Helping low-income college students feel at home

Amy Scott Sep 1, 2015

Helping low-income college students feel at home

Amy Scott Sep 1, 2015

Gabriel Ramos remembers the first time he felt out of place at Vassar College. He was in his dorm, talking to a fellow student about high school. When the student had been assigned a project about the Holocaust, his family flew to Europe to visit Holocaust museums.

“I was like, ‘okay, you are very different from me,” Gabe recalls thinking.

Gabe did not grow up in the kind of family that could just jet off to Europe to do field research. His mom worked as a bus driver. His dad moved from job to job. Neither parent went to college.

Gabriel Ramos, a junior, is now a peer mentor in the Transitions program. (Amy Scott/Marketplace)

There are a lot more students with backgrounds like Gabe’s than there used to be at Vassar. Over the past eight years, the school’s  financial aid budget has doubled. Sixty percent of students now receive aid. But that means 40  percent come from families that can afford to pay full price — more than $63,000 a year.

At the beginning, the divide was stark.

“What our students were telling us is that they felt that they didn’t belong,” says Benjamin Lotto, Dean of Studies at Vassar. “They were great students. They graduated. They did good work. They got good grades, but they weren’t happy here. They felt like the school was for someone else.”

Those students pushed the college to make changes, and the Transitions program was born.

Now in its sixth year, Transitions is a pre-orientation program for low-income, first-generation and veteran students. Students arrive on campus several days before the rest of the freshman class — almost two weeks before classes start.

At the welcome dinner for students and their families, they’re told over and over that they belong here.

“This is your Vassar,” Luis Inoa, head of residential life, tells them. “This institution is not a gift to you. You are a gift to us.”

Students learn about all the different support services on campus. There are workshops on financial aid, career development and tutoring, and lots of opportunities for students to bond with each other. They tour the city of Poughkeepsie and go bowling together.

The Transitions program includes a session on financial aid. (Amy Scott/Marketplace)

“I liken it to a little bit of Miracle-Gro,” says Inoa, who was the first in his Dominican family to go to a four-year college. “Transitions is just important to kind of give them a head start with some of those necessary relationships.”

Selective colleges have been under pressure to do a better job of serving high-achieving, low-income students. Where those students go to college, and whether they graduate, can make a big difference in their economic lives. Vassar’s efforts have won the college accolades. Last spring it received a $1 million award from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation for its success in attracting and graduating low-income students. Vassar’s president, Catharine Bond Hill, has spent much of her career studying college access and affordability as an economist.

Low-income students at the college are graduating at the same rate as students overall, “which is, I think, a very important measure of success, because the advantages of going on to higher education come from actually getting the degree,” Hill says.

For this new crop of Transitions students, though, graduation is still a long way off, and things could get rocky along the way. In a session called “Counseling and Self-Care,” students are encouraged to take advantage of the college’s mental health services.

“The first thing we want you to remember (about) the counseling service is that we are free,” Wendy Freedman, director of the counseling service, tells them. “Free. Number one.”

Money is out in the open in these sessions. Part of helping low-income students fit in is recognizing that they can’t afford a lot of the extras other students take for granted. Junior Gabriel Ramos, the student who told the Holocaust museum story, says that can make for some awkward situations. When some of his friends went to Mexico for spring break last year, he stayed on campus.

When classmates go out for dinner, “I’m like ‘uh-uh, I’ve got to pay my phone bill,’” he says. “So yeah, those moments do happen.”

Then there are deeper insecurities. Incoming freshman Catherine Hernandez was a top student at her vocational high school in Las Vegas. Even so, “my biggest fear is not meeting up to the rest of the intellectual expectations,” she says. “Sometimes I’m afraid just that because I don’t have the natural aptitude to do things that I’m not going measure up.”

That’s a pretty common feeling among first-generation college students. It’s known as imposter syndrome. To build confidence, students get a dry run in the classroom. They spend a few days taking mini classes, taught by professors who were first-generation college students themselves.

Along with the reading assignments and homework, sociology professor Eréndira Rueda takes her students through an exercise called Common Ground. They stand in a circle and students step to the center if they share something in common.

“Common Ground if you grew up translating for your family,” she says.

Several students step forward. They talk about helping their parents file tax returns or explaining water bills. Freshman D’Angelo Mori was among them.

Vassar freshman D’Angelo Mori (Amy Scott/Marketplace)

He grew up in Gaffney, SC, one of just a handful of Hispanic kids in his mostly white high school. It wasn’t until he arrived at this elite campus in the Husdon Valley that he felt he finally fit in.

“I’m pretty excited,” he says afterward. “I’m very surprised to see that there are other people like me, because all my life I felt very alone in my situation.”

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