Current students shed light on their experiences of arriving at the LSE from a working class background
My class identity has been central to my time at LSE. Backhanded comments, often never said in good faith, are a daily occurance. From repeatedly explaining a “cheap” last minute holiday deal is out of the question, or that they “can’t understand how you can go to Uni without the help of your parents” can be increasingly difficult to deal with. LSE can be isolating at the best of times, but even more so when you struggle to participate or keep up. LSE was never my destiny- for the daughter of a boatyard foreman, this is a world that I still struggle to find my place in. But that will always be okay. University experience isn’t homogeneous, nor should it ever be. We are all navigating LSE differently, so if you work 20 hours a week on top of studying, its not that you have missed out, but that your experience is different.
When I first got involved in the social mobility referendum, we were asked to write a paragraph about our experiences. I wrote about how class is something that isn’t confined to a text book. I wrote that at the end of a studying in the library, most people get to put any discussions of class back on the shelf. But now, I feel like my university experience is morphed by the need to defend my background against people who have only seen class in textbooks. Sometimes, I want to shut the library book and leave class behind. Sometimes, I want to choose when I am political and when I am just me, but that choice is a luxury. This week, to me, is about having these conversations across campus, but respecting that for some these conversations aren’t simple debates.
Jessica Elms, Social Mobility and Class Officer
In starting LSE, the challenges felt like things I shouldn’t be making a fuss about. I spent a long time questioning why I looked at the reading list each week with complete dismay, climbing a mountain but every time I got to the top I had to start over again. Surely everyone felt the same, so I shouldn’t be complaining! And then there was the world of professional jobs, with titles I’d never heard of, in fields I’d never heard of. How am I supposed to know the career I want when I can’t get past this rudimentary step? Again others tell me they feel the same, so perhaps I’m just over-thinking it.
It took half of first year for me to realise that these worries, to mention a couple, aren’t an over-reaction. There’s an unexplainable chunk of knowledge missing when you come from the “non-typical” background at LSE. It’s hard to explain it to the more “typical” students, and it’s hard to rationalise it within your own mind. I can’t say what exactly it is that’s missing, as I haven’t been to the type of school and don’t have the social capital that allows for it.
All I know is I don’t have imposter syndrome because I believe in myself and there’s a reason we all got into this university – and perhaps the odds were less in our favour, but we did it nonetheless.
Karina Moxon, Second Year
The London School of Economics. ‘One could only dream’ is how I once felt. Not only was it too far-fetched of a dream but one that seemed like it will forever remain one.
I grew up in a council estate in a rough borough where stabbings and drug use was not something uncommon. Free school dinners and bursaries were a must for me to be able to go to school. My parents worked hard to ensure we never felt like we didn’t have enough. living in a 3-bedroom council flat with 6 siblings wasn’t the easiest of things.
Being an ethnic minority Muslim from a low socio-economic background is the recipe for deprivation when it comes to job prospects. I found myself applying to every ‘Minority opportunity’. I undertook underpaid internships because I just wasn’t privileged enough to be someone whose friend’s dad happened to work at a huge firm.
Working my way up was a slippery slope. With the help of two scholarships I could afford my dream to study at the London School of Economics. Because as much as they might make you feel like you need to be privileged to make it – talent, passion and will power can brew anywhere in the world, even in that council estate.
I feel a obliged to write this as I feel that everyone should be able to learn from the experiences and advice from others. This is a small part of my story, but a part that has taught me a lot nonetheless and I hope that others can learn from this too.
I come from a working-class background so to speak. But, if you really ask me I would say I come from a workless class background, as both my parents do not work. One parent does not work out of disability and the other due to the necessity to care for the other. What this can often cause is a lack of aspiration to seep into a family, as day in day out you wake up to see both parents at home doing similar things every day. What compounded this was the fact that my father and mother only did 11 and 8 years of formal education respectively back in their home country. However, I was a little different and a little luckier, as I had access to free education, free school meals and free resources to utilise in secondary school, although only 39% of exam entries received a Grade C or higher. But then again, I think I got luckier and luckier as I had an interest in anything and everything. This interest allowed me to get relatively decent GCSE’s whilst extensively playing Assassin’s Creed 3 during the exam period instead of revising. In 2015 it got even better, I really hit the jackpot when I entered LAE, a recently built pilot school as part of legacy a for the Olympics, and now a winner of state school of the year. LAE was a government-funded project that has already had a lasting impact on my life and is changing the narrative for many others.
This means that overall, I got a fairly good formal education, maybe not at the level of Etonians, but good nonetheless. However, looking at it in a different way, I think I may have received the best education possible, and I say this because my education through experience has been unparalleled. I have been fortunate enough to see different sides of the social spectrum, going from a decent secondary school, to a great sixth form full of hardworking yet socially challenged individuals, to a prestigious and personally favourite university in the form of the LSE. Through this experience, I have learnt more than I could possibly express. Having come to the LSE, I increasingly feel that it is critical to isolate one’s own perspective from new perspectives, as my previously held narratives were radically challenged. This is perhaps the best way to empathise, understand and learn in the long journey we have ahead, as we become open to new ideas and concepts that we can adapt to.
I am going to end on a longish quote by a recently found role model, who said “Never get weighed down by your roots but never forget them as in the end they will support you like all roots do to trees.” I guess in a long-winded way, what I am trying to say is, try to absorb all perspectives and find out how the other half live, not just in a financial sense, as no matter which half you are, both halves are surely better than one.
Momen Sethi, LSESU BME Officer Elect
As a working class, mature student with children from a small working class town in the north of England, coming to LSE was a culture shock. Greggs was replaced by a Pret on every corner, I discovered people actually put sweet potato & goats cheese in pastry and called it a pie (it’s actually really nice by the way) and I realised that my ‘normal’ was so different to most of the people around me and for the most part this is based on income and experiences relating to class. Class is something that perhaps you don’t notice unless you’re at a disadvantage at LSE, as a working class person you feel it in every aspect of university life. From the freshers week parties I couldn’t afford to go to leading to my spending most of my first year with few friends, to the emails from lecturers recommending you buy a course book on Amazon because its ‘only’ £60 there and the library has 3 copies for 50 students, to the department away days where you are required to pay upfront before applying for a bursary you may not even get and to the graduation balls that cost £80 to attend and require formal wear you can’t afford to buy. I often listen to other students talk about spending their summer relaxing at the second family home in Morocco, how reasonably priced their £6 super food salad was or what a good investment their Canada Goose jacket was. At the same time I’m wondering if I’ll be able to feed and entertain the kids over Easter or whether it will be another trip to the park, whether the book I need is going to be available in the library and whether I can afford to fix my broken laptop. There is always the option of a job of course, if I can get it, but outside of a job and children, where would I find time to research and write those summative assignments or exam revision?
Being working class at LSE isn’t all bad. As a working class woman you’re taught to have ambition, but not to aim too high because you’re supposed to be proud of being working class. The environment at LSE has helped me see that not only is it okay to aim high, it’s encouraged and expected. Being in London and having these expectations has allowed me to have so many experiences I would never have had at another university. If nothing else I hope that LSE’s first Class Week opens up the conversation about class and how we can mitigate the disadvantages it can bring to those at the lower end of the spectrum throughout life – just because someone was born poor doesn’t mean they deserve to stay there.
Jennifer Cutcliffe, Mature and Part-time Students Officer
My name is Banu Hammad and I entered the UK as a Kurdish asylum seeker, fleeing from the aftermath of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime. Coming from such a background of political turmoil, my parents were not as well equipped as other parents in helping me with homework and thus, from a young age, I have been inclined towards independence. Indeed, the aspiration of higher education was a very remote one for my parents and I, with LSE and Oxbridge appearing impossibilities.
Despite obstructions on my path to LSE such as frequent relocation, homelessness and a resulting unstable education, I ultimately achieved grades that rivalled my wealthier, more privileged counterparts. Freshers week came as an admitted shock to me as I realised that my fellow students were clearly from backgrounds that were diametrically different to mine. The majority of them were seemingly inclined toward the commercial pathway – a pathway that prior to LSE was not an aspiration of mine. The corporate machine that is the LSE challenged me. It brought my imposter syndrome to the fore. For a while, I had an inability to internalise my accomplishments and thus, questioned my place at the institution. It took me a year to acknowledge that my entry was well-earned and that despite my differences, I retain as much a right to call myself an LSE student as anyone else.
Banu Hammad, LSESU Social Mobility and Class Officer elect
Being working class at LSE for me means dealing daily with micro-aggressions and trying hard to rationalise it because ‘they don’t know better’. It means feeling like I don’t belong and indirectly being locked out of events and social gatherings due to heavy price-tags. It is when exclusion is so deeply embedded in the HE culture, that it manifests itself in your own course; a competitive year abroad programme in the US – for LLB students – which is supposedly based on ‘merit’… yet there is no scholarship available as students must find a way to sponsor themselves and basically fork out almost 100K.
Being working class at LSE for me is best exemplified by when your fellow students commend you for your hard-work and ‘ambition’ – people admire that I attend so many careers events, thinking I am just driven and striving to emulate me. Inspired by my hustle, they too jump on the bandwagon with full knowledge that if it doesn’t work out, their lives are “set out” for them (in their own words). My working-class struggle at LSE is coveted and deeply fetished but only I know that my motivation stems from the lack of choice, while their motivation stems from curiosity and sometimes even mockery. While most students at LSE will always have a parental safety net when money runs out, I am well aware that I don’t have the option to simply travel and explore after University. I absolutely must secure a grad job – there is no other option.
Angelica Olawepo, First Year Law
There are some issues that I currently face, as do plenty of student from my socioeconomic background, that I would have never anticipated when first enrolling at the LSE. The popular view of obtaining a place at this Uni is that it qualifies all students for many privileged breaks – in work and further education. But, there is also the ‘meritocracy’ argument of how elite institutions (like the LSE) are transformative mantles for the brightest minds of the lower-classes to inherit. I do not represent a middle-ground of either views; my stance is more informed by my experiences as an LSE student. Indeed, I could be accused of having the inferiority complex of hailing from a socioeconomically disadvantaged background, but I feel that thriving here takes more than a strong academic mindset and good grades. In my opinion, the biggest quandary facing working-class LSE students is not their potential, but the class-capital they are set without when enrolling. I do not intend to essentialise or belittle anyone’s capabilities, but more contextual provisions to mobilize working-class students and empower their academic voices should be made. Personally, I believe I would have benefited greatly from a mentor in my first year, someone from my class and ethnic or racial background to ensure the course of my intellectual development.
Laila Ali, Second Year History
As a working class student, I don’t have enough funds to live and study in London. Unfortunately I don’t receive money from my family due to my socioeconomic background, and the high cost of living in London leaves me falling short. On average, I work about 20 hours a week to make up this difference – to pay for my rent, my bills, my food and more. My university experience has been shaped by the necessity for work, and I feel worlds apart from my colleagues who don’t have this pressure and have what I see a more traditional ‘university life’. Nonetheless, I’m okay with this. I think my unique way of moving through university, whilst draining and hard-work and very often demoralising, has been an experience that will always stay with me and strengthen me in my character, motivation and career. It is bittersweet – most of my colleagues at LSE come from extremely privileged and wealthy backgrounds, which does rub me the wrong way when my whole university experience is shaped by my difference to them. However, over time I’ve realised that my experience will always be different and it doesn’t reflect a deficiency in me, and in truth it makes me more resilient, driven and is a source of pride and power.
Will Priest, Second Year PPE
I am very proud of being working class. Getting to LSE has been such a personal achievement for me. Being working class at a university like the LSE isn’t easy, it feels like the cards are never dealt in your favour. I feel like I’ve always been aware of my class background but more so at the LSE, the most prevalent example was probably when my first year Social Policy teacher asked the class “who went to a state school?” as we were discussing education policy in the UK. Three of us put our hands up and described to the class what our experiences were, I said there’s usually about 30 of you in the class and you all share 2 glue sticks.
While I have always felt working class, coming to LSE makes me look at the world through ‘class-tinted glasses’, because back home in my small Suffolk town the relative difference between classes is so minute compared to the disparity in London. I feel like if nothing else the LSE has invigorated my class identity, because we always talk about ‘social mobility’ and this idea that everyone aspires to be middle class, but in my opinion, we should be proud of where we have come from and strive to break down barriers that stop the working class achieving.
George Burgess, Second Year