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Proposal to create space for low-income students, combat stigma

| Associate Editor

In an effort to address the needs of low-income students on campus, the two undergraduate representatives to the Washington University board of trustees will present a proposal to the board on May 5 at their semesterly meeting, hoping to foster community and provide resources for those students.

In light of the University-wide push to increase the number of low-income students on campus following recent negative press concerning the number of Pell Grant eligible students, the proposal seeks to connect these students to each other and communicate the resources available to them as simply as possible.

The proposal entails creating a space centrally located on campus for low-income students to be able to find resources, connect with students of similar identities and take full advantage of their time at Washington University. It also hopes to break down stigmas surrounding low-income students on campus by fostering a more inclusive community.

The proposal is the culmination of the yearlong position occupied by seniors Scott Jacobs and Shyam Akula. As part of their work with the board of trustees, Jacobs and Akula are expected to create, detail and present a project centering on one issue they deem to be of pressing importance to the University.

“What we are proposing is a University-wide centralization of all of the resources that do exist and also creating resources that presently don’t in one central space, so that low-income students basically have a one-stop shop to take advantage of any services that they could otherwise not know the benefit of utilizing,” Jacobs said.

“There are many, many issues that face the student body, but since the University has made a commitment to recruiting low-income students, it’s also important that we build our infrastructure to support those students and to support their success as they arrive here,” he added.

Both Jacobs and Akula stressed the importance of maintaining student agency with the center and noted that part of their proposal would include having the center be largely student run.

“We’re also talking about supports such as having 10, 12, 15 student workers who work part time in the center as their work-study and are then able to take advantage of some financial resources while taking part in the activism and community building that’s important to supporting the success of all low-income students on campus,” Akula said.

Even though the proposal has yet to be presented to the board of trustees—which would need to approve funding for the project—it has garnered support from both the administration and the students who would work closely with its implementation.

Alex Rutherford, a freshman member of Washington University for Undergraduate Socioeconomic Diversity (WU/FUSED) and TriO—a Federal program designed to support students from disadvantaged backgrounds—noted that low-income students can often feel duped by the University due to the difficulty of finding resources on campus.

“It’s like you’re being sold a lie, basically, that Wash. U. says that it offers all these things for lower-income students—except then you come here and you don’t feel like those resources actually exist,” Rutherford said. “Having a sort of central hub where we can go and know that if we have a question it will be answered, or if we have a question and it can’t be answered, we have a team of people who are helping us work through it.”

Rutherford added that the construction of the center could aid in decreasing the stigma of being a low-income student at the University.

“I think by increasing that visibility, we’re decreasing the stigma,” she said. “So even by just creating this space, we’re making it more OK for students to be low-income and be at a predominantly rich, white school, basically.”

The University has made national news over the past few years for being well below average in its percentage of enrolled students who are eligible for Pell Grants. In recent years, student groups and faculty have advocated for a greater presence of these students on campus.

Associate Vice Chancellor for Students Rob Wild acknowledged the more recent concerns, in the wake of the national attention, but he also noted the concerted efforts of the administration to effect change with regard to socioeconomic diversity.

“The University has really put their money where their mouth is and said we’re going to do this and we’re going to have to stretch to do it, we’re going to have to make some sacrifices to do it, but we’re going to do this because it’s the right thing to do,” Wild said.

Assistant Director for Academic Progress Harvey Fields noted that even though the national attention might have given the school more urgency to work on a project like this now, that reasoning does not lessen the impact the proposal should hold.

“This is not the project of the moment, this is not the focus of the day, this is a reflection of who we are as Washington University in St. Louis,” Fields said.

As part of their research for the proposal, Jacobs and Akula—along with Fields—traveled to Stanford University to study how that institution supports its low-income students. Although their own proposal is unique and not modeled off Stanford’s existing structure, the representatives noted that their observations showed the potential impact of such physical spaces in effecting change.

But despite the pressing nature of the issue, fully implementing the proposal could take up to three years, Jacobs said. Two immediate problems facing the proposal’s success would be the location of the space and the funds needed to construct it.

“We both feel strongly that if it were possible, this should be in the [Danforth University Center],” Jacobs said. “Just because this would be targeted to serving low-income students primarily does not mean this is not a student-body-wide issue.”

Akula added that the success of the project largely depends on the ability of the University to cover its expenses.

“There’s some, but [there’s] not a lot of discretionary money that the central administration can use for initiatives like this,” he said.

Provost Holden Thorp also cautioned against unbridled optimism in terms of the timeline and scope of the proposal.

“It won’t be something where the board says, ‘OK, this is really important and we want you to implement Scotty and Shyam’s proposal to the letter,’” Thorp said. “They’re going to tell me to work with them to figure out how to prioritize the various things they’ve asked for and figure out what’s realistic to do.”

Amir Hassan, a junior and member of TriO and WU/FUSED, expressed little doubt that the center can and will be successful going forward.

“I really don’t think there are any obstacles…I think that these opportunities are here at Wash. U. and they’re accessible to most students,” Hassan said. “Once you have enough funding and administration support, as long as the students running it are passionate about the work, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t [work].”

Going forward, Jacobs urges students to keep in mind that they have the agency to create change on campus.

“We are bringing this up to the highest level at the University, but to actually affect meaningful change, it will have to come from students working with the people who work here everyday,” he said. “And students have the ability to craft this exactly how they want it to look at the very end.”

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