I grew up as an Asian American in a predominantly white and affluent suburb of Chicago, where things were safe and peaceful. Although I went to public school, it was in a well funded and resourced school district with a plethora of wealthy students and families. Everyone I knew lived in a nice house, got a car when they turned sixteen, and always had the latest iPhone. To me, everyone lived like this–in a safe neighborhood with all their basic needs such as food and shelter obviously met. If that wasn’t the case, it felt like they were probably the anomaly, not the norm.
But I wasn’t completely sheltered from my peers’ experiences in other towns. Growing up, I was involved in a youth orchestra that was based in downtown Chicago. From the orchestra, I met people from all over the greater Chicagoland area and Illinois, learning more about different people’s backgrounds and communities. Because the youth orchestra heavily emphasized community outreach and expanding music education to those who may not have had access to it, the experience forced me to see beyond my little bubble in my affluent, suburban town. But still, my orchestra was a group of incredibly talented musicians, meaning that most kids had access to the resources for music education which can be quite expensive.
After high school, I attended a private university for the first time in my life, and there was a whole other world of wealth that was incredibly different from what I had known. Suddenly, the affluent town that I had grown up in seemed average, and the high school we had taken pride in was treated as irrelevant for not being a private feeder school. Students who came from even less fortunate backgrounds did not often talk about their upbringing in fear of being looked down upon and not fitting in. And yet, I felt fortunate to even be at the school, but I felt overworked, as did my classmates. Everyone’s mental health was declining because of the stress and competitive nature of our university. We grumbled that the mental health services at our school were so overbooked that they were essentially inaccessible.
In the summer of 2022, I began my internship at YI. Although I always had the opportunity to take time to reflect on communities unlike my own, I never truly took advantage of them because it was more comfortable to stay in my own bubble. YI motivated me to engage with the communities around me that are different from mine and learn more about them. During my first week at YI, we had an event called Pizza & Policy, where we literally ate pizza and talked about policies with young adults ages 18-34 from the Chicagoland area. Topics ranged from higher education to health care, and people from various backgrounds and walks of life came to share their perspective on what improvements could be made to our current practices in Illinois.
During the discussion on higher education, people shared their perspectives on what higher education institutions were lacking or what changes needed to be made. It was here that I realized the things that my peers and I at my university grumbled about were services we had been taking for granted and that were too often missing at other colleges. We were too comfortable with what we had and failed to recognize our place of privilege. Hearing firsthand about the challenges and difficulties of trying to finish college or find work without a college degree was eye-opening, as most people from my hometown easily attended college right after high school. I had never fully grasped how inequitable society truly is. It was only here that I gained perspective on how deeply broken our current structure is and the need for changes.
One of my bigger projects during my internship was writing a white paper regarding the need for colleges and universities to help students meet their basic needs; such as housing and food through a Basic Needs/Benefits Navigator Office. In June 2022, Governor J.B. Pritzker signed a bill into law requiring public colleges and universities to establish such a position or office. The Basic Needs/Benefits Navigator Office is designed to be a single stop for helping students sign up for public benefits and get connected to additional community and campus resources. Researching about this topic made me much more aware of the systemic difficulties many other students face daily. Everyone around me at my university is worried about maintaining their GPAs, internship applications, or leadership positions to make sure they would get a good job upon graduation– something I now recognize is only possible when someone’s basic needs are already met.
Solutions for a lack of supports for students to be fed, clothed, and sheltered are never easy to come up with, and for me, it has been easy to detach myself from problem areas because I was not impacted. That’s why YI encouraged me to step up, learn, and be involved in my own communities. Everyone has the power to advocate for change, but it is often overlooked because people think it’s not possible. But we can meet with legislators, support organizations working with specific populations in need, or even be an ally in the classroom. It’s up to us to change how students are supported at all schools.
Grace Kim is a fourth-year university student majoring in Law, Letters, and Society with a minor in Music. She hopes to go to law school in the future and continue advocating for changes in higher education.