Student Voice: Today’s Students Rethinking Financial Aid

Editor’s Note: Mysia Perry is a LEDA Career Fellow and an Oldham Scholar in her junior year at the University of Richmond majoring in American Studies and minoring in Sociology and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. 

Insights & Outlooks (IO): Tell us about your pathway to college. Have you encountered any financial challenges along the way and what has kept you motivated during your college career?

I went to a very small high school of about 185 students. Because of my school’s small size, there were not many clubs or sports available to students, but we made a commitment to our education and to building community within the school. With one-on-one time with teachers and its focus on individualized support, I was given the tools I needed to create my own path in high school. My parents encouraged me to work hard so that I could attend a school like the University of Richmond which offers low-income students a generous financial aid package that covers tuition, room and board, and books. 

While I was fortunate to receive a great scholarship, there are “hidden costs” not accounted for in financial aid. We are encouraged to join clubs and organizations in college to build our professional network and resume, but every club and organization has mandatory fees. Similarly, job interviews and information sessions require business professional clothing, which also cost money. I come from a single-mother household and am one of six children. When I need money, I don’t have the luxury of calling home to ask for it. I work between three to five jobs during the semester so that I can provide for my living expenses, in addition to taking a full course load and being involved in extracurricular activities. I am motivated to balance this challenging schedule so that I can graduate and show my younger siblings that it is possible to get a degree and a great job. My siblings and the path I want for my future motivates me to push through challenges, work that extra shift, and do the reading or write the papers I need to succeed in my courses.  

IO: How has becoming a LEDA Career Fellow helped you to continue your higher education journey?

After my roommate told me the opportunities Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America (LEDA) made available for her in high school, I was eager to join the LEDA Career Network, which is an initiative of LEDA. LEDA’s mission is to empower a community of exceptional young leaders from under-resourced backgrounds by supporting their higher education and professional success in order to create a more inclusive and equitable country. The LEDA Career Network expands and enhances LEDA’s current leadership development model by preparing high-achieving, low-income undergraduate students (LEDA Career Fellows) for future leadership roles in their professional pursuits. They do this through a deeper and more targeted focus on career exploration, professional development, and career advising. During the LEDA Career Institute, I was exposed to tenacious speakers from similar backgrounds to me, companies with an interest in and a commitment to diversity and inclusion, and an extraordinary network of my peers. This experience not only opened my eyes to professions I’d never considered, but also allowed me to connect with students who wanted to contribute positively to the world in many different ways that were worthwhile.

Another instrumental program in my higher education journey has been Mayor’s Youth Academy, which provides personal and professional development opportunities to youth in Richmond, Virginia. Through its internship program, I was given the opportunity to work in the city at different government agencies.

IO: How did you become passionate about education policy?

I’ve always had a passion for learning and giving others the power to learn but wasn’t sure I wanted to be a classroom teacher. During my sophomore year in high school, I participated in an internship through the Mayor’s Youth Academy that allowed me to work for the Virginia State Secretary of Education Anne Holton and Deputy Secretary Dietra Trent. Through this work, I was able to travel throughout the state and speak with families, students, and teachers about their experiences in the classroom and how state policies affect those experiences. This peaked my interest in education policy. 

While interning at the VA Department of Education, there was an event I attended that really stuck with me called Classrooms not Courtrooms. The conference was focused on aiding teachers and administrators explore the complexities of the school-to-prison pipeline and develop solutions. I could see the value of the education I loved and began to understand why people like me needed to hold positions that would allow us to represent and advocate for marginalized communities. When people with marginalized identities have a seat at the table, we can contribute meaningfully to conversations about policy. Working in college admissions at a predominantly white institution only furthered this focus. I saw that beyond high school education there are still inequities in higher education, affordability, and access that need to be addressed. I knew that I had to be a part of the change.

IO: As a queer, first-generation, female, student of color, what do you believe institutions of higher education can do to better financially support marginalized students?

For colleges to support marginalized students, it’s important that a funding structure that is equitable is created to account for students’ lack of financial resources. When many first-generation and low-income students begin college, they are surprised by the costs of books and other required materials for their courses. While it may seem helpful for colleges to provide free resources that are easily accessible instead of requiring students to buy expensive codes to access materials, prestigious or highly acclaimed texts are more likely to have higher price tags. Providing book and supply stipends would allow professors to teach what their courses require while institutions ensure the materials will be accessible. Similarly, it’s helpful when institutions meet 100 percent of financial need for all accepted students. When need is met, students don’t have to stress about paying fees or hidden costs and can pay more attention to their studies and academic success. 

Finally, it’s essential that students are given the opportunity to network and establish connections that could impact their careers and long-term financial success. Some networking opportunities are not made available to marginalized students because of cost. One way that higher education institutions can support marginalized students is by providing more funding to send students to conferences and connect them with alumni in their fields of interest around the world.  Furthermore, it’s important that marginalized students are able to connect with alumni from similar communities. Students with marginalized backgrounds may have limits to connecting with people like them due to a lack of representation of their identity in their professional path. For me, it is hard to find queer women of color who work in education policy. It would be helpful for colleges to host alumni networking events on campus to help bridge this gap. The connections that students build on campus and through those events may be the most valuable for their careers by expanding their access to resources.