Karra Shimabukuro/Omar Bustamante for Fusion

Taking on grad school is a daunting prospect for anyone, but especially for low-income students who have to contend with severe financial pressures and the burden of sometimes being made to feel like outsiders at elite institutions.


While schools and media outlets have begun to acknowledge the particular challenges that first-generation and low-income undergraduate students face, it's harder to find information for or about low-income grad students. People of color are more likely to be first generation students, according to studies from UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute and Georgetown University. And students of color begin to take on more loans and financial burdens from the undergraduate level, Demos, a liberal think tank, found.

Graduate degree tuition can cost anything between $20,000 for some state university programs to more than $100,000 for an MBA at places like Harvard and Dartmouth. Although more than 80% of full-time grad students (and more than 90% for PhD candidates) secure some kind of financial aid for their tuition, there are more factors to consider: housing, living costs, and academic necessities like books. But there's not much practical advice out there about what low-income students can expect from graduate school or a PhD.


One grad student who's very familiar with many of those pressures created a space where people can share their experience and spread the word that it's incredibly challenging, but not impossible, to earn a graduate degree if you're low-income. Karra Shimabukuro, a PhD candidate in English language and literature at the University of New Mexico, started a collaborative Google Doc last weekend: "How To Prep For Grad School While Poor."

She told me she was compelled to put the doc together after a Twitter conversation about academic life, #ScholarSunday, a weekly way for students and academics to develop a sense of community online.

"Being poor in grad school runs in the background all the time," she told me. "[The doc] grew out of that conversation on Twitter about all the things we didn’t know we were supposed to know in grad school, and the ways that trips us up."


Since Saturday, that tome of advice has grown to more than 40 pages in length, and though it's hard to track exactly how many people have contributed, she thinks it's likely in the hundreds. Today she moved the doc to WikiSpaces to be able to better organize all the contributions pouring in from people all over the country.

As the first in her family to finish college, Shimabukuro faced challenges throughout her academic career, from finding it hard to fit in with more well-off classmates, to at times barely having enough food to survive. The barriers only intensified as she went from undergrad to her masters degrees (she has two) to her PhD.


"It was in comments I got from professors on my writing–an assumed language or style that I just didn’t know existed," she told me. "And then I think a lot of it is in the cultural capital. I mean I don’t know anything about international travel for holidays, or spring break. I think it’s a lot of small things, interactions where you don’t get the joke, things like that. Things as simple as students who feel very comfortable talking to faculty as equals, versus me, I had to actively work at those social interactions."

People are sharing their advice about everything from getting in to grad schools and PhD programs, to how to deal with housing and hidden costs—there's even a section on "Cultural and Social Capital," addressing that sense of being outsiders:

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"Know that sometimes people with privilege act like they know what they're doing and talking about, but they actually don't know anything. Don't be afraid to admit you don't know something. Everyone has learning to do," wrote one contributor under that section.

Another PhD student who contributed to the doc, Melissa Elmes, told me she started a blog when she realized that there was a lack of resources for students navigating their academic careers. "The reason I chose to participate in this is because I am a first-generation graduate student and it was extremely difficult to negotiate both undergraduate and graduate school without the privilege that comes with familiarity," she said.


As the document grows, Shimabukuro says she's trying to keep up with the topics that seem to be important to people who are arriving at the document to seek or give advice. One important addition she's made to the document: mental health and self-care while working multiple jobs and trying to keep school work on track.

"I don’t want to make generalizations, but when you have that sort of lower working class background that that’s just how it is. You don’t take spring breaks, you don’t take holidays, you work full time. You just do without," she said.

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"Don't buy stuff," one passage reads, "That said, don’t deny yourself little pleasures sometimes. Get a treat when you can."


Shimabukuro added, "They talk a lot about imposter syndrome with grad school. That’s sort of exponential when you’re a poor or first-generation college student."

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Part of why a collaborative resource like this is so important, Shimabukuro told me, is that low-income students struggling with their finances sometimes find it hard to ask for help. That's because they're in an environment that already feels elitist, and where professors are sometimes not understanding of financial barriers even when it comes to constraints on study time or internship time for a student who has to work to support themselves.

"It’s really hard to look at a faculty member and say, I can’t afford to do that," she said.

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Schools and faculty members could improve the situation, she thinks, by being more aware of what their low-income students are up against, and by learning what questions to ask.


"You have to be willing to walk into peoples’ offices and say, ‘I cannot afford to do this and I need your help to know what else I can do’ or ‘I need help with this’ or ‘You need to understand that I don’t know how I’m going to pay rent next month,’" she said. "I think there are lots of people and even institutionally there are some systems that are there to help you. But you have to be your own advocate in seeking those answers and speaking up for yourself."

If that support is still hard to find, she said, turning to Twitter and resources like the document she's created can help. "Social media, especially academic Twitter, is great for this. That helps fill the gaps if you feel you don’t have on-site institutional support."

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