I am a Penn alumna, Penn parent and Penn staff member. I was also a low-income student in the 1980s, which is why the recent story in the DP about the difficulty that some first-generation and low-income students have experienced during spring break caught my attention.
Of the many things about being a Penn student in the 1980s that were difficult, spring break wasn’t one of them because it was not one of my priorities. I grew up in West Philadelphia as the oldest of four sisters in a family where I was still expected to participate in the care of my siblings and as a result, did not participate much in late-night activities on campus, let alone travel much for breaks.
I know through my own experiences as a student, and now as a Penn administrator, that first-generation and low-income students face unique challenges. And Penn, along with higher education, is having a paradigm-shifting moment as the University community is committed to exploring ways in which we can better address these challenges.
For example, this year, Student Registration and Financial Services, Penn Dining and VPUL collaborated with the Penn student-led Swipe Out Hunger, to proactively reach out to high-need students with options for meals during the Thanksgiving and winter breaks, and our most recent spring break. While in the past we applied solutions on a case-by-case basis, these efforts expanded upon that and successfully assisted many of our students who remained on campus during the breaks.
One participant shared a note with me which read, “Because of this program, I had a lot less ‘life stress’ to worry about (stresses like, ‘Can I afford groceries this week?’) and I felt like I was able to focus on preparing for the experiments and interviews that I’ll be responsible for next semester, most of which I could not have done away from the lab at home.”
Also during the spring break, meals and pantry items were made available through the Greenfield Intercultural Center, and SRFS provided cash advances for meals to eligible students, among them high-need students and international students reluctant to travel home, as they are from countries impacted by the volatility surrounding the travel ban.
No student should ever have to worry about meals. Whatever we need to do to make that known to every single student and to do so in a way that affirms their dignity and celebrates their place in our community, it is our responsibility to do so. And the same applies to school supplies, and an appropriate amount of support to level the playing field in the academic and community experience for every student at Penn.
There are, however, limits to what Penn or any other institution or individual can do. In an environment as diverse as Penn, there are bound to be differences in student experience.
My life has evolved from being a student navigating a much less diverse Penn campus in the 80s, to an administrator helping to advance Penn’s goals of access and inclusion through grant-based financial aid in a much more diverse environment, and to having my child attend and graduate from Penn and begin a career.
That journey has been in a single generation.
My Ivy League education has afforded me many opportunities, including access to people with means and relationships that I might never be able to replicate. It’s a reality that I accept as a member of a diverse society. And I’m proud to collaborate with staff and students who are committed to helping create the best possible experience for all of our students, even while recognizing that to expect the experiences to be the same would be to resist the true nature of diversity.
I am equally proud of the University’s commitment to making Penn more accessible to students regardless of their socioeconomic backgrounds. It is a commitment that has resulted in the dramatic shift in the number of first generation freshmen from one in 20 in 2004 to one in eight in 2016. Penn has also increased the number of students from underrepresented groups and nearly half of the undergraduate student population receives financial aid. As a result, our University community benefits from diversity of thought, perspective and experience like never before.
KAREN HAMILTON, 1987 College graduate, is an alumni parent and director of communications for Penn Student Registration and Financial Services.