L a st winter I, like many other Penn students, thought ahead to what opportunities waited the coming summer. When perusing Penn’s International Int ernship Program, I discovered one of my favorite professors was coordinating a project with health research in rural Guatemala.
With these bonuses and a desire for health care study, I found the position to be a wonderful opportunity to learn within a Latin American context. As fate would have it, I was accepted into the program and I gladly agreed to attend. With the hefty stipend amount described, I knew that my summer would be set — or so I thought. A few financial discrepancies would all unfold into a logistical nightmare.
Promised an initially fair stipend, the numbers and my possibilities dwindled down. I received a letter with a number of miscellaneous and training “costs” that removed two-thirds of my funding. Additional misinformation did not aid my cause as I discovered unvoiced “costs” including flights, meal plans and housing — finding out the latter only a few days before our planned departure. With no financial resources to pull from, I sought support and wisdom from a variety of sources.
An advisor at Penn Global suggested applying for “outside scholarships,” unhelpful information to be employed a few days before the trip began. Those at Student Financial Services had nothing to offer either. Panicking, I turned to Wells Fargo to seek a loan, only to learn that I did not qualify. I was placed in a situation in which time was inflexible and monetary resources fixed. With much frustration, I conceded to my apparent reality: I was not going to Guatemala. I returned home distraught and disheartened.
At an institution that boasts of its numerous opportunities available to all students, I was a blip in the system that went down unnoticed. After declaring my departure from the program, I was instantly and somewhat viciously asked by Penn Global staff to return all previous funding. As a student who receives full financial aid during the semester, I do not have monetary pools to instantly access upon request. In the end, Penn Global did have their money returned to them. However, I refuse to apologize for appearing to be a negligent, non-compliant student in what I can only describe as a systematic perpetuation of socioeconomic inequality.
In a recent article in The New York Times, Peter Dreier writes that elite institutions need to “look less like an aristocracy and more like the meritocracy they are supposed to embody.” Though I have personal qualms about meritocratic ideology, I do agree with the beginning sentiment — that Penn, in my experience , is still in many senses an aristocracy.
Let me be clear: I am in no way negating or belittling the experiences and involvement of all persons in the International Internship Program. Indeed, I have many close friends who have gone on these trips who now have transformative and insightful stories to share.
Nor am I saying that all Penn Global programs are flawed. In fact, some programs were well executed and students were given full funding as promised. All I wish is to voice my experience, one that did not have its happy ending and one that should not go overlooked. Until Penn Global and the larger university community is more considerate of the socioeconomic situations and interests of all constituent students, these problems will continue to manifest themselves as more students fall through the cracks of the institution.
Sean Massa is a College senior from San Jose, Calif., studying health and societies. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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