#SaveTopping, and Other First-Gen College Student Issues
My senior year of high school I spent preparing for college, including an internship and applying for scholarships. One afternoon, on a bus ride home I received a call from the Norman Topping Student Aid Fund (NTSAF) – a scholarship fund at the University of Southern California (USC). I remember the hurdles I jumped through to complete their application process. Yet there they were, basically telling me that I’d killed it in the interview and they had no choice but to offer me a place in their scholarship program!
When I received my exciting news on that bus ride home, I didn’t realize how big of a deal this scholarship would be. The NTSAF is a scholarship that is self-funded by students at USC. The small student fees that fund NTSAF go towards resources, programs and salaries for the dedicated staff who run the fund. To be eligible, students must be a need-based, first-generation college student. Some of the great things about being an NTSAF scholar was the family feel among the staff and scholars. It makes a big difference knowing there are other people like you that you can talk to and relate to.
I recently learned that the NTSAF has been notified that the Director position is being terminated. This is not a case where the current director has decided to go after another opportunity; rather, it is a case where university administrators have reevaluated the program and decided to make the call. It is a case where in which not a single scholar was asked for feedback, where the NTSAF Governing Board had no idea until the decision was outlined in a memo. It sounds like a common practice that happens in many universities. Yet this case requires more attention than a simple executive decision to change things up a bit.
I can still recall times when my cohort had breakdowns because we suddenly weren’t sure of our majors anymore, or we were afraid to tell our professors that we need an extension due to a personal emergency. I remember struggling so hard to do simple things like reading my anthropological theory literature, renewing my federal financial aid, or emailing professors. These were all issues that I never turned to my parents to for help. They never experienced college. They didn’t know. For the first time ever, my parents could not provide any answers for me. NTSAF could. The staff had heard it all: every problem I faced was one that the staff had heard at least once before. They knew how to handle it as though there was a library of manuals for each one! This this was invaluable. Call me a snowflake, but when first generation students are cut short of a resource and a dedicated Director who always has an open-door policy, it is a big deal.
There is something suspicious about the manner this situation was handled. Something happened behind closed doors; a greater goal. USC is one of those institutions that loves being the best at everything. You know the type: large donations each year and the type of brand name that alumni love bragging to potential employers. So for them to go and mess with an already well-performing initiative that serves first-generation students – and that is incomparable to any other scholarship – doesn’t make sense.
The NTSAF is a program that makes USC the best in serving first-generation students – maybe I'm biased but, it is definitely one of the many things that USC should be boasting about. Instead, they are self-harming by ruining a valuable part of the university. This program was what made me choose USC over any other university.
A lot of prospective students don’t know about these programs due to the lack of advertisement. In fact, I am certain that I can get better information from first-generation students who attend institutions with similar programs. To test this assumption, I Google searched “USC first generation” and a vague website that listed profession members of the First-Generation College Student Union came up. No students were listed. Interesting. The entire first page of my Google search did not list the NTSAF website. Rather than take away from initiatives that the NTSAF is trying to achieve, institutions should offer more attention for under-resourced students, so that the services are accessible and well-advertised.
I’m definitely not an education researcher, but from my experience as a first-gen college student, I can attest to the fact that finding academic and emotional support from someone who cares about your success is better than an office on campus that feels more like a directory of other services. The latter feels dismissive, as though universities care enough to recruit first-gen students to attend their institutions, but not enough to ensure retention, or the successful completion of an assumed four-year plan. And while the student activism is remarkably passionate in this case, the work that goes into trying to make change takes away time from studying and staying on top of the student life chaos.
As I learn about what is happening at USC, I wonder what sort of experiences my younger siblings are having as they apply and attend college. Lucky for them, I fill a role of a resource (not an expert, but a sibling who lived the experience and knows the struggle). What about the next student who does not have an older sibling to guide them? What about the students who attend schools where college guidance is lacking? While many first-gen students are capable and able to be admitted into four-year universities and colleges, it is never enough. The value of an on-campus support network is immeasurable. I’m tired of seeing our hard work worn as numbers, and disguised as inclusivity and diversity.