WHEN ANA BARROS first stepped into Harvard Yard as a freshman, she felt so out of place she might as well have had the words “low income” written on her forehead. A girl from Newark doesn’t belong in a place like Harvard, she thought, as she marveled at how green the elms were, how quaint the cobblestone streets. Back home, where her family lives in a modest house bought from Habitat for Humanity, there wasn’t always money for groceries, and the world seemed gray, sirens blaring at all hours. Her parents, who immigrated to the New York area from Colombia before she was born, spoke Spanish at home. It was at school that Barros learned English. A petite 5-foot-2 with high cheekbones and a head of model-worthy hair, Barros found out in an e-mail that she’d been accepted to Harvard — a full scholarship would give her the means to attend. “I knew at that moment that I’d never suffer in the way that my parents did,” she says.
She opted for a single her freshman year, because she felt self-conscious about sharing a room with someone from a more privileged background. “All you see are class markers everywhere, from the way you dress to the way you talk,” says Barros, now a junior sociology major, as she sits in a grand, high-ceilinged space off the dining room in her Harvard College dorm. During her freshman and sophomore years, Barros hesitated to speak in class because she often mispronounced words — she knew what they meant from her own reading, but she hadn’t said many aloud before, and if she had, there had been no one to correct her. Friends paired off quickly. “You’d get weeded out of friendships based on what you could afford. If someone said let’s go to the Square for dinner and see a movie, you’d move on,” she says. Barros quickly became close with two other low-income students with whom she seemed to have more in common. She couldn’t relate to her peers who talked about buying $200 shirts or planning exotic spring break vacations. “They weren’t always conscious of how these conversations can make other people feel,” she says. In a recent sociology class, Barros’s instructor asked students to state their social class to spark discussion. “Middle,” said one student. “Upper class,” said another. Although she’d become accustomed to sharing her story with faculty, Barros passed. It made her uncomfortable. “Admitting you’re poor to your peers is sometimes too painful,” she says. “Who wants to be that one student in class speaking for everyone?”