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low-income students

Being a low-income student at Swarthmore

in Op-Eds/Opinions by

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.

Admissions will no longer consider essay scores

in News by

The admissions office has changed its admission requirements and will no longer require or evaluate SAT or ACT essays. Several key factors played into this decision, including an internal study that found low correlation between SAT/ACT essay scores and college performance, a desire to be more accommodating to low-income students, and changes to the SAT itself.

The changes to the SAT include paying separately for the essay part of the tests. The changes will take effect in 2016.

“We used this as an opportunity to assess the value of all of the standardized testing we have recently required,” J.T. Duck, director of admissions, said.

The college’s Institutional Research Office analyzed the standardized test essay scores of students at the college and their college performance and shared the data with the admissions office.

“The correlations between essay scores and academic performance at Swarthmore were modest,” Duck said. “Given what we learned from our assessment of the scores … we knew we could make strong admissions decisions without the essay scores.”

Despite no longer considering the SAT/ACT essay quality continues to be an important factor in the admissions process, and Duck said he was confident that the office will be able to gauge an applicant’s writing capability through the “Why Swarthmore” prompt.

The admissions office hopes that removing this requirement will help low-income students since the essay now comes at an additional cost for both standardized tests.

“A shorter and less expensive test benefits all, particularly low-income students who may or may not have access to test fee-waivers.” said Jim Bock, Vice President and Dean of Admissions.

However, students say paying for standardized tests is in no way the only admissions obstacle for low income students.

“The biggest hurdle for me in the admissions process was general ignorance surrounding the college application process itself,” Catherine Velez-Perry ’17, co-president of SOLIS, said.  “Places like Swarthmore are not generally known in my hometown; ‘making it’ means getting into an Ivy League school.”

Velez-Perry also voiced another concern common amongst low-income students at Swarthmore.

“I was not prepared for the rigor of Swarthmore,” Velez-Perry explained. “If Swarthmore wants to be a place that attracts low-income students, I think low-income students should have a working understanding of Swat, first.”

One program utilized by the college to help educate low-income students about the college is QuestBridge.

“QuestBridge is an organization that helps match high-achieving low-income students with Swarthmore and peer institutions,” Duck said.

Low-income students can fill out an application with QuestBridge and make a list of college preferences. QuestBridge then forwards the applications to schools the students indicated in their application. The student is then “matched” with a college and receives a full four-year scholarship.

The college also hosted the Summer Scholars program for the first time this past summer. Sixteen students from low-income situations who are interested in studying STEM are invited to come to the college over the summer to help prepare them for the academic rigor of the college.

Velez-Perry is also supportive of the Summer Scholars program.

“[The program] might be a huge draw for people, because it really shows that they will be supported once they get here, and that’s something a lot of people lose sight of in this whole process,” Velez-Perry said. “In my opinion, in order to make the process easier and less intimidating for students, there needs to be a concentrated effort to understand the communities the students come from, and what that means in terms of testing, of accessibility to resources, of how much experience they have with higher education, and what it entails.”

Finally, the college is hosting its annual Discover Swarthmore program, an all expenses paid visit to the college to help students get a feel of the college. Any student can apply, but students from low-income or underrepresented backgrounds are given preference for the program. This year the college will be hosting two Discover Swarthmore programs for the first time, on September 17-19 and October 29-31.

“Students invited to the program …  may not have had a chance to visit a residential liberal arts college like Swarthmore.  We offer the opportunity to stay with a current student in a residence hall, to eat meals in the dining hall, to meet current students, to attend classes and to meet our faculty,” said Bock. “This is a wonderful opportunity to ‘try on’ and experience college for a few days. Our visitors will also have the opportunity to hear from folks in financial aid about how affordable a Swarthmore education can be for many students.”

Admissions hopes that these efforts will increase the accessibility of the college for a more economically diverse range of students.


Health care options limited for low-income students

in Around Campus/News by

Monday, March 23, marked five years since President Barack Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law. With over 16 million people now insured through the ACA, low-income students in particular have more to consider with regards to health care. Some students have expressed concern that low-income students have not been well informed about health care services available at Swarthmore.

In 2014, the ACA began to apply to all college students, meaning that they must abide by the law’s individual mandate. Along with other U.S. citizens and individuals of non-immigrant status, students with eligible incomes must obtain insurance or pay a tax penalty. Those with incomes below a certain threshold may qualify for Medicaid, which provides government assistance in paying for health insurance. Pennsylvania is one of the states that took up the ACA offer of Medicaid expansion, making free to low-cost insurance available to Pennsylvanians with incomes up to 138 percent of the poverty level. The Department of Health and Human Services determines a $16,105 income for one person to be 138 percent of the federal poverty level in Pennsylvania.

This means that Swarthmore students now have more healthcare options. The ACA allows students to stay on their parents’ health insurance plan until the age of 26. As more low-income families acquire healthcare, more young adults can be covered at school. However, just as before the ACA was enacted, the farther away students are from home, the less likely it is that they will be in an area that has a doctor covered by their insurer’s network. Other options are for students themselves to partake in the “exchanges,” online marketplaces for obtaining insurance through the ACA, or to purchase the college health insurance plan.

The college health insurance plan costs $1,183 for one full year of coverage. This is lower than the national average for the ACA’s Bronze plan, the lowest form of protection. It offers 60 percent coverage, which the Internal Revenue Service determines to be $2,448 annually. The college’s insurance generally covers 80 percent of expenses, surpassing the coverage of the Bronze plan. It has a $100 deductible, which is the maximum price an individual pays before they start receiving coverage, and also meets the ACA standard of minimum essential coverage. The plan, however, does not cover long-term care. Students may also opt for a discounted rate of the college insurance plan if they cannot pay the $1,183 sticker price. This discount is based on the financial aid a student receives.

The benefits of the ACA and the college’s insurance plan are more likely to be taken up by students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. However, low-income students have unique experiences and concerns that may inhibit them from using such services. In particular, lack of both clarity and medical information has been a problem for low-income students.

Swarthmore Organization for Low-Income Students member George Abraham ’17 stressed the importance of making students aware of transportation choices and costs when traveling to off-campus centers for severe health ailments. Abraham had an infection in his finger that Worth Health Center could not treat. He was told he would have to go an urgent care center facility.

“The nurse told me there was a cab voucher available, which would charge my parents for the costs incurred, so I decided to take a Zipcar instead because I thought it’d be cheaper,” wrote Abraham in an email. “[D]ue to the wait at the Urgent Care … I incurred a late fee from Zipcar, and the trip ended up costing me $75.”

He went to Worth to talk to Beth Kotarski, who was the director of the health center at that time.

“She was … helpful and sympathetic towards my story and frustration,” Abraham wrote. “We both determined that the core problem was misinformation: the nurses should have warned me that if the infection got worse, I’d need to go off campus … [and] I could have planned ahead. The nurses should have told me that the cab vouchers give me a big discount on my ride to and from the urgent care, and it would’ve been much cheaper to go this route actually.” He ended up receiving a late fee refund from Zipcar.

Maria Warnick, the Interim Director of Health and Wellness Services, pointed out free services available to students. Many of the medications at Worth are free. The lobby has a “cold center” with free over-the-counter medications for minor illnesses and first aid supplies.

“All provider visits … are free of charge … There is also no limit on the number of visits any students may have over the course of the school year,” wrote Warnick. “The Health and Wellness Center also provides unique services such as free travel medicine consults which often carry an initial $100-200 consultation fee at a travel clinic to all students who are studying abroad.”

She listed other medical services available free of charge. The Health Center gives out immunotherapy or “allergy shots.” Crutches, nebulizer machines, and other medical equipment can be loaned to students for short-term use. Last November, students could receive free HIV testing, a service Warnick expects the college to offer again before this semester ends.

Warnick explained that some medicines at Worth do carry a fee, but can be discounted or waived if the student cannot pay.

“The most important thing for students who may be struggling with health care costs to do is to let someone know of their burden. We cannot help if we do not know,” wrote Warnick.

Students may not bother seeking out medical assistance if they are unaware of free services. Abraham described how when speaking to the director, she told him about resources he had not known existed. He also later learned that the health center has a website showing what treatments are available.

“Right now, I know certain individuals who are afraid to go into Worth because they feel Worth is unhelpful and cost-inducing,” Abraham wrote. “Some friends of mine thought Worth was too upfront… [and] tried to shove too many expensive medicines at them, which could be intimidating for lower-income students.”

He wrote that medical care is available, but greater effort must be taken to deliver this knowledge to low-income students.

“I am convinced that … if people need medical help, the school will do its best to offer financial assistance if necessary,” wrote Abraham.

He believes that the college should help make low-income students more comfortable asking for medical help. The college could foster this comfort by not being overly precautionary and by telling students that costs are negotiable and may not be so daunting. Abraham wrote that proactive methods, such as programs or talks from Worth, may be utilized to inform low-income students of available resources.

New group for low-income students holds first meeting

in Around Campus/News by

The Swarthmore Organization of Low-Income Students held its first open meeting of the semester this week, inviting students of all socioeconomic backgrounds to participate in a discussion on how class is perceived at the college. Doubling as its first open meeting and its first meeting as a chartered group on campus, the meeting was intended as a way for students to discuss what class means, what it means to be an ally, and how students can work together to make Swat a more inclusive place for everyone.

Founding member Cat Velez ’17 explained that SOLIS is a group for low-income students dedicated to raising awareness of class issues on campus and providing a community of support for these low-income students. The group’s members also hope to help incoming students from low-income backgrounds acclimate to what Velez called the “culture shock” of the first year at an institution like Swarthmore.

Roughly 15 students came together in the Intercultural Center to take part in the meeting, which broke into smaller discussion groups after initial introductions. All of the discussion groups, facilitated by SOLIS executive board members, centered on three major points: how class identities interact and intersect with other identities, how students have interacted with students of class backgrounds different than their own, and classism and allyship at Swarthmore.

Lucia Luna-Victoria ’15 said in the discussion group that in her experience, talking about class on campus is something of a taboo among Swatties.

“It didn’t come up for a long time, and when I brought up comments about it … it just kind of shut down. That’s not something that people want to discuss. Sometimes I don’t even want to discuss it,” she said. She thought students may just not understand how to discuss socioeconomic class with others on campus.

George Abraham ’17 feels that some parts of his identity intersect more strongly with his class background than others.

“As someone from a middle class background… being queer hasn’t necessarily intersected as much with my [socioeconomic] background. I will definitely say that my Middle Eastern background has intersected a lot more,” Abraham said. In the discussion, he spoke about his family’s emigration from Palestine to the United States and explained how his father always believed that one’s monetary wealth was the equivalent to one’s ability to raise a family.

“[As my father] raised me, he was like, ‘You should always be conscious of your money. You go to school to make money in the future,’ so money’s always been a thing that’s been thrown around in my household,” he continued.

Luna-Victoria also highlighted the ways that her ethnic and socioeconomic identities intersected in her life during the discussion. She explained that her mother comes from a privileged background in Perú, and as a result, she did not really see herself as low-income, even though Luna-Victoria perceives her family as low-income in a United States context.

In Abraham’s experience, interacting with students from different classes varies, depending on what a person’s class is in relation to his own.

“I definitely notice a trend where if I’m interacting with people of a lower or equal income background than me, people tend to talk about [class]. But people from a higher, middle-high class background just avoid it,” Abraham said. He believes that Swarthmore students, especially upperclassmen, often say things to him without wanting to be condescending, but that are often still a shock to someone of a lower class background.

“I have a lot of friends that are like, ‘Oh, I’m casually flying to Florida and staying in a hotel for spring break,’ and I can barely afford to go home,” Abraham said.

A participant who preferred to remain anonymous said that they were angered by a group of students in their major when they collectively agreed that middle- and upper-class students have it the hardest on campus. They felt uncomfortable as a student from a middle-class background to hear these sentiments, because they felt grateful to be able to attend Swarthmore at all.

“If there were a drop in my financial aid, my family would figure it out. But for someone of a low-income background, if they have a drop in their financial aid … there is no ‘figuring it out’,” the student said. They also said that this line of thinking needs to be eliminated from Swarthmore’s campus.

Another concern agreed upon by the members of the discussion group was access to proper healthcare for low-income students. Both Velez and Abraham shared personal experiences where they required urgent medical care at Worth Health Center, but could not be properly treated because they were low-income students. At Worth, they were given medicine and other necessary medical treatments and told that the expenses would be billed to their student accounts, but both were forced to refuse treatment and medication because no one in their families would be able to cover the added costs. Velez also shared that she is currently thousands of dollars in hospital debt because her Swarthmore-provided health insurance was not accepted at the hospital she was admitted to.

At the conclusion of SOLIS’ first open meeting as a chartered organization, Velez was satisfied with the effects of the meeting.

“I think [the meeting] went really well, and I’m glad there was a lot of mutual respect,” she said.

Josh Medel ’18, who also attended the event, was glad to see a safe space for low-income students at Swarthmore.

“Everyone was supportive of one another, making it feel like a safe space to speak. I hope in the future more students can come to these open meetings, despite their background,” he said in an email. “I’m glad that we are starting these conversations on class; it is needed on this campus.”

SOLIS is open to all students who identify as low-income, and meets on Thursdays at 7 p.m. in the Intercultural Center.

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