Trailblazing: A new path for collegiate scholarships

April 10, 2014

For much of its history, Georgetown’s student body could be summed up by four characteristics: white, Catholic, from the Northeast, and wealthy. While the image has shifted and student dialogue on diversity has developed significantly, the discussion of wealth and the divisions it creates is still one in its growing stages.

“Even ten years ago, people didn’t discuss socioeconomic background. It just was not something that you talked about,” said Missy Foy (COL ‘03). “It’s so neat to see the current generation discussing it so actively now.”

Foy is the director of the Georgetown Scholarship Program, Georgetown’s first program to support first-generation college students and students from limited financial means. The idea for the program first launched at the alumni reunion of 2004, when two visionaries and many enthusiastic alumni decided to make fundraising for scholarship a Georgetown imperative.

In just 10 years, GSP has become much more than the money. It has evolved from a scholarship for 50 students to a vibrant community of 640 students that achieves a 98 percent graduation rate for first-generation college students and students with limited financial resources—a number that GSP proudly champions as overwhelmingly higher than the comparable national rate of 32 percent.

The Scholarship

In 2003, after the conclusion of the Third Century Campaign to raise $1 billion to increase the endowment, the largest fundraising effort in Georgetown’s history at that point, Dean of Admissions Charles Deacon (CAS ’64, GRAD ‘69) and Dean of Financial Student Services Patricia McWade decided that financial aid had to become a priority.

“We were losing great students to other schools, because the other schools were offering no-loans or reduced loans in their financial aid packages,” said McWade.

The problem is still one Georgetown continues to address. “The number one and two reasons why we lose students are cost of attendance and financial aid offer,” Foy said.

According to Deacon, financial aid was becoming one of the “most important unfunded liabilities of University admissions” and was coming out of staff income or other University expenses. “It was clear that, to continue our need-blind financial aid policy, we needed to make a significant move in fundraising for financial aid,” he said.

Deacon and McWade brought the proposal to the Alumni Admissions Program chairman’s conference in 2004 and launched the idea at the alumni reunion in May. Committed alumni began fundraising in September and succeeded in raising $1 million in just a year, and $1.7 million the following year.

“All of our [AAP] alumni are committed to the task of interviewing 25,000 applicants and take it very seriously. … We took the same spirit of getting involved and staying involved, and we believed we could raise money for GSP not just for year one, but year two and on,” said Paul Goodrich (CAS ’65), chairman of the AAP Board from 1977 to 1991 and the first chairman of the GSP Executive Board, from 2004 to 2010. “The key to all of it was just merely engaging the alumni in the importance and value to the University of having these bright, great students at Georgetown.”

The original GSP Scholarship was an award of $15,000 per student per year, which helped cover tuition and fees that totaled $30,163 in the academic year of 2005-2006. Tuition has since grown by 48.8 percent to $44,881 for the 2013-2014 academic year.

In 2010, after fundraising for the scholarship was incorporated into the Office of Advancement’s Campaign for Georgetown, it was renamed the 1789 Scholarship and raised to $25,000 per student per year. GSP was singled out to solely focus on programming for those students.

The Program

In her second semester at Georgetown, Amy Hang (COL ’09), a member of the first class of GSP Scholarship recipients, visited Foy, who then worked as an admissions officer, with a group of other GSP Scholars. In Foy’s office, they expressed that they were struggling with the transition to Georgetown.

“My first semester at Georgetown was extremely lonely and hard. … My parents have the extent of a second-grade education and worked a lot of low and minimum-wage jobs to help me get to where I am,” Hang recalled. “It was such a culture shock.”

According to Truman Liu (MSB ’15), current president of the GSP Student Board, many GSP students face challenges in transitioning to Georgetown. “Coming from different backgrounds, they may feel that the opportunities are more distant, for instance, in terms of getting professional attire, or traveling abroad, or getting those experiences that seem like they could be offered to anyone, but might seem more difficult for GSP students,” he said.

GSP scholar Jimmy Ramirez (COL ‘15) agreed, adding that during his first two years, he did not want to identify as coming from a low-income background because he felt there was an associated “stigma of shame.”

“I worked really hard to get here and felt that being of a low socioeconomic class was a part of my identity that I didn’t want to bring with me,” Ramirez said.

In response, with Deacon’s support, Foy, Hang, and fellow GSP students began to create a GSP support program, starting with mentorship.

“I would do my regular admissions stuff, and at 7:00 at night, Amy would come over with a group of students, almost cloak and dagger, and we’d put together a student board, begging and pleading people to be mentors, because people didn’t even know what GSP was back then,” said Foy. “There was no sense of community, students didn’t even know who the other GSP students were.”

Concurrently, through panels and student dialogue, the importance of a support program became more apparent to alumni and administrators.

“On a panel for alumni, it became obvious that lots of these students had nowhere to go for winter break, and Leo’s closes, and students are here. So, what can we do to realize that this is an unfair environment? These are all little things that became known certainly because the program brought together the discussion,” Deacon said. “It’s not that people were complaining. Rather, this is the way it was.”

In 2008, in recognition of the importance and size of GSP, a formal office with an operating budget was established under Healy Hall, and the formal position of GSP Director, both funded by the Provost’s Office, was created for Foy, who was single-handedly helping 256 GSP students at that point.

“Dean Deacon said, ‘Missy, you’re going to have a free-standing office, employees, row of offices, people meeting with hundreds of students, and a lounge,’” said Foy. “At the beginning, I never thought that in a million years, the little thing that we were doing that just felt like the right thing to do would become this sophisticated, well-recognized operation—in the Healy building of all places too, which is really neat.”

“It was an important milestone because it’s a place where GSP students can feel like it’s theirs and it’s home,” said McWade. “It’s in Healy, right under the clock tower … so that students aren’t thinking, well, this is just a marginalized program off somewhere.”

“Thrive, Not Just Survive”

GSP now serves 640 students, or 8.6 percent of undergraduates and will graduate its sixth class of students this May. GSP is structurally led by a 17-member executive board headed by chairman Jimmy Eisenstein (MSB ’80) and a 10-member student board led by Liu.

“Initially, there was some concern that students that are a part of GSP might not feel like they’re part of the [Georgetown] community, because [GSP] might be thought of as being exclusive … [and] not otherwise part of the University,” said Eisenstein. “It’s instead become a very desirable program, even for students who are not first-generation students, who want to be a part of this community.”

Through gifts from alumni, GSP has been able to support basic necessities and assistance for emergency situations that do not fall under academic expenditures, including 80 bedding packs, and a necessity fund that includes medical expenses, a coat fund, flights home, and other needs. GSP also hosts a mandatory budget bootcamp for freshmen, and Financial Aid Peer Counselors train GSP students to successfully navigate financial aid.

“I didn’t have a coat coming to Georgetown because I had never needed a coat, coming from California,” said Ramirez. When he first applied for a coat scholarship, which he described as “coveted,” he did not get one. “It’s simple things like that, and GSP has grown to the point where now, students can be warm,” he said.

Beyond the staff, GSP has expanded to include 100 GSP peer mentors, 66 faculty and staff mentors, 400 “one-on-one” Friday meetings between students and alumni or supporters, and regular alumni roundtables. 104 regional alumni mentors also support students closer to home.

“You don’t really know what you’re supposed to do. You don’t know, [for instance], about internships. It’s really difficult, and you don’t have the support system other students have,” said Yvonne Espinosa (FLL ’84), a GSP San Diego regional mentor, discussing her experience as a first-generation student at Georgetown before GSP existed. Espinosa had to take two leaves of absences due to finances.

“That was why I started working with the GSP when I heard about it … [so I could talk to students about] even things like staying in school and continuing, even with family hardships or external struggles,” she added.

GSP’s core, however, is the community. From the beginning, GSP organizes volunteer alumni who greet and help students, who often arrive on their own, move in. GSP also hosts the Preparing to Excel pre-orientation program. Throughout the year, Foy makes sure to hold regular community events and keep traditions, including an induction ceremony for freshmen, the Thrive Summit for second-semester freshmen, a Thanksgiving dinner at the Daily Grill, and group activities for students who cannot afford to travel home for Thanksgiving, a senior graduation ceremony, and group activities with pizza at the GSP Office.

“I think they’re sick of pizza now,” Foy joked.

In recognition of her work with GSP, Foy will be receiving the 2014 William Gaston Alumni Award, established in 1963, for outstanding community service.

“Missy has made GSP her life,” Goodrich said. “I applaud her and her staff for all they do.”

GSP as a National Model

GSP’s success has not gone unnoticed by other universities. Foy has presented on the GSP model at multiple academic conferences, and McWade will be discussing GSP at the CollegeBoard Forum in October. According to Communications Officer Maggie Moore (COL ’09), GSP will also be featured in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Diversity May issue.

Additionally, alongside Duke and Brown, Georgetown is currently participating in a research study called the “First Generation Forum” led by Harvard Kennedy School of Government Professor Richard Light.

The study, according to Light, arose from the observation that at “America’s finest campuses,” first-generation students were a growing population. The project, which began two years ago, is interviewing 25 first-generation and 25 non-first generation students one-on-one about their experiences at each university.

“We began to ask what the campuses can do to really help First Gen students succeed in every way once they arrive on campus,” Light wrote in an email to the Voice. “I would say that all the colleagues from all of the campuses are finding that Georgetown’s ideas are often cutting edge in the best sense.”

McWade believes GSP’s uniqueness partly stems from its emphasis that its students are just as academically competitive as non-GSPers.

“Many of our colleagues around the country have programs that have a remedial component. The student wasn’t ready to do the math, or the writing. That’s not what this program is about,” McWade said.

Going Forward

Although Foy now has been joined by three other staff members, who are all GSP alumni, the staff has felt the crunch as the number of GSP students continues to grow. “We really felt it this fall with 640 students … because we also manage 300 alumni volunteers and the board, and report to constituents too,” she said.

Due to University funding limitations, an alumnus personally funded a five-year staff position for Alejandra Martinez (SFS ’13). “I get emotional every time I think about that somebody could be so kind to do something like that,” Foy said.

According to Foy, the GSP budget from the University averages just around $200 per student per year, which covers all programming. The necessity fund of $100,000 each year comes entirely from philanthropy.

“The biggest obstacle is that we need more money. … If we have more money, we can have more students in the program,” said Bob Burkett, a GSP mentor and senior advisor to President DeGioia.

For the student leaders of GSP, the main concern is how they will balance the growth of the program while maintaining the community feel.

“Because we’ve grown so much, it could feel like you are walking just into another Georgetown office, and we try our best to combat that. [For instance,] every intern that sits at that front desk knows the students that are coming in, to make sure they feel they have friends in the office,” said Luisa Santos (COL ’14), outgoing GSP student board president. “But it’s hard when you have 600 students.”

Nevertheless, GSP and Georgetown leaders are optimistic about GSP’s security and continued success.

“To say that it is a problem that we are helping so many kids and that we have so much programming—I think that is amazing,” said Hang. “That’s a great problem to have.”

Foy continues to look forward at opportunities she wants to see GSP add, including a career development and education enrichment fund for costs such as tutoring, flying to job interviews, having an in-house mental health counselor, hiring more staff, adding juniors to the business attire program, adding more “honorary” GSPers who are not 1789 Scholarship recipients but come from similar backgrounds as GSP students, and having a GSP house.

Ultimately, Foy’s “dream of dreams” is a gift to endow GSP, which McWade estimated would require $25 million.

“I want to endow this program because I want to ensure … its future, that this network of resources and supportive community is able to be financially sustainable for the future,” Foy said.

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Missy Foy

Claire, what an honor to have you highlight GSP! Thank you so much. You did a wonderful job, so thorough in your research, and it was great to see folks involved from the beginning speaking about our evolution. This is an article I will save forever!

Linda Paragone

I am so glad that Georgetown recognizes that financial limitations should not impede academically deserving students!

Kevin G. Magana

Thank you for this service, Claire! As this article highlights, GSP serves many students over its stated capacity. I, for example, am an “honorary member,” as I personally sought out the community GSP had to offer. I’ve been blessed to participate in this community and to be welcomed by the staff and students. From providing a welcoming family, to receiving funds to participate in out-state-research trips, to innumerable free lunches and dinners with GSPeers and dedicated alumni, and also funds to buy professional outfits, GSP has given me SO much, and I’m just an “Honorary Member.” Socioeconomic issues are, sadly, hushed all throughout campus, but GSP is the shining light in opening up those conversations and breaking such taboos that enable students without many resources to experience just as good an experience as their upper class peers do during their time at Georgetown. As this article suggests, alumni have already begun to become very passionate about GSP and its amazing students. This program, really an oasis for first generation students as well as those coming from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, is unique in that it helps students encounter one another of from different walks of life, including those of distinct racial, religious, national, sexual orientation, and gender. No where else at Georgetown have I seen boundaries melt, and cross-cultural interaction take place like at a GSP wednesday dinner or a spring break program. Thus, ass a place that will develop future leaders in business, politics, religion, diplomacy, medicine, academia, and law, Georgetown administrators and alumni ought to pay special attention to the Georgetown Scholarship Program as they are the unsung heroes that not only help facilitate the great equalizing effect of higher education, but that will also help create those shining graduates most prone to embodying the Jesuit ideals of pluralistic orientation, women and men for others, and cura personalis. A special thanks to Missy, Christine, Alberto, and Alejandra. You all have been instrumental in GSP, and it wouldn’t be the same without you! THANK YOU!