The Shame of Being Poor in Grad School

Katie Fustich
6 min readMay 21, 2021
Paris Hilton wearing a tank top that reads “Stop Being Poor.”

It’s a beautiful May afternoon. I’m fresh off a grueling week of final exams and last-minute efforts to round out my second year of law school. On Instagram, my friends and classmates are enjoying the sunshine, sipping brunch cocktails and taking panorama photographs of the sunsets dipping behind the water at the family lake house. I am strapping on my backpack, lacing up my tennis shoes, and opening the DoorDash app for an afternoon of work.

I cruise around my neighborhood for more than an hour. No deliveries are coming in, so I open the Postmates and UberEats apps as well, hoping to score something there. After hours zig-zagging the streets of Brooklyn, I return home, defeated, and Google where to sell my blood plasma for cash. Turns out, you can’t do that in New York.

The funny thing about all of this is that I have a summer job I am scheduled to start in a week. It’s a position with a nonprofit organization whose work I am extremely excited about — the fact that I won’t be getting paid for that work, less so. This arrangement is far from unusual, though. It’s typical for nonprofit organizations and public interest legal organizations to pay their interns in nothing but experience, leaving them to rely on scholarships and “outside funding.” This isn’t a result of malice, but attributable to the fact that these organizations are so underfunded they can barely pay their actual staff a living wage. Many otherwise idealistic students refuse to work in the public interest sphere for this very reason — “I can’t pay back my student loans on a public interest salary,” is a common refrain. For those of us that are determined to do something other than tax law, frankly, we’re screwed.

Anticipating my lack of summer cash flow, I took to a law school Facebook group several weeks ago for advice. “Attention scholarship students,” I wrote, “How are we getting by this summer?” Being that the group is generally meme-oriented, I made sure to include the well-known image of Boromir from Lord of the Rings with the added caption “One does not simply attend law school without generational wealth.” The tongue-in-cheek humor faded quickly into a panicked comments section, with students from across the country trading war stories. Many said they simply are taking on more student loans in order to make it through the coming…