Zachary Wood, 21, is a college student from one of D.C.’s poorest neighborhoods who has experienced significant challenges throughout his life but has never let anything get in the way of his education. He attended the private Bullis School for most of high school, traveling two hours by bus and Metro to get to the Maryland campus, and finished at an online high school. To attend a summer college program at Stanford University, he raised money online and was helped financially by arts patron Peggy Cooper Cafritz.

Wood was accepted via early decision to Williams College, a highly prestigious liberal arts college in Massachusetts from which he will graduate in 2018 as a political science major. He is doing his junior year on a “domestic study away program” at Columbia University.  At Williams, he became president of “Uncomfortable Learning,” a speakers program that gives a forum to people espousing highly controversial views, and he has written and spoken about that experience. In this piece published by The Washington Post’s Grade Point blog, he wrote:

Here’s what happened when I tried to confront the issue of racism head-on: People called me a sellout. I lost respect. I lost friends. My mentor told me I’m just like a long list of black conservatives who turned their backs on their own race.
“Zach,” I was told, “You’re consorting with demons.”
….My love of learning is a big part of my life. No matter how busy I am, I read for three hours a day. Every week, I make a list of topics I want to explore — right now, it’s legislative redistricting — and every month I ask for book recommendations from peers and professors. For me, trying to understand how brilliant people can see the world so differently than I do helps me gain a deeper understanding of humanity.
That’s why I enjoy playing devil’s advocate. I see it as a way to get inside the mind of someone who thinks and argues very differently than I would.

Here is a new, personal and moving piece by Wood that reflects not only his own experiences but that of millions of other students who come from impoverished backgrounds.

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By Zachary Wood

On Thanksgiving Day, my uncle, who’s 48, asked me if I could help him find a job. My dad, who works late hours to ensure that I attend college, was at work, so I was the only one around who could assist him.

While we worked together, he kneeled on the floor and I sat on the pile of luggage that had formed in the living room as my family gathered for the holiday.

He didn’t have a résumé, or email, and he didn’t know how to use a computer to fill out online job applications. So we had to start from square one. We began by looking at job descriptions online. For many of the jobs, I had to read the descriptions aloud to him because he couldn’t read some of the vocabulary. After looking through 43 job postings, we narrowed the pool down to a list of 10.

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But before we applied, I had to set up his email account and show him how to use it.

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After setting up email for him, we began working on his resume. He had never used Microsoft Word before and did not know what a resume should consist of, so the process was tedious. I figured the best way to proceed would be for me to ask him questions about previous experiences and qualifications. As he described each of his previous jobs and credentials, I tried to organize them into coherent sections. After editing what I’d written, he read over it and we began filling out job applications.

As an African-American college student from a poor family, I frequently have to help my family navigate tasks that students from upper-income backgrounds don’t need to explain to their families. But I’m not the only one.

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There are over 4.5 million low-income college students in America, all with stories of their own. What many of my professors and administrators don’t realize is that when first-generation and low-income students go home for the holidays, they often face challenges that can affect their academic performance and preparedness in concrete ways.

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Unlike most students, I’m not only managing my coursework and campus activities, I’m also preoccupied with family concerns and financial hardship.

While I try not to let these issues interfere with life on campus, it can be difficult to focus on my work and other responsibilities as much as I would like to. Often, it’s frustrating because I go through each day feeling as though “my best” is never really “my best” because so much of my time and energy is spent trying to solve problems that many of my peers don’t have to deal with.

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Three days before helping my uncle, the ceiling of my bedroom caved in. This was my vacation, meant to be a chance to relax and spend time with family. Instead, it was a reminder of the poverty I’ve always thought my mind would allow me to escape.

I was midway through a book I was reading for a sociology paper and I wanted to spend Thanksgiving break studying for final exams, applying for summer internships, and doing paid research for a professor to help my dad pay for my education. But my poverty had left a hole in the ceiling and made these goals difficult, if not impossible.

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A study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania in 2015 shows that only 1 in 5 low-income students who pursue degrees graduate from college by the age of 24. Having to deal with issues like having nowhere to study is just one of many troubling realities that contribute to income-based disparities in higher education.

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I spent the next three hours cleaning up the debris and trying to find a way to cover up the gaping hole. The most difficult part was securing a wobbly plastic sheet over the hole by sticking tacks into the drywall without weakening portions of the ceiling that were already insecure.

When I go home for the holidays, I live with my dad, my grandma, my uncle, and my sister in a small, dilapidated two-bedroom house. Because we have four to five people living in such a cramped space, finding a place to do school work is a challenge. So when the ceiling caved in beside my bed, my work space mostly disappeared.

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After rearranging the books, bags, and boxes stacked in the corners of my room — so that they were out of the way of the leaking water — I went downstairs to try to create some space at the kitchen table to work at temporarily. The noise from the television and family members cooking and talking made it difficult to focus, but that narrow spot at the edge of the table was the only space available.

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My grandmother was sitting in the only chair left in the house, so I found two large suitcases, filled them with books, stacked them on top of each other, and sat on top of that. It wasn’t comfortable, but it was my only option.

A few minutes later, I tried to check my email on my laptop and realized that we hadn’t paid the Internet bill. There are no computers at my house and I’m the only one who has a laptop, so when I’m away for college, paying that bill is one less thing for my dad to worry about. (Fortunately, we were able to pay the bill the next day after my dad received his check from his second job as a valet.)

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While the Internet I have at home is far slower and spottier than the high-speed wireless I enjoy here at Columbia University, I understand that it’s the best my family can do given our financial circumstances.

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I helped my uncle because this is what we do — lift each other up in the face of the kind of poverty that my classmates may not be able to imagine. Over two days, I was able to help him create an email, make a resume, write two cover letters, and fill out three applications online. While I was happy with the progress we made, I worried that once I left, he might not be able to follow through with the email correspondence involved, especially since he’d have to go to the public library to use the computer. So I told him to call me if he had any questions.

Thanksgiving break ended and I knew I’d return to a world where what matters most is the next application, the next fellowship, the next essay — not struggling to keep water from turning my bed into a puddle.

This was three weeks ago; I’m headed back home for Christmas in a week.

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