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First-generation, low-income students have faced unprecedented challenges this year due to Penn's high-pressure culture and lack of institutional support.

Credit: Max Mester

After one year of the pandemic, first-generation, low-income students are still facing a variety of challenges — some of which they say stem from Penn's high-pressure culture and a lack of institutional support from the University. 

The Daily Pennsylvanian spoke with FGLI students coping with pandemic-induced financial burdens, worsening mental health, and difficulties finding affordable groceries, all of whom said that Penn could do a better job supporting them. In some cases, they said, the University's policies and communication contributed to their struggles this semester.

College first year Emiliano Castillo, who is a FGLI student, said that the source of many of his problems this semester was Student Financial Services’ failure to grant his appeals to have his financial aid increased for the 2020-2021 school year, or even to notify him of their rejection of his appeals. 

Castillo said that his financial situation has worsened because of the pandemic-related economic downturn, and as a result, he submitted multiple appeals to SFS. Each time, he did not receive an answer for two to three months. He would then call SFS, he said, only to discover that his appeals had been rejected within two weeks after he had sent them. 

“All this time I’d been waiting,” Castillo said. “And they couldn’t even let me know that my appeal was not being processed anymore.”

Because of these experiences with SFS, Castillo said he ultimately had to get a job at Chipotle in order to pay for his tuition costs, since he said that the rates for Penn’s work-study positions were not high enough. He added that he was “basically forced” to get an outside job because of this wage issue, and chose to work at Chipotle because of its tuition benefit program, which allows employees to receive an annual tuition reimbursement of up to $5,250. 

Paul Richards, director of communications for the Division of Finance, wrote in an email to the DP that throughout the summer and fall semester of last year, SRFS received an "unprecedented amount" of communication, which caused longer response times. He added that Penn had approved 320 reevaluation requests for first-year students and 304 reevaluation requests for sophomores, juniors, and seniors since March 17, 2020. 

"We certainly regret any scenario that takes so long to resolve," Richards wrote. "This year in particular presented several challenges around reevaluations, as many family financial situations remained fluid well into the summer and beyond."

On top of bearing the added workload, Castillo said he has been struggling with anxiety and difficulty concentrating, in part due to online classes. Despite being enrolled in the Penn Student Insurance Program, he said he was informed by Student Health Service that SHS will not be able to provide an official diagnosis for what he believes may be ADHD and anxiety to use for accommodations, even if he takes the diagnostic assessments.

Feeling overly exhausted on a daily basis with a five-unit course load and a 20-hour work week at Chipotle, Castillo said he only has time to do “superficial” homework over the weekend and always feels like he's catching up.

“It's always very much like putting out the biggest fire at the moment. So I take my quizzes. I'll take tests, but I can't actually remember the last time I went through the material of any of my classes properly,” Castillo said. “All that I’m really doing is taking tests and quizzes, and preparing for those, instead of actually learning what I'm here to learn.”

Castillo said that his advisor also contributed to the pressure he was under to avoid taking classes pass/fail. Last semester, he decided to take two classes pass/fail, adding that when he met with his academic advisor after doing so, she reacted negatively, influencing his decision not to do the same this spring. 

“Her reaction was basically to be like, ‘This is unbelievable. How could you pass/fail [classes in] your first semester? One of these classes you're taking was one of your major requisites. I don't understand how you could just do this,’” Castillo said.

Similar to the grading policies for both the fall and spring semesters of 2020, students can still opt in to pass/fail all courses, including those that satisfy major or general education requirements. Students thinking of using the option this semester were advised by the undergraduate deans in late January to discuss its implications with the academic advising office in their respective schools ahead of the March 19 deadline, warning that opting into pass/fail could compromise job and graduate school applications.

Aside from academic concerns, Wharton sophomore Annie Vo, who is also a FGLI student, said that the pandemic caused many "little" expenses that have not been accounted for in her financial aid package for the 2020-2021 school year.

She explained that before the pandemic, she relied on club meetings and the Asian supermarkets located in Chinatown and South Philadelphia for food, since it was often possible to get free meals through clubs and less expensive groceries from local markets. Meals are now less affordable because clubs are online, she said, adding that she does not feel comfortable taking the SEPTA to the markets because of COVID-19.

Vo said that Penn made her options regarding meal plans for the 2020-2021 school year unclear, as she was uncertain about whether she could get one of the University's cheaper meal plans and use her dining refund, so she ultimately decided against it. 

Vo's refund for the academic year was $4,870, the standard allowance for off-campus students. Penn offers a variety of dining plans for upperclassmen, ranging from $1,489 to $2,885 for each semester, but Vo said she hadn't been sure if she could use part of her refund to get one of the cheaper options. 

In addition to the challenges surrounding access to affordable food, Vo said she wishes SFS would incorporate smaller and less anticipated expenses — such as cleaning supplies and masks, which Vo said she has spent a significant amount on — into students' financial aid packages. 

“In reality, FGLI students do need more of a heads up. If you are considering something, let us know,” Vo said. “A lot of FGLI students can't do things on the spot.” 

Vo said that poor communication from Penn is a problem that especially impacts FGLI students, citing the University's decision to cancel on-campus housing for the fall semester, and emails sent by University deans in January discouraging students from using the pass/fail option in spring 2021 and by administrators about the possibility of increased COVID-19 restrictions on campus.

After Penn closed its campus in the fall, Vo scrambled to arrange housing in Philadelphia and said she called SFS repeatedly to make sure she would be able to get a refund before signing her off-campus lease. 

In a group chat comprised of FGLI students, she said everyone seemed to be getting a different answer from SFS about how the housing refund situation would work. Vo eventually heard from SFS in mid-August that she would be getting a refund.

Richards wrote to the DP that determining the different costs of attendance for students in off-campus housing, on-campus housing, and living at home, was "a complex process with many moving parts."

The cost of attendance for the 2020-2021 academic year varied based on students' living situations. For students living with family, the estimated cost of attendance was $68,274 as a result of decreased dining, housing, and transportation costs. For off-campus students, the estimated cost of attendance was $78,890, and for on-campus, $79,635.

"We understand that this created some confusion as we moved as quickly as possible to address quickly changing circumstances," Richards wrote. 

Penn's high-performance culture and the stress of virtual classes have also been additional sources of stress for Jade Nguyen, a College first year and FGLI student. 

Like Castillo, Nguyen was frustrated by the perceived mixed messages in the deans' email, which she said made her feel like her struggles weren’t “extreme” enough to warrant the pass/fail option — especially since she’s thinking about graduate school.

“I was thinking of taking a class pass/fail,” Nguyen said. “But after reading that email, I thought, ‘Oh, crap, should I not?’ The fact that they said that … I don't know what to do. I don't know how to look good [on my transcript], but I'm literally doing so terribly right now.”

Nguyen, Castillo, and Vo called on the University to communicate better with them, and put more effort into understanding students’ unique struggles. 

“I feel like they're just saying they understand what we're going through. But I don't think they do,” Nguyen said.