I hope will be, our immediate and long-term conversations. King writes that this is simply a story drawn from personal experience and research. They say, “You can have [this story] if you want…. Do with it what you will. I’d just as soon forget it, or, at least, not mention my name if you tell it to friends. Just don’t say in the years to come that you would have lived your life differently if only you had heard this story. You’ve heard it now” (p. 167). I’ve told you part of the story.

Most warmest regards,

Elaine Laberge

Vanier scholar (2018-2021)

Doctoral Candidate (Sociology of Higher Education)
University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

King, T. (2003). The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative. House of Anansi Press Inc.

Okri, B. (1989). A Way of Being Free. Phoenix House.