Georgetown U. Builds a Student-Support System to Substitute for Privilege

Matt McLoone for The Chronicle

Luisa Santos (center), a senior at Georgetown U., is among the students there who have received crucial help from the Georgetown Scholarship Program 
as they navigate college life among classmates from more-privileged backgrounds.
May 27, 2014

When Luisa Santos needed to go home for a family emergency but couldn’t afford the airfare, she knew where to turn: the Georgetown Scholarship Program. It provides financial, academic, and social support to high achieving, low-income students like her.

Raised by a single mother who cleaned houses for a living, Ms. Santos may not be the typical Georgetown University student. But she is one of a growing number of low-income and first-generation undergraduates on the campus. Today more than 640 students—about 10 percent of Georgetown’s undergraduates—participate in the decade-old program, bringing diversity to a campus with a relatively wealthy student body.

Begun as a financial-aid program to compete with elite colleges that were offering better deals to lower-income students, GSP, as it’s known, has evolved into something much more comprehensive. Participants say it has provided a crucial support system as they navigate college life among classmates with more-privileged backgrounds. "A big part of the rhetoric," says Ms. Santos, now a senior, "is that you’re not coming from something that’s worse—you’re coming from something that’s different."

GSP students take pride in the program. Melissa Foy, its director, attributes that attitude to their active involvement in suggesting, designing, and running many of the events and services offered.

For example, Achieve Advisors, a group of seniors who help younger students polish their résumés, find internships and jobs, and prepare for interviews, was the brainchild of a scholarship recipient. "Everything you hear that’s good is driven by a student," says Ms. Foy, who has been with the program since its inception, in 2004.

Involvement with GSP begins before students set foot on the campus and doesn’t end after they graduate. Scholarship recipients are selected by a committee of admissions and financial-aid officials (there is no direct application process). Welcomed over the summer by Georgetown alumni, students are greeted at the airport by volunteers once they arrive in Washington. Those who need academic support arrive early for additional preparation, and each first-year student is assigned a peer mentor.

Throughout the year, students can share pizza weekly in the GSP office or receive one-on-one counseling. Guest speakers, networking events, career advising, and a "budget bootcamp" are among the many programs offered. The boot camp, for example, teaches freshmen how to live within their means and find the best deals on flights, meals, and textbooks. Georgetown provides financial assistance and activities for students who are not able to go home over the breaks.

Ms. Foy estimates that about half of the program’s budget comes directly from the university and the rest from annual fund raising. The average scholarship recipient receives $45,000 toward the annual cost of attendance, which runs to about $62,000. The remainder is covered by some combination of other grants and scholarships, family contributions, loans, and work-study. The university tries to keep participants’ debt as low as possible—about $5,500 by the time they graduate.

Ms. Santos says she immediately went to talk with Ms. Foy when a family emergency arose and she needed to return to Miami quickly. The director offered a sympathetic ear and money for a plane ticket. "It’s a sense of family," says Ms. Santos of the program, "a place I can run to."

The program now has four full-time staff members, three of whom are GSP graduates. Christine Pfeil, the associate director, says she uses her experiences to help students navigate tricky situations, like being invited to dinner by friends when you can’t afford to go out. (One tip: Say that you need to stay in and study.) Ms. Santos says she also had to learn to deal with the fact that friends may be shopping at J. Crew twice a month, while she visits only once a year.

Staff members also talk with students about the reality of having to work twice as hard your freshman year to close the gaps between you and better-prepared classmates, which could mean boning up on American history between classes or looking up Thomas Aquinas for the first time.

And they encourage students to be proud of the skills they’ve learned along the way, like budgeting. In a recent get-together, one scholarship student marveled that her roommate didn’t even know how to do her own laundry. Another was encouraged to put his stint at In-N-Out Burger on his résumé, which impressed an interviewer at Goldman Sachs.

"It’s a paradigm shift that requires institutional support," says Ms. Pfeil. "They need peers and mentors to help them realize their strengths."

Staff members and students alike say the program has helped raise awareness on the campus about the value of increasing socioeconomic diversity at Georgetown. "It’s not something we should hide," says Nursultan Eldosov, who was born in Uzbekistan and came to the United States as a child. His father, once a college professor, works in a bowling alley, while his mother, also a former academic, cleans homes.

Mr. Eldosov says he has made friends across the campus and is proud of what he has achieved, including earning a prestigious Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowship for students who want to enter the Foreign Service.

As for Ms. Santos, her interest in entrepreneurship, combined with mentoring from a Georgetown alumna, has inspired her to start her own business, catering made-to-order ice cream, after she graduates. "This," she says of the scholarship program, "has given me a platform to be who I am."