Hannah Xu/Contributing Photographer

It’s a sunny Friday afternoon, and Luis Ciriaco (25C) is thinking about home. With block parties thrown every summer and a park where predominantly Hispanic residents gather, a strong sense of community and shared identity is imbued throughout Ciriaco’s hometown, the Belmont Cragin neighborhood of Chicago. In Emory University’s College of Arts and Sciences, just over 11% of students enrolled in the Class of 2025 identify as Latinx, a stark contrast to Belmont Cragin. 

During his first year at Emory, Circiaco was the only Mexican on his floor besides his resident advisor. He said this “was a hard shift.”

“I felt like I didn’t have my footing right,” Ciriaco said. “Imposter syndrome is really real here. I felt like I didn’t belong.”

Knowing that his family shouldered a financial burden for him to attend college, Ciriaco felt he had to choose a major that would set him up for financial success. He chose biology.

Ciriaco would spend hours studying in the Robert W. Woodruff Library’s stacks, sipping a Monster energy drink and reviewing for exams. As a sophomore advisor, he hosted biology review sessions for his residents in Complex Hall, honing his academic skills while earning extra money. Yet, something wasn’t clicking.

“It was a lot of money for me to be doing something I don’t like and not reciprocating what [my parents] do,” Ciriaco said. “I was really ashamed of myself for that. [My parents] are wasting this much money, and I’m out here not fulfilling what I’m supposed to.”

At the beginning of his junior year this fall, Ciriaco switched his major to English & creative writing with a concentration in poetry. The decision lifted a weight off him, and he said his friends described him as being a better version of himself. He hopes to become a professor.

“I know financial things are a burden,” Ciriaco said. “But trust me when I say I’ve got a plan.”

Natalie Sandlow/Staff Photographer

The Burden of Academic Stress

Emory boasts of a liberal arts education for undergraduate students. However, the top five majors for Emory undergraduates for the 2022-23 academic year were business administration, biology, psychology, economics and neuroscience & behavioral biology, according to Assistant Vice President of University Communications Laura Diamond. The pressure to pave a financially stable future can weigh heavily on low-income students, who carry the burden of caring not just for themselves but for their families as well. 

“I just want these students to live a good healthy life, in whatever way or shape that takes form,” said Julio Medina (13C), assistant professor of Emory’s dance and movement studies program. “So if they want to go into computer science or marketing because that’s gonna help them financially better — maybe chill, or find some peace or be able to provide for their family — so be it.”

Medina attended Emory on a QuestBridge scholarship that funded his tuition, housing and food. Now, successfully holding a faculty position, he sits on a large exercise ball in a sunny office with a large window, hanging plants and a standing desk. The room is bright.

“I finally, to a certain extent, got to feel what it’s like to not have to worry about a large sum of money,” Medina said. “And I think that did do something for my brain in my education, where I was like, ‘Woah, what’s possible?’ I wasn’t limiting myself.”

Although he began to explore his passion for movement in high school, Medina initially came to Emory wanting to study physical therapy or business. After taking an improvisation class as an undergraduate his sophomore year, Medina made the decision to become a dance major. Throughout college, Medina worked part-time helping with administrative work and dance instruction at Moving in the Spirit, and relied on money his parents would wire him from his hometown of Los Angeles every couple of months. Like Ciriaco, Medina remembered the feelings of guilt attached to the money he received.

Tammy Hoang Dang (26C) understands the emotion. As a first-generation, low-income student from Houston, she said she feels guilty when she spends money on an Uber or goes out to eat, which limits how she’s able to spend time socializing. 

“Even if you do have more money now, you feel guilty for spending it,” Hoang Dang said. “It’s something that feels like, ‘Oh, this is not needed. It’s not food on the table,’ right?”

During her freshman year, Hoang Dang lived in Empowering First, a themed housing option aimed at providing community and support for first-generation students at Emory. She remembered her year at Empowering First with a smile and said she was able to find the thread of shared experience with her housemates. They struggled with the feeling of needing to prove their worth on campus through excelling academically and getting involved in extracurriculars. 

“We feel the need to justify our place here,” Hoang Dang said. “We feel the need to justify who we are as people, and who we are as people is defined by what we do.”

Limited Reach of Financial Aid

Applying to college was a confusing process for Hoang Dang. She was one of three people in her high school class who went out of state for college. With few people to turn to with questions about financial aid, she ended up doing most of her research and scholarship applications on her own. 

Emory adheres to a 100% demonstrated needs-met financial aid policy for domestic undergraduate students, according to John Leach, Emory’s associate vice provost for enrollment and university financial aid. Students must fill out their College Scholarship Service (CSS) profile and Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) as a part of their financial aid application, and from there, Emory determines how much the student and their family are expecting to pay for college. That amount is then subtracted from the student’s cost of attendance, and Emory will provide the remaining as the student’s financial aid, according to Leach.

Through a mixture of scholarships and financial aid from Emory, Hoang Dang was able to afford attending Emory.

However, during the first semester of her freshman year, the financial aid office misplaced one of her scholarships. Shocked, she found herself with a $1,500 balance to pay. In the months between the balance appearing and it being resolved in December of that year, Hoang Dang said she felt an immense amount of stress. 

“Those feelings, along with balancing academics — it was difficult,” Hoang Dang said. “I remember first failing my tests and just being really disappointed in myself, which I’m sure is a universal college experience, but it came with the burden of imposter syndrome, like, ‘Am I good enough?’ or ‘Do I actually deserve to be here?’”

While Diamond said that the University cannot comment on individual cases, she wrote  that  “on rare occasions” the distribution of funds through the Office of Financial Aid “can run into issues.”

Savannah Soto (26C), a first-generation student from Las Vegas studying film and media with a minor in theater studies, experienced feelings of uncertainty and guilt surrounding her decision to study at an out-of-state, private institution.

“By coming to Emory, I made that selfish choice to work towards my future,” Soto said. “And because I made that choice, knowing that my family could use my income back home, I feel guilty for leaving them.”

In high school, Soto said she would wake up each morning at 3 a.m., taking a two-hour public bus ride so that she could attend an International Baccalaureate school instead of her local high school. She felt it was the best education she could get for herself, yet when she came to Emory’s campus, she felt unprepared. 

“I didn’t have the best access to education, which I feel like really did not set me up really good when I came to Emory because I felt like I wasn’t as prepared as I felt some other people were,” Soto said. “So I did, very much … suffer from just not feeling like I fit in. I didn’t think that I was good enough to go to this school specifically.”

In addition to balancing what felt like an academic version of the catch-up game, Soto has had to learn how to care for her family from across the country. She relies on her work as a federal work-study student as supplemental income for her expenses of going to Emory, but that money is often needed back home.

“Sometimes [my mom] will have a doctor’s appointment,” Soto said. “It was $600, and I’ll send her as much money as I have … and then I just won’t have money for a while, until I get paid.”

Soto has had to learn to rely on her meal plan as her sole source of food. However, with a tight schedule and a meal plan of 100 meal swipes and 650 Dooley Dollars, she said that nourishing herself isn’t always easy. There are nights where Dobbs Common Table closes before she is able to reach it. 

“Sometimes I just don’t eat that night and just eat the next day,” Soto said.

Food Insecurity

Food insecurity is a prominent issue on campus. Emory dining prices increased on average between 4.5-6% in the last year to match Atlanta’s 5.5% inflation in food prices this year, according to Diamond. Students across the board are experiencing heightened costs associated with food, an issue that has caught the attention of the student advocacy group Emory Students for Students. In addition to their mutual aid fund through which students can apply for funding for various needs, such as help with housing, food and medical expenses, the club has turned their attention to food insecurity on campus. They are currently working to bring a set of demands to the Emory administration to make food access more equitable and affordable.

Raya Islam (24C), vice president and research committee head of Students for Students, said that the administration has shown its interest in supporting low-income students.  

Emory Students for Students is working in collaboration with campus initiatives that are already attempting to address food insecurity on campus. Emory Dining runs a community fridge, located on the first floor of the Alumni Memorial University Center. The fridge is stocked three times a week during the academic portion of the year, Diamond wrote. 


Jessie Satovsky/Staff Illustrator

The Eagle Food Pantry is another campus organization that works to diminish food insecurity on campus. Operating out of Bread Coffeehouse, a campus ministry, the Eagle Food Pantry offers free food to Emory students on Mondays and Fridays from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Sophie Anthony (24C) helps run the pantry and spends her Mondays and Fridays helping students navigate the pantry. 

During September 2023, the Eagle Food Pantry served 141 students, compared with 26 students served during September 2021, according to Associate Vice President for Belonging, Engagement and Community and Dean of Students Kristina Bethea Odejimi. Approximately 73% of these students are graduate students, Odejimi said.

According to Anthony, the Eagle Food Pantry has struggled to accommodate this sharp increase in usage. The shelves, normally lined with pasta, canned vegetables, beans and bread, run low towards the end of each month. As she goes to sleep on Thursday nights, Anthony worries about their being enough food to supply students the following morning.

“I see every person who’s coming through, and it’s a staggering amount of students,” Anthony said. “It would be more if we had more stock and the ability to feed more.”

According to Diamond, the pantry is supported by Emory University through multiple partnerships, including one with Student Case Management and Intervention Services (SCMIS). Through working with Emory Dining, SCMIS provides the Food Security Safeguard Program to students dealing with food insecurity on campus. SCMIS also works with the Eagle Food Pantry to keep its shelves stocked, Diamond said.

The restocking from SCMIS comes at the beginning of each month, and only lasts a week, according to Anthony. She said that SCMIS referring more students to the pantry contributes to its increased usage; without funding from Emory to provide food for students who approach them, the SCMIS team instead sends them to the pantry.

In October, the Eagle Food Pantry was approved for a partnership with the Atlanta Community Food Bank, which will make food costs for the pantry significantly cheaper, helping the pantry to accommodate its increased demand.

Anthony said she has also seen international students utilizing the food pantry, but needing further assistance preparing the foods, as they are different than in their home country.

Charvi Khandelwal (25Ox), an international student from Dubai, United Arab Emirates, loves the hands-on, tight-knight academic community at Oxford, and she’s found herself involved in a wide variety of clubs. But beneath her success, Khandelwal has had to work hard in her first semester to adjust. One challenge has been getting used to the food served in the dining hall, which tastes different from the food in Dubai. 

Khandelwal’s mother sent her to college this fall with dehydrated packets of food, which could be rehydrated by adding boiling water.

“I’ve been coping by eating those,” Khandelwal said. “I’ve been rationing them out, but most of the time I’m obviously relying on dining hall food. At the beginning it was very difficult. I just could not understand the taste.”

Hannah Xu/Contributing Photographer

Struggling to Stay Healthy

Like Soto, Khandelwal found herself skipping meals. This eventually contributed to health issues, which led Khandelwal to discover the expense of health care. With health insurance costs adding up and the knowledge that her insurance cannot fully cover the necessary medicine, Khandelwal has tried to avoid the Oxford Student Health Center.

“The insurance and everything is so expensive here that I just don’t bother [going to the Health Center],” Khandelwal said. 

Emory requires all students to be on a health insurance plan. If students opt to join the Emory University Student Health Insurance plan rather than stay on a parent’s plan or find their own insurance, they pay $4,762 a year for insurance. On top of that, students must pay a $200 deductible, and then 10% coinsurance of the cost for all medical visits with Emory health providers, according to Diamond. There may be additional costs for medicine, diagnostic tests and hospital visits. 

Similarly to Khandelwal, Soto has struggled with the cost of medical bills. Her first year of college, she was sick and visited the hospital for some tests. She walked away with a $500 bill that she said she is still paying off.

Finding Community and Purpose

The struggles that Soto has endured as an Emory student — food insecurity, balancing a work schedule, family obligations and medical bills — are threads that ties many Emory students together. Even when students aren’t experiencing immediate financial insecurity, that weight is replaced with academic stress, exhaustion and social anxieties. And yet, students have found a way to use their shared struggle to weave community around them. 

Sometimes, that feeling of community originates from student or campus-run initiatives, like Students for Students or Empowering First.

“If we can extend our care to others, to see ourselves in others, then there’s more of a willingness, more of a connection there to think about providing aid and to think about caring for others,” Islam said regarding Students for Students’ vision for a campus community knitted together through unity across socioeconomic statuses.

At a time when students are experiencing heightened feelings of insecurity about their future due to rising costs of living, they turn to each other, finding solace in shared experience.

“When you find someone who truly understands [what you’re going through] and has been through it, I think there’s just a connection that you have instantly,” Soto said. 

Some students, like Ciriaco, find community through their classes and academic interests. With a schedule now full of English and creative writing courses, Ciriaco finds joy and hope in his studies. He sees himself as an English professor in the future, teaching a curriculum that blends poetry and rap. 

He carries a few poetry books in his backpack with him, flipping through them when he gets the chance. The sun is shining as he talks about his favorite poem, “Having a Coke with You” by Frank O’Hara. Ciriaco is attracted to the simplicity of the poem, the way it describes the joys of shared human experience. Now, as a resident advisor for Hopkins Hall, Ciriaco plays an integral role in fostering those shared experiences for his first-year residents.

“My freshman year, there weren’t a lot of Hispanic events [in our residence hall], so I wanted to change that — as a sophomore advisor, and now being able to do it as a resident advisor,” Ciriaco said. “It’s really great. It’s really impactful. Seeing everybody be like this reminds me of home.”

Correction (12/11/2023 at 4:28 p.m.): A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that “just under 11% of students enrolled in Emory’s College of Arts and Sciences Class of 2025 identify as Latinx.” In fact, 11.4% of Emory’s College of Arts and Sciences Class of 2025 identify as Latinx.

Correction (12/11/2023 at 4:28 p.m.): A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that that “Emory adheres to a 100% needs-met financial aid policy for domestic and international undergraduate students” and that this amount is determined by subtracting the expected payment from the cost of tuition. The article has been updated to clarify that Emory meets 100% of demonstrated financial need for domestic students only and that this amount is determined by subtracting the expected payment from the overall cost of attendance.