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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.

Some low-income students struggle with transition to the college

in Around Campus/News by

Recent additions to campus life have brought to light important conversations about how students who come from low-income neighborhoods and high schools feel about their transitions into Swarthmore — socially as well as academically, and whether the college and the student community are doing enough to support these experiences. SOLIS, a new campus group for students from low-income backgrounds, held its first meeting early this month. Additionally, This summer will mark the beginning of the new Swarthmore Summer Scholars program, a five-week preparatory course for 16 incoming freshmen coming from underprivileged backgrounds.

Haley Girardi ’17 came to Swarthmore from Lake Forest High School in Delaware, a blue-collar rural high school that she described as a “leftover school,” since its resources, teachers, and students were sapped by several larger charter schools nearby. According to the Delaware Department of Education website, Lake Forest does not currently meet the Adequate Yearly Progress metric of the No Child Left Behind act.

Twenty-nine percent of students in the class of 2018 come from independent private high schools, and the public high schools attended by fifty-five percent of the class represent a wide range of levels of preparation. Girardi described how difficult it was to see that many of her peers had come from extraordinarily privileged high schools.

“The first year here it was disheartening to see my friends getting this so easy, and I’m sitting there like, ‘Oh my god, what is wrong with me? Why can’t I understand this?’ You have to remind yourself that I didn’t have this in high school and these people have been doing this for two or three years.”

Girardi, who recently declared a special major in biology and education, said that she faced particular difficulty adjusting to her STEM classes. Though she liked science in high school, Girardi struggled to pursue that interest at the time, since her high school “absolutely lacked in STEM.” In high school, her chemistry teacher quit out of frustration halfway through the year and efforts to create a student science group fell flat out of lack of interest. Having had no physics classes in high school, Girardi was particularly taken aback by the amount of background knowledge that Swarthmore’s general physics classes seemed to require.

“[The placement tests] were some of the hardest tests I had ever taken … until I got to Orgo,” said Girardi, chuckling. “What took months in [high school] chemistry took a week and a half in gen-chem.”

The Summer Scholars Program answers the particular challenges that underprivileged students face in the sciences by focusing on STEM fields and seeking out students who intend to pursue STEM at Swarthmore.

“That’s something that I personally would have jumped at the chance to do,” said Girardi,

For courses in the humanities and social sciences, resources that the college offers to help students adjust to college level work include first year seminars, writing intensive courses, and the WA program.

Professor of English Literature Scott Thomason, who teaches one section of the first-year seminar Transitions to College Writing, feels that his class is valuable for anyone, regardless of background, to learn how to turn high-school level writing into college level writing.

“The whole nature of the course is to help students figure out and and identify their writing process, and understand some of the very basic things they’ll need — tools — in terms of successful academic writing,” said Thomason. “I think the course would benefit just about everybody.”

Thomason also noted that, even for a writing-intensive course, Transitions to College Writing interfaces particularly intensely with the WA program.

Girardi reported having used several resources to adjust to classes at Swarthmore. She found tutors and group study sessions to be helpful, especially in science and math classes. But the turning point, said Girardi, was learning to talk to professors about her courses.

“Once I was honest with [my professors, saying] that ‘I’m really struggling with this and I need you to help and I need you to explain this slowly’ … learning got a lot easier,” she said. “The professors then knew how to approach me with problems and then I got better at them.”

Girardi emphasized that this was her personal approach and not a universal one. She finds one-on-one meetings with professors to be more helpful than group study sessions and other resources for improving her understanding of actual class material.

Dean of First Year Students Karen Henry agreed that it is important for students to talk to professors . At the same time, she acknowledged that for many students, creating a relationship with a faculty member is not an easy or simple task.

“I always direct students first to their faculty member, because the faculty member knows the most about the course and what the expectations are,” said Henry. “There are times, though, that students who haven’t had that kind of relationship with faculty struggle with what that looks like. For instance there are a number of students who assume that using office hours is just for students who are in trouble.” Sometimes, Henry said, helping students talk to their professors is as simple as preparing conversation topics so students feel like they have a plan going into the meeting.

Katy Montoya ’15, a political science major and Islamic studies minor, attended a “pretty ordinary” public high school outside Houston and penned a Daily Gazette opinion piece in 2013 about her frustrations regarding adapting to the academic culture of Swarthmore. Montoya also felt that professors could do a lot to make students feel capable and included, but did not always experience that dynamic in her first years at Swarthmore.

“When I wrote [the opinion piece] I was in a pretty upset place, because what I described in that article were just a lot instances of talking to professors who seemed to have these expectations [that all students here had] exposure to things that only some students here have read,” she said. “I was just kind of dumbfounded by the expectation. There just didn’t seem to be much room for the idea that there were people that came from vastly different experiences.”

By the same token, professors who were more aware of the range of high school and family experiences among students were incredibly important for Montoya.

“When I hear professors talk about [the diverse backgrounds of students] it just makes a world of difference, because the fact that they acknowledge it, they realize that it happens, they accommodate for it, is huge to me. It makes all the difference hearing that that’s a perspective that is considered valid,” said Montoya.

Beyond the faculty, social awareness of class also plays a huge role in peer-to-peer relationships. Both Montoya and Girardi felt that class is a topic that the Swarthmore community does not know how to talk about well. Girardi described the disconnect she felt when talking about her high school experience with friends.

“When I say ‘my high school didn’t do that, and we didn’t have this,’ it’s hard to express that and have people feel like they understand what you’re talking about. They’ll just nod along and say ‘at least you’re here now,’” she said. “That was always the response I got … That was the positive way of thinking about it, but like, I’m here, and my background is holding me back.”

Girardi also discussed the ways in which this social component of the transition to Swarthmore connected to the academic component. While she found group studying to be very helpful, particularly in her introductory STEM classes, Girardi often struggled with some of the dynamics of group studying. She described the difficulty of having to choose between asking a question and feeling like she was holding the group from moving on to the next topic, as well as the difficult emotions attached to receiving help on a problem from a peer.

“There’s such a support group here, but when you’re supporting each other from different levels — when your friends have to ‘dumb it down for you’ — it kind of hurts,” Girardi said.

Montoya felt a similar connection between the social and academic transitions to Swarthmore.

“It’s the culture shock. It creates feelings of inadequacy, it creates nervousness. It doesn’t let you perform at your best,” she said. “Even if you realize you have a lot of catching up to do, you might feel thwarted by the feeling that you can never catch up.”

Girardi discussed this idea of catching up, and how hard it can feel to have to do more work than her peers.

“The amount of effort you have to put in. That’s the biggest thing honestly. That was the largest adjustment coming to Swat: learning the level of effort to maintain grades that are still just under my friends,’” Girardi said. Girardi emphasized how important SOLIS has been for her already in processing the emotions she goes through in relation to the academic transition. She described the first meeting as “like a group therapy session.”

For Montoya, what exacerbated her frustration with the community was the feeling that people were uncomfortable with her expressing that frustration, or could not understand that frustration. Describing the existence of “anger police” on campus, Montoya said “There are very legitimate reasons to be angry sometimes, and I don’t understand this Swarthmore taboo around that. Like, ‘watch how you talk about it! You don’t want to sound too angry!’”

Montoya did not know how exactly how to make people understand and talk more productively about the differences between the backgrounds of students, but felt that there “can be other ways of going about talking about it.” Girardi emphasized that, in a setting where diversity — broadly defined — is an idea that holds weight, “class is something people still don’t discuss.”

New group to provide support for low income students

in News by

The Swarthmore Organization of Low-Income Students is a newly-founded group on campus that aims to bring together first-generation college students and students from low-income backgrounds to create a community in which students can guide and support each other at Swarthmore. In addition to serving the low-income community, SOLIS hopes to be a forum for discussion about class.

SOLIS was founded by sophomores Cat Velez-Perry and Delfin Buyco in response to what they felt was a lack of a supportive community for first-generation and low-income background college students, as well as lack of discussion about the issue of class.

“There needs to be a way for lower income people to talk about issues that pertain to them; to also voice their opinions on other issues as well on campus,” said Buyco.

“I just noticed that unless I’m talking to a part of the administration, there’s no one here I can really talk to about being low income, because everyone always acts like it’s not a part of your identity,” said Velez-Perry. “People talk about intersectionality like, ‘I’m queer! I’m Hispanic! I’m Black! I’m Asian! I’m this, I’m that,’ but everyone totally leaves out class like it doesn’t exist, but it exists. It’s just something I feel like people need to talk about more.”

In addition to fostering support and discussions between students, the group is planning to expand its presence and resources around the college by involving faculty and administration. Buyco saidthat  SOLIS hopes to connect with the financial aid office and set up help workshops for students who otherwise would have to go through the process of applying for aid by themselves. Financial aid staff may also be invited to a panel where they can answer questions about how the aid process works, as well as how the aid package is determined for each student, according to Velez-Perry. Other plans include the creation of a list of resources available to students in need, establishing a platform on which low-income students can raise their concerns to the general community and forming sibling programs and panel discussions where first-generation or low-income upperclassmen, alumni and faculty can advise first-year students through problems.

“We wanted to make a club that we wanted ourselves our freshman year,” Buyco said. “We wanted to do something like that to show lower-income freshmen that there’s such a community.”

The eventual goal of SOLIS is to become a force for social outreach in Chester. Velez-Perry envisions SOLIS partnering with other social justice groups already established on campus and working to help high school students in Chester with college essays, SAT preparation and understanding financial aid.

“We hope that down the line that SOLIS members can also be part of that social justice [outreach] especially because they themselves have experienced … what it means to be low-income,” said Buyco. “Hopefully we can give insight to a lot of the social justice groups here.”

The administration is lending SOLIS its support as a part of a focused outreach towards first-generation and lower income students according to Karen Henry, dean of first-year students.

“I think this population of students has always had support from various different pockets of the administration just because there’s a lot of overlap,” said Henry. “But this year we’ve tried to do more of a concerted effort and to expand the number of administrative planned workshops and supporting student initiatives on their own. So one of the things we’re doing is working with the student group to help them get organized and to provide support for them.”

Velez-Perry noted that another  major initiative being discussed by faculty and administration is a bridge program, which would give opportunities for students to come to Swarthmore and take classes over the summer to get acclimated to the academic intensity and class structures they may not have experienced during high school. SOLIS would be called upon as an advising body to explain what would be good for the program.

The group had its first open meeting on Friday, September 26 and was met with positive response.

“We asked the people there, ‘What do you guys want from this group? What do you guys envision SOLIS to be?’ Quite amazingly, it hit spot on with our mission statement,” said Buyco.

“Some of these things me and Delfin didn’t even think about, but people were just shouting things out and they were really excited and serious about it,” said Velez-Perry. “We had an IC intern there. We had someone who was working in the admissions office. Someone who was working with the Lang Center.”

SOLIS originally met as a closed group but now will hold open meetings every Friday at 8 p.m.

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