Applying to graduate school as a low-income student can be a daunting task, and even once they are in a program, those from low-income backgrounds often face social-cultural isolation and economic barriers.
To educate and assist low-income students, Karra Shimabukuro, a doctoral candidate in the English Department, created a Wiki page where students can learn tips for applying to and enduring graduate school: "How to Prep for Grad School While Poor."
At the end of June, Shimabukuro began her project on Twitter by using #ScholarSunday, a hashtag where scholars could share ideas, news and contemporary scholarly works.
Shimabukuro pursued a grander vision of her idea by creating a collaborative Google Doc. Within the next few days the online document exploded with more than 100 consistent views and edits.
At first it was hard for the program to keep up.
“Google Docs crashes when you have more than 100 people editing something, and by the third day the document was 60+ pages and was crashing all day long,” Shimabukuro said.
After overloading the Google Doc servers, Robbie Fordyce, an advocate of Shimabukuro’s idea, suggested moving “How to Prep for Grad School While Poor” to a Wiki page, allowing for more traffic, collaboration and organization.
“The response has been overwhelming,” Shimabukuro said. “Originally, I just saw it as a resource for students to add to and reference. Other than that I had no goals for it. Now, I am encouraged by people, both faculty and students, who say they're sharing the Wiki to students.”
Following the surprise in popularity, Shimabukuro said she would like to see her efforts lead to constructive conversations about how social class affects students, in addition to increased awareness of the economic difficulties of many graduate students.
It has been a very personal project for Shimabukuro, who said she considers herself as someone “who has always been poor, and had to navigate this through undergrad, two master's degrees and now a Ph.D.”
Shimabukuro and other participants have acknowledged that the academic system can be challenging for low-income students, she said. Often, differences in socio-economic status leaves poor students and students of color feeling marginalized.
“Social class is one of those issues people often don't want to talk about, because it's hard. The realities are hard. Maybe it also intersects with race, and people can be very sensitive to these issues. People also don't like their privilege challenged, or to see the man behind the curtain,” Shimabukuro said.
“But it's exactly because of all of these reasons that these conversations are so vital. As a student, I want to help others. As a teacher, I think we need to work ten times harder to help and support our most marginalized students.”
Of the now 20 chapters at the Wiki site, some chapters directly try to navigate these spaces of color, class and social status, she said. For instance, one chapter entitled “Cultural and Social Capital” has tips for how students can and should navigate their graduate school careers in terms of culture and economic class.
Shimabukuro said she curates on a weekly basis many of the anonymous additions, including one who recounts the writer's experience of feeling lost at the start of her post-graduate education.
“Having come from a family where not everything was handed to me, it was not apparent to me that my program wanted me to succeed, and that meant giving me resources that I needed, but didn't know how or where to get,” the submission reads. “There are all sorts of hidden benefits you never know exist unless you ask; not having come from privilege, I had no idea I could ask. So always ask. Your computer breaks down? Ask your department. Unexpected health care costs? Ask your department.”
Shimabukuro said “How to Prep for Grad School While Poor” has a plethora of advice, tips and sentiment that will allow students to feel welcome and confident in who they are as students and peers, including the fact that coming from a poor background can actually be an advantage in some areas, as well as the concept that being an independent student doesn't always lead to being a successful one.
“I think that it's a valuable resource primarily because it lets students know they are not alone - that there are lots of people who go through the same things. We stay silent about a lot of things in higher ed - mental health, social class, the daily struggles we go through and sometimes feel we can't overcome,” she said. “So I think it's important that we stop staying silent about those things because the silence hurts people.”
Shimabukuro said the chapters devoted to navigating costs like books, housing and other hidden costs are “invaluable.”
Although there is much advice gathered to date for school costs, living costs and cultural differences, Shimabukuro said she would like to see more advice for navigating the intersections of race, class, gender and sex, as well as more information on the disabilities page.