SOLIS: A New Support Group for Low-Income Students

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

The Swarthmore Organization for Low-Income Students (SOLIS) met for the first time on September 26th to discuss issues that low-income students face at Swarthmore. The two founders of the club, Delfin Buyco ‘17 and Catherine Velez-Perry ‘17, started SOLIS upon recognizing the difficulty first-generation, low-income students have in adjusting to the culture surrounding an elite liberal arts institution.

SOLIS will ideally support students by providing resources that range from textbook funds to safe spaces for class-related discussions. Special opportunities such as the Rubin Scholar Mentoring Program, can be hard to find — SOLIS hopes to shorten the search process by creating a directory of scholarships and mentorships available for low-income students.

Additionally, Velez-Perry discussed a work-in-progress bridge program that will acclimate incoming low-income students to the culture and workload at Swarthmore. Such a bridge program has been offered in the past but it slowly evolved into today’s Tri-College Institute for Identity, Equality, and Social Justice. Velez-Perry hopes to work with the Admissions Office to reinstate a summer bridge program this upcoming school year to help transition between life before and at Swarthmore.

“In high school, I got straight A’s by just doing two homework assignments. Usually, low-income students come from terrible high schools,” Velez-Perry said.

“Swarthmore was the first time I actually started studying,” Buyco said.

Both noted that the hallmark of a Swarthmore education is its intensity, and this may create a vicious cycle of poor performance for low-income students. Unaccustomed to the pressure, many students cave into the stress at Swarthmore. Some low-income students may be reluctant to ask for help—Buyco and Velez-Perry touched on the fear of being called “lazy” or a dependent on government handouts.

This week’s meeting focused on intersectionality. While other identity groups certainly call for equity, some low-income students, like Buyco and Velez-Perry, find the campus’ lack of discussion and understanding of class in intersectional conversations disturbing. Both spoke about their own experiences with misperceptions of class at Swarthmore: “I’ve learned that it’s weird to be Asian and poor. People say stuff like: ‘You’re Asian, aren’t you supposed to be rich?’” Buyco said, “So I think it’s better to start off with an awkward conversation than to never start the conversation at all.”

“We need to start this dialogue on campus. Members of SOLIS come from all walks of life, and fit into many identity groups. I am a queer, Hispanic girl from Trenton, but there are students from Bumblefuck, Bumblefuck with different backgrounds who are in the same financial situation as me,” said Velez-Perry.

Questions written on the whiteboard include, “Do you think we can “erase” class from intersectional discussion? If so, should we?” These questions provoked a fruitful discussion that allowed members to share anecdotes, opinions, and fears. At the end of the meeting, Buyco challenged all members to join other identity groups and continue these conversations about class within those microcosms and “safe spaces.”

Velez-Perry emphasized the importance of being educated and aware of how we talk about and respond to class. She said, “It’s sometimes important to make people feel uncomfortable. Others need to know when they are unintentionally offending low-income students, even within other identity groups.”

Recently, SOLIS has changed from having closed to open membership. Originally, the group only accepted Pell Grant recipients, who make up 15% of the student body. “Now we accept anyone who identifies as low-income. I’ve learned that class is a spectrum, so many random factors go into what class you are. On paper, it’s easy to tell who is considered low-income, but then there are factors like how many parents you have,” said Buyco. “Or … [the] highest education in the household,” Velez-Perry said.

In the future, the two co-founders hope to bring their privilege of higher education to help students in Chester. Velez-Perry felt strongly that the main reason that she could attend a school like Swarthmore was because her mentors advocated for her throughout her schooling. In a similar fashion, she wants SOLIS to advocate for Chester’s adolescents so they maintain a drive to achieve and become eligible candidates for colleges like Swarthmore. “The vicious cycle continues because people don’t have anyone for them, and that’s what I hope SOLIS can do,” Velez-Perry said, “Our club is like support and outreach, all-in-one.”

While SOLIS works to change the campus’ culture towards low-income students, it also encourages the administration to examine places where Swarthmore lacks accommodations for low-income individuals. For example, the minimum wage at Harvard and Yale are $10 and $12 respectively, while it is $8.80 at Swarthmore. Discrepancies like this may help explain the inaccessibility of the institution for low-income students, most recently pointed out in a New York Times article that ranked Swarthmore at -0.1 on the College Access Index.

In short, SOLIS’ goals are lofty. SOLIS hopes to change Swarthmore culture by creating a safer and more accepting environment for low-income individuals, help to instate a summer bridge program to increase Swarthmore’s accessibility, and mentor students in Chester. SOLIS meets on Fridays at 8 PM in Kohlberg 228.

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