“Everyone is poor in graduate school,” I explained to Anna, a chemistry major who was weighing the offers she had received to several excellent Ph.D. programs. Exact amounts of stipends don’t really matter, I told her. They’re all roughly the same, and you’ll have enough to live on. She chose a graduate school, enrolled, and I didn’t hear from her much until I got an e-mail three years later.
She had to leave her Ph.D. program, she wrote. Her mother had been diagnosed with cancer and had no way to support herself. So Anna (not her real name) moved back home. “Being in the Social Security office,” she told me, “trying to get health care for my mother, brought me to tears. I thought that I had come so far, but here I was back where my family’s welfare checks had originated.”
Anna had been my advisee as an undergraduate at Smith College. We had discussed her courses, her academic progress, and her plans for life after college, but I never knew that her family had relied on welfare. She had taken classes in our small department, which prides itself on strong, personal connections to our students. But we’d had no clue about Anna’s financial circumstances. I knew she had attended a private high school, but I didn’t know that a family friend had paid for it. I thought she had a quirky sense of fashion—not that her choice to wear secondhand clothes wasn’t a choice at all. In my offhand remark about graduate stipends, I had breezily referred to a 22-year-old earning more than $20,000 a year, with tuition and and health insurance included, as “poor.” Anna already knew what “poor” was.
Even as colleges and universities redouble their commitments to first-generation and low-income students, it’s clear we still have a great deal to learn. Last December, The New York Times published an article on this topic, “For Poor, Leap to College Often Ends in a Hard Fall.” In lengthy and provocative profiles, the story reflected on how students at even the most well-intentioned colleges and universities are held back—by family pressures, self-doubt, and deceptively “small” barriers—from reaching their educational potential.
The profiles in The Times did not have happy endings. Fortunately, Anna’s story does. She enrolled in a Ph.D. program closer to home and finished her degree while helping to care for her mother. She is a postdoc now at the same university and, with luck, will make a fine professor, if that’s what she chooses.
At Smith, a commitment to students of promise is a fundamental value. While not every story ends as positively as Anna’s did, many do. And when disadvantaged students succeed in college and beyond, their experiences teach us what we do well and how we can do it better.
When I began teaching, I knew there were offices and departments at Smith that helped students in need—financial aid, residence life, counseling services. I figured my responsibility was to point a student in the right direction if she seemed to be struggling. Chemistry was my expertise, and I had a real fear of treading on students’ personal boundaries. That was for someone else to do—someone with more expertise on those matters than a chemist.
More recently, though, I’ve come to realize that my role as a faculty member sometimes gives me a frontline view into a student’s life—if I make a conscious effort to look. I didn’t know Anna’s story until after she left, because I didn’t ask the right questions when she was here.
To the extent that we “get it right” at Smith, we do so because supporting low-income and first-generation students is woven into every aspect of our community. Support starts before they enter our admissions pool and extends well beyond the moment they cross the stage at commencement. And much of that support involves pragmatic and relatively inexpensive gestures.
Just as “poor” is a relative term, an incidental expense for one student may be a substantial obstacle for another. Our admissions office purchases fee waivers to cover the cost of the CSS Financial-Aid Profile for students who just miss the automatic cutoff. We waive our enrollment deposit for Pell Grant recipients and other low-income students. We remove the expectation that very-low-income students can contribute to their education from summer earnings that might be necessary to support their family. We sometimes extend aid for summer courses that low-income students might need. We lend interview suits to students applying for internships and jobs. We keep a “lending library” of regalia for seniors who cannot purchase their own caps and gowns. Those aren’t charitable actions. They’re investments in educational equity.
Most important, we talk and listen. Financial-aid staff members take the time to counsel students and families individually about how financial aid works. The admissions office stays in close contact with the agencies that help us reach out to first-generation college students, since the agencies may be the first to know if a student needs help. And if a student seems to be avoiding the steps she needs to take on her own behalf—whether to renew financial aid, drop or add a course, or sort out a paperwork problem—we don’t let her fall by the wayside.
As a faculty member, I have come to understand that asking questions, and being prepared to hear the sometimes difficult answers, can mean the difference for students between simply making it through college and truly reaping the benefits of higher education. When my colleagues found that first-generation students and students of color weren’t persisting in STEM fields at the same rate as Smith students at large, we created a program focused on mentoring and supporting those students. Study abroad, a signature element of the Smith experience, is accessible to all students because we permit our financial aid to “travel.” Inequity can present itself quite subtly unless we stay alert to its effects.
Even with the best of intentions, and even after years of collective experience, my colleagues and I don’t always get it right. No single college has all the answers, or even answers that are scalable to other institutions. Nonetheless, the more we share our successes, while acknowledging and learning from the hard falls, the more we raise the chances of making good on our commitment to an equitable and transformative education for all of our students.
Author Bio: Kate Queeney is a professor of chemistry at Smith College.