R ecently, my fellow columnist Yessenia Gutierrez wrote about challenging the misguided notion about low-income students being “privileged” and “lucky” for not having to pay tuition. I want to expand on this in order to illuminate some of the major problems with the way that we talk about scholarships at Penn.
Once a semester, I get dressed up in clothes that I feel neither comfortable nor myself in, make the trip to either Annenberg or New York City and join hundreds of other students receiving financial aid for Penn’s Scholarship Celebration.
This is an opportunity for students who receive financial aid to gather together with our scholarship donors. It’s a large and formal celebration, during which we hear speeches from President Gutmann, George Weiss and two students whose educations have been made financially possible because of the gifts that these donors make.
President Gutmann always says that this is her “favorite event of the year,” and it’s understandable why. The event presents a unique opportunity to gather donors and urge them to continue donating to Penn and so that our school’s “all grant, no loan” policy can stay intact. The name implies that Penn students don’t need to take out loans to finance their education, which for so many of us is completely untrue. Furthermore, this event is emblematic of some major issues that often go unaddressed about donations and wealth redistribution.
I want to make it very clear that I personally am extremely grateful to my donor for making my education at this school possible. Attending Penn has been an overwhelmingly positive experience, and I recognize that it is opening up so many doors for me moving forward. But that is part of the problem. We must not forget that the doors and resources opening for us are made possible through closing doors and taking resources away from others.
Urging donors to continue to funnel money into Penn by using individual students as cases of success is troubling. First of all, the way that we as students are expected to present ourselves when we meet our donors is extremely uncomfortable. Not a single one of my friends with whom I’ve interacted at these events feels comfortable with how they feel they must act and dress. We all put on airs because of the clear power dynamic that exists when we are physically in the room with those funding our education. It is clear that in return for financial assistance, we are to put on a show and implicitly tone down our politics, appearance and sometimes even gender expression.
Secondly, talking about the prosperity of certain students who are able to come here from difficult financial and other life circumstances can very easily take attention away from the systematic problems that put certain people in positions to attend institutions like Penn while leaving others out completely. We have to question why we are where we are while others are not.
When we graduate, those of us who have the resources to redistribute wealth will be sought out to donate to Penn. While this is a worthwhile cause, and while it is absolutely vital that Penn takes the responsibility of continuing to provide more and more financial aid for low-income students, we should also consider other places in which our money can make a difference.
Does donating to Penn really change the system in which elite universities are the most respected form of education providers while the majority of the population does not have access to these financial and educational resources? I would say no, and we are not only complicit in this, but actively enabling it.
From grassroots activist and humanitarian aid organizations to online donations for chronically ill people or people in particularly difficult financial times, there are much more important and impactful places to redistribute our wealth into.
We can choose to invest in a few students and their educations, but if we really want to make a social impact, then we need to use our resources to change entire systems, not just funnel money into already wealthy institutions.
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