Thursday, April 17, 2014

Bianca and Kate: a Misnomer U story

I've been in two minds about whether to post about this, but about a month and a half ago, one of our study abroad students -- I'll call her Bianca -- started making noises about possibly having to withdraw from the trip. This alarmed us considerably, since we were already at minimum numbers. Bianca offered no further explanation, but her friend, Kate, eventually turned up in my co-leader's office to explain that Bianca's family was in grave financial difficulty, and that while she had been able to scrape together (just) enough to make the payments, she wasn't sure she'd be able to buy textbooks, food, or anything else while we were away. To compound matters, some of her family were opposed to her spending money on what they saw as a luxury.

Bianca is a good student, but very quiet. Kate is the opposite, loud and brash and confident. It appeared that Kate had actually lent Bianca some of the money that she had been using to make the payments. Bianca, she explained, never got to do fun things like this, and Kate didn't really need the money right now. I don't know Kate's exact background, but I went out for tapas with her and her uncle once (because that is the sort of thing that happens sometimes at small colleges), and they struck me as probably very comfortably upper-middle-class. Kate, I think, had an upbringing that lent her a much more expansive sense of what is possible, and surmised that the faculty might be able to do something about Bianca's situation if they knew about it. And -- again because this is the sort of thing that happens at small colleges -- she was absolutely correct. We went to the Dean, who is AWESOME and immediately offered to buy the books himself, and to the chair of my department (because Bianca is one of our majors, but also because my chair knows everybody and can pull a lot of strings). They swung into action, and the upshot is that Bianca should have a fair chunk of emergency-scholarship money coming to cover her living expenses. Happy ending. (The sum of money, I should note, is in the three-digit range -- the sort of amount that seems big when you're a college student but laughably small later in life.)

So, a couple of things about this story: First, of course, it wouldn't happen at a state flagship university. You need to be at a place with a short enough chain of command, and a dean who knows individual students, and is willing to go to bat for them. You also need a few people who see travel, and all those other little enriching experiences, as an integral part of educating students. So, not the kind of thing that happens at a totally no-frills institution either, although I think no-frills colleges serve a useful purpose.

But more than all that, this story doesn't have a happy ending without Kate. And that, I think, is the real virtue of an institution like ours -- a public liberal arts college, not super-exclusive but academically solid. We're accessible to the Biancas, but we're also attractive to the Kates, and we're small enough that they'll meet up and befriend each other instead of stratifying into their own little cliques by the end of freshman orientation. And when students from different backgrounds come together, some pretty awesome things can happen. But it seems to me that they happened more often a generation ago, and are likely to happen less in the future -- because there are such big, class-based differences in colleges people aspire to attend in the first place, and as tuition goes up and up, the message from the media is increasingly becoming elites to the fancy R1s, plebes to the community colleges and for-profits, nothing in the middle.

But for now? We have a little space where the Biancas and Kates can and do meet, and where there are several people committed to making sure Bianca gets the chance to travel outside of the country for the first time in her life. And I'm proud to work in that little space. That is something.


Bardiac said...

That's wonderful how things can be worked out by people who know, others who listen and can make changes.

And isn't it amazing how huge those three digits are when you're a student and how relatively not huge they are for many academic adults?

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

I'm so glad that she's going to be able to go on the trip. It's great that your community came together to support her!!

And yeah, I used to think 50 dollars was SO MUCH MONEY. Now, it seems like nothing.

Susan said...

This is a great story, of people working to support students. And yes, it is a good thing about a small place.