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Ignites Talk: Cusaj Thomas On Breaking The Poverty Cycle

The following text was taken from the Dec. 1 installment of UGBC’s Ignites lecture series—which focused on issues of socioeconomics at Boston College—and republished with the speaker’s permission. Cusaj Thomas, A&S ’15, was one of five undergraduate speakers featured at the December event.

Before I begin, I want to apologize to those who know me well. You most likely would have heard some points tonight before since this is from my personal life and you cannot change the past. I was actually unaware of BC Ignites before a week or two ago, but I hope I can help stir the conversation to a deeper level.

Socioeconomic status has always been an issue in my life. You see, a majority of my life was spent in Newark, NJ. I was homeless for a point in my life, I never knew my biological father, and I grew up for the most part in poverty with me and my single mother trying to make ends meet. For those of you who may not know, Newark is now on the top 50 most dangerous cities in America, but while I was a child growing up, Newark fluctuated between the top 10 and 20. The common stereotype of the “typical hood”—that was my childhood. Drugs, violence, and gangs surrounded me.

While many may look at this with disapproval, I was actually glad for it. You see, my mother worked as a babysitter for the early years of my life, and so when I came of age most of the kids she raised were the OG’s (original gangsters or essentially the leaders) of the gangs that ruled the areas around my house and school. So while other kids were forced to join gangs to survive I did not have to; I had these members provide me with the protection and the message to make something better of myself. However, that dedication to work hard was not enough to succeed. As much as there is ideal of the “American Dream” where one can work extremely hard and pull themselves up by the bootstraps, there is also the cyclical nature of poverty and while for some it may possible to accomplish the “American Dream,” for others—unless there is an outside factor providing assistance— they are bound to be stuck in this cyclical nature of poverty for generations, no matter their desire to escape.

Fortunately for my life, every step I have had this outside factor that helped me. With the desire to go farther I got into the Wight Foundation which was a program that provided Newark students with an opportunity to get out of Newark and obtain a better education at a boarding school. I had to start in 7th grade, and between classes throughout the summer and school year I was constantly working to make it through several cut off rounds into the final group. Thankfully I made it and was able to take the first step towards breaking the cycle, but it was far from over.

In boarding school, socioeconomic status was still a strong issue. While I tried to work hard academically it was hard to thrive in a community where everything revolved around money. I could not even go to movie trips with my friends because I could not afford the transportation fee from the school, let alone the movie. But once again I was blessed with an outside factor that helped me and that was my high school dean and football coach Mr. Manferdini. He took care of my financial troubles while I took care of what I needed to academically. For example, I knew I could always look to him to take care of the costs and allow me to go and enjoy myself with friends and grow socially through school trips.

The most influential moment for me (many of you have heard this before) was my senior prom. Senior prom morning I went to his office to ask if I could have permission to stay in a friend’s room for the weekend (to play his video game while he was away for prom). He asked me why I was not attending prom. I told him I could not and I was aware that he knew the reason. He told me to go to class and called me back within the hour. He said, “We got you a ticket, we got you a suit from your lacrosse coach, and transportation is paid for your going to prom.” I wear this ring [a class ring] (every time I’m not stepping) because he coordinated with my mother secretly and provided me with it at graduation (knowing I was the one student not expecting a ring because I knew I couldn’t afford it).

At BC, socioeconomic status is still an issue. It is nearly impossible to survive without having to pay for a majority of things. Living in Ignacio without a meal plan, a flex plan was never, ever a thought in my mind. Fortunately, unlike high school, I have the opportunity to work, so I work multiple jobs to finance everything I need to in order to survive. But I am still a student so there is only so much I can do. But I have those outside factors who still help me. I know I can always look to my boss Jim Costa to always ask, “Do you need anything? Are you going home? No? Let me buy your bus ticket.” I know I can look to Father Michael to always ask, “Have you had breakfast? No? Take this go get something in Mac now.”

Socioeconomic status has always been an issue, worldwide and personally for me. While I cannot give a solution to the large scale issue of socioeconomic status, I can give a solution based off of my personal experience. That is that outside factor to break the cyclical nature of poverty. During my childhood those gang members were the outside factor to help me; middle school, the Wight Foundation was that outside factor; high school, my dean; and college, administrators. But what I can say is keep the conversations going, keep asking questions, but most of all keep making genuine relationships, because to be completely honest, you never know if you’re that outside factor that can break the cycle in someone’s life and their future generations.

-Cusaj Thomas

Featured Image by John Wiley / Heights Photo Illustration

December 7, 2014