Some low-income students struggle with transition to the college

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.”

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