Swarthmore low-income students want a more inclusive campus

Over the past few weeks, a few articles have been written about the Swarthmore Organization of Low-Income Students (SOLIS), a new student group for low-income and first-generation students.

I had been waiting for this type of student organization to start at Swarthmore. In reading articles about different school initiatives for low-income students, Swarthmore’s presence had been nonexistent.

Economically, Swarthmore isn’t the most diverse. The New York Times’ college accessibility rankings recently placed Swarthmore in the middle of its list. Among its 1,500 students, 15% receive Federal Pell Grants, which mostly go to students whose families make below $60,000. The rankings were based on the percentage of freshman in the three prior academic years who received Federal Pell Grants and the average net price in the 2012-2013 school year for students with household incomes of $30,000 to $48,000 a year.

The large wealth disparity on campus makes it more essential to have a group like SOLIS because low-income and first-generation students might be more marginalized. This sentiment is echoed in one of the articles about SOLIS.

In the article “New group to provide support for low-income students,” the purpose of SOLIS is described.

“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.”

To combat the lack of support they see on campus, group members have several initiatives in mind. One of their major goals is to launch a bridge program for incoming freshmen that will help students adjust to the culture and workload of an elite institution.

In the article “SOLIS: A New Support Group for Low-Income Students” co-founder Catherine Velez-Perry says:

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

The article also says:

“…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.”

Velez-Perry mentioned that a bridge program had existed in the past, but that it had slowly evolved into today’s Tri-College Institute for Identity, Equality, and Social justice, which is an orientation program broadly focused on social justice.

Focusing on reinstituting a bridge program for first-generation and low-income students is a smart move. As Velez-Perry mentions, some students need more help “adjusting” to this new climate. It isn’t about intelligence, but about the need to learn new behavior. If we leave it up to chance, it makes the transition for students much harder.

In addition to the bridge program, the group wants to create a directory of scholarships and mentorships available to low-income students, work with the financial aid office to hold workshops about applying for aid, and establish a platform to address low-income student concerns.

Creating a campus culture where class is included in conversations of diversity is one of their central goals.

Velez-Perry says:

“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.”

At the group’s inception, the group only accepted Pell Grant recipients. This struck me as strange, but I understand how being in a campus environment hostile to your identity can make you defensive. When you don’t feel like you have a lot of safe spaces, you ardently protect the space you do have. In the Socioeconomic Diversity Alliance at UChicago, we would often debate whether we should have closed or open meetings. Our desire for this space stemmed from feeling so marginalized in other spaces that we didn’t want to compromise that.

SOLIS is now open to all students, though some meetings will be closed. They want to have some closed meetings to make it easier to build community and share experiences with fellow low-income students.

A lot of the issues they raise will be easier to combat with a strong community. It will also help combat the issue of decentralization. Some resources exist, but they are difficult to find. For example: The school offers the Rubin Scholars Mentoring Program, which is a special program for first-generation and low-income students, but not all students learn of this opportunity.

Fortunately, it seems the administration is being somewhat responsive to SOLIS’ efforts.

One of the articles quotes 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 [SOLIS] to help them get organized and to provide support for them.”

While the information given by Dean Henry is quite vague, the very fact that she responded to the concerns of a new group publicly indicates the administration is at least taking their concerns seriously. Velez-Perry notes that administrators are also going over the potential for a bridge program.

As this group progresses, one of the central steps they can take is aligning themselves with supportive members of the administration.

In a recent article, the new director of the Swarthmore Intercultural Center Amer Ahmed mentioned wanting to work closely with several groups, including SOLIS. One of the best decisions the Socioeconomic Diversity Alliance at UChicago made was to pursue a close relationship with our multicultural affairs office.

Addressing issues of low-income students is difficult because it’s uncharted territory. Finding the right allies is essential. There is no legacy of this kind of student group, so these students need to create a new narrative.

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