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Being a low-income student at Swarthmore

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College had always been part of my life plan. My parents were working-class high school graduates. I was the oldest of four and a straight-A student with a love of science and an intense drive to get a college degree. For my entire school career, college had been the goal. It was the reason I went to math tutoring during homeroom in middle school so that I could pass the pre-algebra test to get placed into the 8th grade accelerated track. It was the reason I stayed up studying AP Biology for hours after the rest of the house went to sleep. It was the ultimate end goal, but suddenly it was actually time to apply to college and to get accepted into college. It quickly became obvious just how many obstacles stood between me and that degree I had dreamed of for so long. The money was a big one, but more than that, the college application process was a maze of confusing forms and illogically conflicting deadlines. My mom always used to joke, “You practically need a college degree to apply to college!” and she wasn’t wrong.

Then, one day, at the start of my senior year of high school, there was QuestBridge. My school guidance counselor had one brochure which he could give to one teacher who could give it to one student; that student happened to be me. My English teacher handed it to me saying, “I thought you could use this,” so I took it home and showed it to my mom. We thought it was a scam. Who in their right mind would give someone that much money? Full-rides were reserved for outstanding, certified geniuses, not ordinary people like me. As it turns out, it wasn’t a scam. But this incredulity at the immense generosity of other people returned again and again throughout the process of applying and getting accepted to Swarthmore College. Why would a school like Swarthmore choose me? Why on earth would they give me that much money? It was something I had never experienced before, and it never ceased to amaze me.

I fell in love with this school the day I first saw it. When I attended the admitted students overnight event (called Ride the Tide back in the day), I knew without a doubt that this was where I wanted to be. Orientation psyched me up for four great years of pure learning, new friends, and impactful experiences. Then, three weeks into the semester, doubts came racing back, the doubts of someone who worked for years to prove their excellence only to begin to think maybe they were only ever competent. Maybe I was only a good student because it was easy. Maybe I can’t do this. Maybe I don’t belong here.

One of the first things incoming students are told at Swarthmore is, “You do belong here. There are no admissions mistakes.” While it may be difficult to believe them, especially as a low-income or first-generation student, they really do mean it. This school wants us here, and we worked so hard to make it. The same compassion and encouragement I felt from QuestBridge was waiting for me at Swarthmore as well. The administration and faculty at this college are some of the most decent human beings I have ever met.

This year I declared a Biology and Psychology double major. Obviously, it was mostly because I am interested in those subjects and want to eventually go into a career in both, but I also feel at home in those departments. During my first year at Swarthmore, I doubted myself a lot. There were many days where I thought that surely I was the first and only admissions mistake, but the professors and the upperclassmen in the Bio and Psych departments reassured me that I could excel. This school is full of truly amazing people who genuinely want us to succeed. They care about us, not just academically; they are genuinely invested in how we are doing in our day-to-day lives.

An upperclassman Bio major once told me that they didn’t feel at home at Swarthmore until they had cried in their professor’s office. I told myself that wouldn’t be me. I got here on my own, and I would do college on my own. But isolation did not make me a strong student or a good scientist. It took me a long time to get over my fears of asking for help, but when I finally managed it, there was a support system waiting for me.

My advice to incoming Questies, low-income students, or any student doubting themselves is the same advice I was given. Ask for help. Go to your professor’s office hours. Lean on your fellow low-income classmates. We are all going through the same things. We all have the same doubts, and if we don’t admit it, we end up feeling like we don’t belong. I promise you that even though the rest of the student body seems to “have it all together,” everyone has that one class where they wonder if they’ll make it to the end of the semester. Everyone struggles to sit through what feels like the 4000th lecture. It took me way too long to realize I wasn’t alone and to finally listen to the people telling me to reach out when I needed help. My advice is to listen sooner than I did.

I also want to remind every student at this school of what orientation repeats again and again. You are all amazing students and people. Swarthmore College is a fantastic school and an awesome community. They choose their students very carefully. You made it, and that was not a mistake. Remember how hard you worked and how much you wanted this. Don’t believe the voices, whether they be internal or external, that say you don’t belong here or that you somehow deserve less than this. You are going to do awesome things, and your professors and classmates will be thrilled (and not surprised) to see it happen.

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