The University Transition: Accessibility and the Student Journey

By: Teiah Palhetas

Edited by: Madeleine Hamilton

There is a promise that anyone with enough determination and effort can grasp the intensely desired “university experience,” but beneath the glossy brochures and the allure of campus walls lies an intricate narrative that shapes the essence of the student experience. This promise proves far from universal, as it starkly contrasts the journeys of students from privileged backgrounds with those less fortunate. These disparities, especially regarding university accessibility and living conditions, paint the defining strokes of their experiences of beginning a new chapter, different from the safety of home to the uncharted territory of a university campus, such as Queen’s University. 

The journey to higher education is rife with advantages for students born into affluence; those with money and privilege possess the luxury of choice, selecting universities that align with their aspirations. Their university experience is often enriched by comfortable on-campus residences or upscale off-campus housing, setting the stage for a life brimming with social and academic opportunities that remain elusive to many. On the contrary, those from less advantaged backgrounds may grapple with financial constraints that dictate their path. Due to these economic barriers, many are forced to live at home or sacrifice comfort for cost in off-campus housing and rentals. For them, pursuing this dream often comes at the cost of attending the school they desire. 

To illustrate the profound challenges students face, consider my journey and that of my high school classmates; I was fortunate to have the financial support to access academic resources like tutors and test preparation. These advantages increased my likelihood of gaining admission to a university like Queen’s. My friends from high school, just as intelligent and determined, faced the same dreams, but their financial situations starkly differed. As acceptance letters rolled in, so did the realization that their academic brilliance alone could not bridge the economic chasm. The cost of attending their dream school was insurmountable, forcing some to abandon their aspirations due to the strain of accessibility and financial pressures. Financial constraints relatively unburdened my journey to university; I could explore a range of universities, focusing on programs and experiences that aligned with my ambitions. All financial burdens remained manageable by my family. This imbalance highlights issues within the education system, underscoring how economic privilege and accessibility can fundamentally redefine the pedestal on which university students begin. 

The economic stratification present in the higher education landscape is, at its core, an intricate web of privileges and limitations. Economic stratification refers to the hierarchical arrangement of individuals or groups within a society based on their economic status, wealth, income, or access to resources. Scholarships, which are often considered the bridge to furthering academics for many, play a crucial role in addressing the financial disparities. However, scholarships can be a double-edged sword. While they reward academic excellence and participation in extracurricular activities, they can inadvertently create additional barriers for those already facing economic hardships. Many students without the privilege of financial security find themselves unable to dedicate the time and effort required for these extracurriculars, not due to a lack of drive or ambition but rather due to other responsibilities. These responsibilities may include part-time jobs to save up for school or other obligations that keep them away from the activities that could help them attain the so-called “university experience.” Those with privilege often have the means to afford tutors and the free time to engage in extracurricular activities, giving them an edge in the scholarship race. Thus, the very system designed to support underprivileged students can inadvertently reinforce the barriers it aims to break down, deepening the divide in pursuing academic pursuits. 

Leaving home for school, regardless of financial status, is an emotionally taxing transition; the initial weeks and months are filled with challenges, from managing finances and coordinating schedules to finding a sense of belonging in a new environment. The euphoria of newfound independence mingles with moments of homesickness, and the freedom longed for is often accompanied by academic rigour that can be overwhelming. This isolation can increase stress levels and potentially hinder academic performance, especially the social dynamics they form. For many students, the initial social connections they make are not just valuable; they are invaluable. They are the bridge that connects individuals from different backgrounds, creating a platform where financial disparities become less significant. However, for students who face financial constraints, the feeling of disparity can be a persistent challenge during these formative years. They may find themselves disadvantaged when participating in certain social activities, making it challenging to engage with their peers fully. The impact of this financial divide extends beyond social interactions and could potentially affect self-esteem, mental well-being, and even academic performance.

Queen’s University, a school consistently placing high in academic rankings, recently ranking first in Canada and third worldwide according to the 2023 Times Higher Education rankings, exemplifies these disparities; the institution offers a realm of possibilities for affluent students, from charming campus residences to a vibrant social scene including sports teams, clubs, societies and other events. However, for others, the dream of studying at Queen’s may be marred by economic realities, compelling them to stay in uncomfortable  housing situations or miss out on clubs and events because they may have to work. Though exciting, the transition is marked by challenges encompassing academic rigour, new social circles, and a profound shift in their lives. Students who stay home for their education face different challenges; balancing academics with familial responsibilities is part of their unique journey. The external pressure to excel can be overwhelming as they navigate coursework and commitments at home. These students are forced to become experts in time management and self-discipline. Still, they wrestle with missing out on the traditional university experience, including late-night discussions, residence hall camaraderie, and cultural exposure. 

Disparities in accessibility, financial burdens, and the quest for an equitable educational experience mark the journey of students moving from home to university. The divergent paths of students, defined by their socio-economic backgrounds, paint a vivid picture of the hidden complexities that underscore this transition. This narrative calls for equity, urging us to reexamine the landscape governing our pursuit of knowledge and self-discovery. As we ponder the stark differences that shape the beginning of these journeys, we must ask ourselves: is a student’s university experience predetermined by their financial standing? What steps can we take to bridge the gap and make the “university experience” truly attainable? The personal narratives and challenges call for a collective effort to create a system where every student, regardless of their financial background, can fully realize their academic and personal potential. In this time of change, let’s consider the legacy University institutions should be creating for its students. Financial equity and balance must be prioritized to ensure a brighter, more inclusive future for all students of diverse economic backgrounds.



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