Why do we make accessing scholarships so hard?

*Note: The ‘we’ I speak of in this piece refers to those who fund scholarships, scholarship programs/coordinators and educators both at the high school and college level.*

In April of 2012, I sat at a luncheon called Mujeres Destacadas, that honored Latinx women who had made a great impact on their communities. It is a luncheon my mother created, and one that I had been fortunate enough to attend for six consecutive years. It was the spring before my first year of college and I was telling everyone that I was going to register at Hunter College. I had been accepted to Smith College (and Syracuse University) as well but could not afford it and received very little financial aid (that was eventually taken away when I received outside aid.)

Given that it would probably be one of the last luncheons I’d be able to attend for a while, I took the opportunity to surprise my mother that year by saying a few words about the impact it had on me as a young latinx woman to be able to see so many powerful women doing great work in a multitude of ways. At the same event, and at my mother’s table, sat Soledad O’Brien who after hearing me speak, heard my mother talking about the guilt she felt around not being able to send me to Smith. About an hour into the event, my mom called me over to her table and told me that Soledad wanted to talk to me. I can remember clearly that she took my hand and said, “I hear you want to go to Smith?” and I nodded, a bit taken aback, and she followed up by saying “We’re going to send you to Smith.” My eyes went wide as she continued. “My husband and I have a scholarship and we want to make you our 13th scholar.” I looked at my mom who nodded through her tears and in that single moment. My life was changed.

I arrived on campus that fall feeling like someone had made a mistake. I was convinced I was only accepted because I checked off a lot of diversity boxes. I was convinced that having a scholarship was something to be ashamed of, so I avoided speaking about it. Even though I had earned the scholarship, I still felt uncomfortable asking for money, sure that someone had made a mistake when they invested in me.

Today, you can’t get me to shut up about the impact that the Powherful Foundation has had on me and the ways in which they supported me once I started to feel less shame and more pride. They helped to cultivate a community of scholars, and I became part of something bigger. I never imagined that right after college my first two jobs would be involved with scholarships. I got the chance to cultivate an experience for scholars and enable and empower them in a way that my first-year self really needed.

However, despite my gratitude, and the hard work I put in, a constant thought that has been with me since college has been: why does it have to be so hard? And what happens to the kids who aren’t fortunate enough to get a scholarship, who didn’t have Soledad O’Brien in their corner?

It’s these thoughts that are on my mind daily as I take on a role that includes coordinating a scholarship for young women. At Rutgers-Newark, (where I worked after graduating, as the National Program Coordinator for the amazing BOLD Women’s Leadership Network) I learned that there really is a way to revolutionize honors, to give students a chance to present themselves as a whole rather than how they appear on paper. It was there I really learned that I could use my voice and my position to make a change. So as I settle into this new role, in my hometown, in a county I have spent so much of my life in, I continue to ask the question, why do we make it so hard?

Many scholarships look for the “most excellent,” the kids with the 3.5 and above GPAs, part of every club and team with acceptance letters from Ivy League schools. Then, they often look for a backstory that would enable them, as a donor, to happily pat themselves on the back. They want drama, they want proof of adversity.

The reality is that when we send these students to institutions that weren’t built for them to succeed, we fail them by not acknowledging those difficulties. We expect students to adjust to a new environment, deal with mental health issues, adjustment issues, missing home and feeling guilt about being away from a family that may be struggling. We check in with students and only want to hear about the good things, only want to know that they’re on track to graduate or that they’re doing well in class. We don’t ask if they’ve eaten, when the last time they slept was, if they need to see a counselor and if so if they’ve made an appointment. Or how they’re doing after finding out that the counselors office couldn’t fit them in for another few weeks. (Something that happened to me several times during my time in college.) We don’t remind them enough that they’re not burdens, that they earned the money and that we as coordinators are their allies and support whenever they walk into a financial aid office.

We are in charge of empowering them, of teaching them how to advocate for themselves. We are responsible for teaching them that they shouldn’t just be happy to be there, shouldn’t feel shy about disrupting structures because they too deserve to find their joy and happiness, they too deserve to feel comfortable, seen and validated.

It is often said of my generation and folks younger than us that we’re not tough enough. But perhaps it’s because instead of saying “that’s just the way it is” we prefer to ask, “why is that the way it is and what can be done about it?” Why must a college experience include sleepless nights, various addictions and an insular cultivation of mental health issues? Why must a student prioritize an essay which is just a regurgitation of class lessons when they can barely get out of bed or they have no money in their pocket to buy groceries but hey, at least the tuition is paid!

But before we even get to the college experience, we have to ask ourselves, what does a deserving scholar look like? Particularly when it comes to students of color. Why are we only invested in the kids with the 4.0s? Why are we only invested in the kids who want to do model UN and show clear vision and drive from early on? Why is it when a student is absent too much they are punished instead of asked about what has happened that has put them in this position? Often times it has to do with a lack of resources, absent guardians, having to do more than is “usual” for someone of their age. What about the students who have 2.5s, who aren’t going to be lawyers or doctors or anything deemed in the realm of “prestigious.” The kids who may not be great future leaders of the world or cure cancer. These students still deserve to be cared for, still deserve to be empowered and validated, still deserve to have a seat at the table, have a voice, have a chance to be better if they want to be but know that regardless of where they land, they are still worthy. College acceptance or not.

I often hear that people want to invest in students of color, especially those from low income backgrounds. But often times, they want the most “excellent” of students who still manage to thrive despite not having much access to any privileges. But, in order to prove themselves deserving of a scholarship, they often must perform their trauma endlessly in order to prove that they have earned their spot. What do we benefit from asking a student we have given money to, to speak and tell us all about their broken home, or their abuse or the absence of a parent or parents? What about when we realize the projection of what we think they’ve experienced doesn’t match what they actually experienced? Do we even give them the agency to decline an invitation to speak or share their story?

Do we think about the questions we ask in our applications? Are we looking for actually driven leaders or are we looking to find the student who will make us feel good, that will make us look impressive at dinner parties or on your Facebook where you brag about being able to give a scholarship? Why must we have to work so hard to convince others that students are worth investing in because they're people, they're our future, they’re worthy and deserving. Why do we not reiterate these points?

I saw a tweet the other day that said there are two kinds of people in the world. The one’s who say “I had to go through it so you should too.” And the one’s who say, “I had to go through it, so I’ll work to make sure you don’t”

I feel passionate about the latter, about disrupting systems, about making changes in the smallest and biggest of ways. It is increasingly important that we take care of our students, of our youth of color. They deserve to know that they are worthy just as they are. They are worthy not because of their income, not because of their brilliance, but simply because everyone, deserves a shot.

I spent a long time thinking that I was undeserving of my scholarship. I am privileged enough to have a supportive family who loves me endlessly. I saw and still see this as my greatest advantage. But despite this, and despite the level of access that I experienced during my childhood, the college I wished to attend was still far too expensive. Getting that scholarship changed my life and I used to think that they had made a mistake.

But I see now that they were making an investment in me, they were looking at my potential and telling me that I deserved a shot, that I had earned it for being exactly who I was. I see that more clearly now and am grateful for the ways in which they empowered me, the ways in which they made me feel validated, the way in which we all grew together. I know now that it all happened so that I could be exactly where I am now. So that I could have a chance to create the change I want to see.

It’s time that we start to make concrete changes.

It’s time to stop making it so hard for students to get scholarships.

It’s time we stop asking students to perform their trauma in order to prove their worthiness.

It’s time to stop thinking that we all somehow have this executive decision power to determine who is and is not deserving of a college education.

It’s about access. It’s about compassion. It’s about not just lifting up one student and hoping for the best, but rather looking at the systems that enable students to fail and asking ourselves how we can fix or rebuild it.

🇵🇷 A deep believer in a better and safer world. (They/Them/Theirs) Director of Racial Justice & Youth Programming @ YWCA White Plains & Central Westchester

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