Yale’s poorest students deal with many challenges when adjusting to life at Yale. We deal with this, too: Over Thanksgiving break, I sent two emails to Yale’s Financial Aid Office — one inquiring about a scholarship reaching my account, and the other requesting a letter that would qualify me for a graduate school application fee waiver. Within 24 hours, the Financial Aid Office had responded to the first request. After waiting a week for a response to the second, however, I called the office, only to be chastised. I was told that everyone else submitted these requests months ago during the summer and that my message was in the queue — “they’ll get to it when they can.”
Unfortunately, this encounter that I had with the Financial Aid Office, like others that have recently been reported in the News, is not abnormal. As I complete my fourth year at Yale, I’ve grown used to being brushed off — emails to the director of undergraduate financial aid receiving no response, requests made in Yale’s Safety Net portal never followed up on, phone calls with the financial aid office yielding no helpful information.
What I was not used to, and what many of Yale’s most financially vulnerable students are forced to get used to, is the Financial Aid Office’s insensitive remarks that disregard the fact that full-aid students, in many cases, do not know what we are doing. And it is precisely because we don’t know what we’re doing that we need the most institutional support. Yale’s faculty and administration, and especially its financial aid office, need to offer more understanding and empathy when dealing with the university’s most vulnerable students.
The fact that full-aid students often don’t know what we’re doing when we arrive at Yale isn’t willful ignorance. Rather, we aren’t well-versed in Yale’s hidden curriculum. This curriculum isn’t taught in a classroom but includes cultural norms, values, expectations and perspectives that first-generation, low-income and minority students often don’t know because we grew up separately from them.
My encounter with the financial aid officer exemplifies the existence of this hidden curriculum: When he told me that other students had submitted their requests for a fee waiver in the summer, I thought, How was I supposed to know to do that? There is almost no one in my family who has a college degree, let alone anyone who could guide me in seeking a graduate degree. Getting into Yale did not suddenly grant me the ability to navigate a bureaucratic maze of offices and policies, nor did it elucidate a clear pathway to success at Yale and beyond. Because of my disadvantaged background, I am more likely to feel lost and isolated on campus, and therefore less likely to use the resources that are meant to benefit me. The least the Financial Aid Office could do is not rub my own ignorance in my face.
This hidden curriculum doesn’t just affect student interactions with the Financial Aid Office, and my experience with administrative insensitivity is also not localized. When one of my friends asked the Financial Aid Office to approve his student loan request, he was told to ask his parents for the money. Twice in the three years that I’ve applied for financial aid after my first year at Yale, I’ve had new required documents added to my financial aid checklist without my knowledge, thus causing me to receive a $40,000 bill in August that I am expected to pay.
It doesn’t matter to me that I eventually got the fee waiver letter from the Financial Aid Office or that my financial aid bill eventually equaled out. What matters is that the stress caused by these moments is utterly unnecessary. These are daily occurrences that full-aid students face when trying to navigate a relationship with the Financial Aid Office. And there is absolutely no reason for them. There is absolutely no reason why poor students should be subjected to more stress simply because the administration meant to help the students doesn’t realize how much its words or actions are harming them.
From my correspondence with Director of Undergraduate Financial Aid Scott Wallace-Juedes, all financial aid employees received diversity, equity and inclusion training this past fall. Wallace-Juedes says that he expects “that everyone who interacts with the office feels respected, valued, and heard.” Given my experience with the Financial Aid Office during my time at Yale and the conversations that I’ve had with other students on financial aid, I can confidently say that Wallace-Juedes’ expectations have consistently not been met.
There are more students at Yale from the top 1 percent than there are from the bottom 60 percent. We are the minority in funds, in the student body population and in the amount of understanding that the administration has when they deal with us. Yale can’t immediately change our socioeconomic status, but it can change how its employees respond to our concerns. Better train the Financial Aid Office to talk with students with empathy and understanding. Help Yale employees understand why we might not be able to ask our parents for money, why that scholarship check might mean the difference between a new laptop and a failing grade, why we might not know financial aid policies or ask for things as soon as everybody else does. Yale’s poorest students already deal with so many challenges when adjusting to life at Yale. Please don’t make us deal with this, too.
LYDIA BURLESON is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.