I grew up in Orono, Maine. To anybody who’s actually from Maine and has knowledge of the local geography, Orono is in central Maine. That’s the truth. However, I still tell fellow Bowdoin students that I’m from “northern Maine” because people from the West Coast typically think that anywhere north of Augusta is just an outcropping of moose and deer-filled wilderness.
Anyway, my point about Orono is that it’s drastically different from the “Bowdoin bubble”—in almost every way. The town is just as whitewashed, but the dominating demographic is not liberal, wealthy, prep-school-educated young people.
The median household income in Orono is just under $50,000 per year. While some adults are employed as professors at the local university or teachers at the schools, most of them work blue-collar jobs at the paper mill in the neighboring town or for one of the numerous construction companies in the area. Since I had two college-educated and well-employed parents who were willing to sparingly support me financially until I became old enough to get a job, I always felt that my family’s financial position in Orono was well above the 50th percentile line. I was grateful, but ignorant. My perception of my own wealth was skewed by the comparatively low financial prosperity of northern Maine.
However, sadly, it’s even more skewed now. I’m now in the Bowdoin bubble. When I arrived on campus for the first time just over a year ago, I was shocked at how many of my peers casually discussed their lavish lifestyles and exotic summer experiences.
They went to Aruba. They went to Martinique. They went scuba diving off the Caribbean Islands, sunbathed on the white sand beaches in Hawaii, backpacked for weeks in Switzerland and roamed the streets of Paris. You get the point. To top it all off, they did all of these things during a global pandemic.
I had seen the photos on their Instagram accounts before coming to Bowdoin (and I still see them all the time). I heard the words coming out of their mouths as they told their stories. I knew Bowdoin was an institution with a culture of wealth, so I tried to prepare myself, but I still didn’t know how to respond to what I was experiencing.
I was silent. I didn’t want to talk about my summers and my comparatively bland life. I didn’t want to explain how I had worked 40 hours a week since I was 16 years old. I didn’t want to explain how I had never traveled outside of the United States or been to the West Coast. I didn’t want to explain how, following my parents’ divorce, my mother had started bouncing checks at the grocery store, and my father had sold the majority of his prized possessions and refused to pay for necessary car repairs to save money to pay for my college education. I didn’t want to explain how I didn’t feel fancy or cultured because I rarely went out to eat; I wasn’t accustomed to folding my napkin in my lap or arranging my silverware in any arbitrary, oddly specific way or putting on a tie.
As I spent more time at Bowdoin, things changed. It got better, but it also got worse. Just when I felt like I had finally fit in, someone would off-handedly mention their parents paid full tuition (roughly $77,000 per year) or they had chosen to attend Bowdoin because one of their multiple summer homes was located on the coast of Maine. It wasn’t even the fact that they said these things. It was how casually they said them without recognizing their privilege at all.
However, I don’t want to be a hypocrite. Just because Bowdoin has skewed my perception of wealth doesn’t mean I’m incapable of recognizing my privilege, too. Trust me, I am capable. I know that I am still privileged. My mother and father are both financially stable and worked hard to take care of me. However, I also know I’m not the only person here who feels out of place because he doesn’t pay full tuition or take exotic annual vacations. Over time, I’ve had my perception of wealth altered and even shattered, but I’m certainly not trying to falsely claim a lower-class identity.
Bowdoin is not northern Maine, and I’m still growing accustomed to that.
Tucker Ellis is a member of the Class of 2024.