The following article, originally
published in The
Chronicle of Higher Education on
February 25, 2013, is reprinted with permission from
By Kate Queeney, professor of
"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.
Kate Queeney (on right)
guides a student in the chemistry lab.
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
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
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
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.