Fee for senior week raises questions about social class at Colby

by Sonia Lachter

Carter Garfield ’19 posted a Civil Discourse entitled “A Harsh Reminder that I’m a Poor™” on April 18. The post outlined his experience trying to get financial aid to pay for Senior Week, a week of activities between finals and commencement for the Senior class.

The program costs $225 this year and Garfield wrote that despite having had mostly positive experiences with administrators in asking for financial aid, “This time, it was different. Nathan [Baird, Associate Director of Student Engagement] was incredibly disrespectful for the entire meeting. He was immediately defensive of the price of Senior Week, explaining what the money was being used for and why it was so expensive. I was a bit taken aback — why was I suddenly feeling guilty for trying ask for assistance? Within minutes I realized he had no concern for my financial situation. Amidst me having to basically argue with him about being poor, he reminded me that ‘It’s only 225 dollars.’”

In a statement to the Echo, Garfield elaborated on his experience of being a low-income Colby student, saying that aside from the incident outlined in his Civil Discourse post, “I’ve always had positive experiences with Colby faculty and staff regarding financial assistance. I only wish that the administration was more proactive with presenting students about different financial aid programs. Many assistance programs Colby offers are unknown by students — the administration needs to streamline this process to appropriately show financial aid students all the options Colby offers.

Garfield explained that his goal in writing the Civil Discourse post was to catalyze conversation on the issue of income at Colby because “while the College has made amazing efforts in bringing more students from lower economic backgrounds to Mayflower Hill, there are many more hurdles than just tuition that aren’t discussed. Transportation, proper clothing for winter, course materials, athletic apparel … it’s more than just being able to attend Colby. Not to mention specific obstacles that target minority groups, such as the lack of hairdressers that focus specifically on black hair for students of color (thank you Dr. [Roxane] Gay!).”

In an email to the Echo, Nathan Baird, Associate Director for Student Engagement, explained the complexity of the funding of Senior Week, writing that “as the Associate Director, I do not oversee or have any control of the cost for Senior Week. It was explained to me in late fall that Senior Week is completely funded by the funds brought in by the Senior Class. It has varied from year to year, being an all inclusive fee to being a low initial fee with an extra per event fee. The reason for the change to an all inclusive fee years ago was feedback from students. I was told that for the past 3 years, the all inclusive fee has been between $150-$200. Ultimately, it is the Senior Class Council who sets that Senior Week fee.”

Baird said that incorporating the price of Senior Week into the overall tuition is something that could be discussed by the Student Government Association but that such decisions do not fall under his jurisdiction.

Baird said that the hardest part of his job “is balancing the magnitude of request[s] from both students and the College each day. Often I am the person that hears multiple perspectives and then has to shares everyone’s perspective when situations arise.”

The specific funding issues surrounding Senior Week as expressed in Garfield’s experience struck a chord with many members of the College community. Elizabeth Leonard, the Gibson Professor of History, commented on the post that “Carter Garfield’s infuriating story is familiar to far too many students at Colby, and far too many poor and low-income people around this country. If anyone on this thread is interested in talking with me about, or becoming involved in, the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival…please reach out to me.”

In an interview with the Echo, Leonard described the work of the Poor People’s Campaign to address systemic racism, poverty, militarism in the war economy and ecological devastation, and “how all of these things operate together and they’re all underpinned, or supported by, a corrupt moral narrative that says it’s ok if children go to bed hungry, it’s ok, people who are on narcotics, who have opioid use disorders, it’s their fault, it’s a moral failing.”

Leonard reflected a concern similar to the one Garfield shared about the lack of dialogue around issues of income inequality, commenting that “in the 2016 election campaign, of all the primary debates, poverty was never mentioned. We keep talking about the middle class, but no one wants to touch that word poverty.”

In order to address this problem, Leonard said “I feel like we might be beyond the conversation phase to a point where people have to act, including students having to act, not in a violent way, but act, come together, and demand.”

When asked about the tuition-based initiatives to help low and middle-income students like the Fair Shot Fund, Leonard said that “I think all of those things are good. I think they’re not sufficient. I’m not an economist myself, but I have to say, there’s something so glaring about an athletic facility that costs $250 million, and it almost feels like no matter what else you’re doing [to help], then you do that? There’s something about the priority.”

Betsy Hamry ’21 also commented on Garfield’s post. She thanked Garfield for the post and wrote that “instances of class discrimination are far too common on Colby’s campus … I have also been challenged, and even shamed by key members of our administration when I had planned to transfer out of Colby to the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Having to explain financial aid and financial stress to our own administration is not fair. Colby forces students to perform their socioeconomic status. I am certainly reminded of my low income status every day here at Colby.”

In an interview with the Echo, Hamry said that the issue of Senior Week in particular prompted her to comment on the post because she worked in Campus Life during Senior Week last summer. She said that while she was giving out wristbands to participating students, “so many Seniors that I had given bracelets to couldn’t even sign up for any events and were complaining that they had spent $200 or $300 just to go to a bar crawl, that was the only thing they could sign up for.”

Hamry described the everyday struggles of being low-income at the College, saying that at a school that the New York Times reported has the fourth highest amount of students from the top one percent of the income scale, “forcing a student to perform his or her economic status or poverty … is really psychologically damaging to students as well because no one wants to admit, especially on a campus as wealthy as Colby, no one wants to admit that they don’t come from as much money.”

Hamry said that “elite students have to look elite to be elite. So that kind of comes with the brands that people wear at Colby, that comes with the sports that people do. I had never even heard of squash before I got here, I was like ‘what is this?’ Skiing, I’ve never gone skiing, but it’s just so prevalent here that … if I tell people I’ve never gone skiing before they’re like ‘oh what!” but it’s a super expensive hobby.”

When asked what advice she would give to low-income students at Colby, Hamry suggested that students need to take “certain comments that might feel offensive with a grain of salt. Remember that a lot of the people surrounding you are from very different backgrounds … and that can be really challenging. But just remember that this is the Colby bubble and the real world is not this.”

She also said to “definitely question the administration’s pricing for Senior Week, question their pricing for fees … If they can’t validate the cost they should be able to lower the cost, for students in need especially.”

Hamry agreed that while parents or guardians frequently handle financial aid for tuition, the responsibility falls on students themselves to deal with on-campus requests for aid. She said, “Usually my mom’s the one who talks to whoever works in the financial services office about my financial aid and they’ve been really helpful with her.”

She continued to describe a recent positive experience in which “I had about $50 of late fees, two separate late fees I think, for payments that my parents had paid late, and they were on my student account, so I emailed [Student Financial Services] and explained ‘this isn’t really my fault I didn’t have a hand in this can you please just wipe that $50.’ And the people in Student Financial Services were like ‘Absolutely, let us know if you need any notice or anything for the next payment,’ so that was nice.”

The main experience of having to deal with a stressful financial situation herself happened last year, when Hamry, a Massachusetts resident, had decided to transfer to the University of Massachusetts. Hamry recalled that “I had to meet with one advisor and I felt like I was having to perform my lower socioeconomic status because this person really couldn’t wrap his head around my decision to go from Colby, this top, elite, private institution, to maybe a less competitive state school …. he kept saying ‘Huh, Colby to UMass huh, what a big change.’ Or then he said, ‘I have a friend who went to UMass, there are some characters there.’ And I just felt like he was kind of shaming a school that I was really excited to go to at the time”

Hamry relayed that when she tried to explain her experience of financial stress at the College, “this administrator was pushing me to dive deeper and deeper and deeper into that, which I totally understand, they want to get to the bottom of these issues. But I just felt almost exhausted. Why are you picking apart the students who feel so slighted by Colby’s environment already?”

Veronica Jones ’20 commented on Carter’s post as well, focusing on the amount of time that it takes for low-income students to handle finances. She wrote in an email to the Echo that “I’ve personally had a tough year figuring out how to finance my time at Colby and feel like that struggle is made invisible on this campus … I particularly resonated with the struggle of having to spend extra time/energy (that higher-income students never do) meeting with and talking to administration on campus when all you’re trying to do is get your education and also be able to live a comfortable life, and also have the opportunity to do things outside of classes with your peers such as senior week.”

One of an added task that middle or high-income students might not know about which went positively for Jones was “trying to figure out how to pay my remaining balance. For those who don’t know, if your balance is over $1000, Colby will charge you a late fee every month it stays above $1000, and I was unable to get this balance under $1000 and the late fees were definitely not helping. I was able to talk to them and they eventually agreed to not charge me any more late fees.”

Jones expressed frustration about the inaccessibility of tuition-based initiatives to students of class years preceding the beginning of the funds. She said that in addition to these initiatives, “I think Colby really needs to make books and class fees free at LEAST to students here on more than x% financial aid. Or at least subsidize books and fees and equivalent amount to what tuition aid students are on here. I think it would also be incredibly impactful for Colby to help pay for travel expenses for students. Getting funds together to go home when you live outside of New England can be really difficult and can quite literally isolate students who can’t afford plane tickets home.”

Jones’ advice for low-income students is to “get an on-campus job. With Maine minimum wage at $11, finding a desk job where you can mostly study the whole time is a great way to offset some costs and have a place to get work done.”

Dylan Shaw ’19 resonated with Garfield’s commentary on the stress of having to explain his financial situation. Shaw commented on Civil Discourse, “I hate having to tell people why I can’t or have to do things because my family and I simply don’t have the money for it, and it happens more often than many realize.”

Shaw explained to the Echo that, “Colby, for the most part, is very good about ensuring that students in not-as-great financial positions or from varying socioeconomic backgrounds … are able to afford and stay in this school, for the most part. However, … socially, people don’t talk about income and wealth and discrepancies and poverty at Colby very much. It’s not a topic because many people that are maybe in am upper-middle class position financially just will assume that everybody else is on a similar level to them. And I think the social sphere reflects that.”

Echoing Hamry’s comments about the pressure to perform a certain lifestyle, Shaw said that “people don’t want to say ‘Oh I live paycheck to paycheck and I’m at Colby because I work and I’ve saved up for years and my family is throwing everything that they can to keep me here.’ People don’t talk about that and people want to keep up a facade almost. Certainly my freshman and sophomore year to an extent I tried to live a lifestyle I couldn’t afford or present myself in a way that I wasn’t because I felt that that was what I was supposed to do.”

He also expressed his good fortune in having a parent who can support him in communicating to the administration for him and that “For the most part, interactions with the administration for me have been great. I don’t want to trash on the person that was mentioned in the post, however, of people in the administration that I’ve heard non-positive things about, those have revolved around this one individual. For the most part, all the people like Danielle Hague and Kim Kenniston in Campus Life are wonderful, people in financial services are very understanding and they’re like ‘here’s what you need to do, here’s what you can do,’ … I think issues of how class and socioeconomic status, those issues at Colby come through at a social level, which is why it was so weird to see a figure in the administration responding and treating people so differently.”

Shaw expressed that with regards to Senior Week specifically, he felt that students would have preferred if “talking about money in regards to Senior Week hadn’t been framed as ‘you need to come talk to this white guy in Campus Life about why you’re poor,’ which is how many people felt that was spread. Even if that wasn’t the intention, that’s how it came across to at least a big chunk of people.”

When asked in Senior Week should cost money, Shaw responded that “I completely understand why it does, and I do think that it should. Because as it was expressed by these members of Campus Life, however much money they get is how much more money that they can put towards Senior Week, which makes sense.” Hamry and Jones thought that it should not.