Pilot program hopes to help Pell-eligible students on campus

| Contributing Reporter

A pilot scholar program launching this year hopes to be the answer to the slew of criticism that has come from students and national media in regards to the lack of socioeconomic diversity in the undergraduate population.

The Deneb STARS Program, spearheaded by assistant provost of student success Anthony Tillman, was created to assist enrolled Pell Grant-eligible freshman students in different capacities throughout their four years in college in an effort to address the lack of diversity on campus beyond admissions numbers. The program, however, will not include any financial aid for students that are a part of it.

Tillman, who assumed his newly-created position on July 1, began to conceptualize a program that would aid the rising number of students receiving federal grants once they were admitted. After less than two months, the result was the Deneb STARS program, named after one of the brightest stars in the Milky Way galaxy. STARS is an acronym that stands for Sustaining Talented Academically Recognized Students.

“For us, ‘Deneb’ tends to represent that, for some students, coming to Washington University may have seemed impossible to think about, impossible to dream about, impossible to imagine,” Tillman said about the inspiration behind the name. “But, because we can see Deneb with an unaided eye, we know that very little is impossible.”

In addition to required Pell Grant eligibility, students invited to the program must not be part of another Washington University scholarship program, such as the Danforth Scholars Program. From the class of 2020, 90 students met these criteria and are part of the program, which hopes to ensure that all students belong to a program that supports them during their time at the University.

“Students who receive Pell Grants and who are not part of those cohort-based initiatives, for the most part have nothing. There is not an entity or infrastructure within the institution who has a responsibility to ensure they’re getting the resources that they need to be successful,” Tillman said.

As members of the program, students will receive individualized mentorship from a group of 45 upperclassmen students who are also recipients of Pell Grants. In addition, Deneb scholars will attend monthly events such as faculty presentations, titled Deneb Talks and lunch meetings with administrators.

“[Faculty members will] talk less about their research and not as much about themselves as professionals but more in terms of personally,” Scott Jacobs, coordinator of the program, said. “So, how did they get to where they are today and how did they overcome any challenges that they might’ve encountered.”

Last year while a senior at Wash. U., Jacobs served as undergraduate representative to the board of trustees at Washington University. During his tenure in that role, he decided to focus on issues regarding socioeconomic diversity, specifically crafting a proposal to create infrastructure that would support a more diverse incoming class. As a result, Jacobs was offered his current position of Coordinator of Student Success Projects to work alongside Tillman in the creation of the program.

“[We’re] looking at certain issues around equity on campus and what we call on the board ‘experiential parity.’ So, making sure that all students have a comfortable experience,” Jacobs said about his role. “We’re looking at certain areas where we can close those gaps too.”

Harvey Fields, assistant director for academic programs at Cornerstone, is joining Tillman and Jacobs in this project as assistant dean of student success after leading an investigative committee to identify ways in which the University could support the increasing number of Pell Grant recipients.

“Collectively as a team, our responsibility is to continue to make sure that we help all of our students at Wash. U. to have a fulfilling, enriching and engaging experience at Washington University,” Fields said.

The decision to create a program geared toward Pell Grant-eligible students comes in tandem with the University’s pledge, made in January of 2015, to increase the number of Pell-eligible students to 13 percent of the freshman class entering in 2020 following heavy scrutiny by national media outlets for Wash. U.’s lack of socioeconomic diversity.

While Washington University hit that percentage this year with the freshman class, it must maintain this number for the next four years in order to successfully accomplish its pledge.

“I’m sure some people think 13 percent isn’t high enough, but that’s what we said we were going to do and that’s what we’ve done,” Provost Holden Thorp said.

As a result of the University’s action plan, the number of low-income students receiving federal aid is expected to increase. In turn, the Deneb STARS program is the next step in this action plan of creating a more diverse environment on campus.

“What we’re going to focus on now is doing what [Tillman] is doing which is make sure that all students feel welcomed and realize that we have every reason to expect them to be successful and that they’re here at Wash. U. because we wanted them here,” Thorp added.

A reception was held during Bear Beginnings to welcome the Deneb STARS scholars and to officially inaugurate this program, which Thorp hopes will be a move forward in the history of the University.

“I think [Deneb STARS] is everything we hoped [Tillman] would come up with and he’s got a good team and they’re working on it,” Thorp said. “It’s an important thing to the University and we’re very excited.”