Dispelling the Stigma, One Resource at a Time

From surviving 2013–14’s “Polar Vortex” and Evanston’s regularly below-freezing weather, to lamenting expensive textbooks and extracurricular workloads, Northwestern students bond — and commiserate — over a variety of experiences during their four years.

For some students, however, there is an added reality — whether they can afford the gear that makes these winters bearable, the textbooks they need almost immediately in the quarter system, and dues for all the clubs and interests they want to explore like any other student.

Student Enrichment Services (SES) aims to make that reality easier to navigate for low-income and first-generation students at Northwestern. SES, which turns a year old this October, offers free winter gear and a laptop loan-out service through partnerships with Northwestern Athletics, Norris Bookstore, and Student Affairs IT, and serves as a connection point to financial resources and education.

“The conundrum at Northwestern is there are tons of resources but they’re hard to hear about,” SES Director Kourtney Cockrell said. “We want to educate students on how to ask the right questions to get what they need.”

Fourteen-percent of undergraduates at Northwestern are low-income students — determined by whether they qualify for a Pell Grant — and the University hopes to welcome 20% in 2020.

Before SES, the Northwestern Quest Scholars Network (QSN) was the only group —  student or administrative — that focused on low-income and first-generation advocacy and support since its creation in 2010. After QSN students fought for administrative support, SES was created in 2014.

As SES introduces three new programs — Financial Wellness, the SES Common Application, and Peer Mentoring — this school year to help students advocate for themselves, awareness of SES as “a first-stop shop and a place for an open ear” is more important than ever.

Financial Wellness, launching late fall quarter, will teach students the essentials of understanding finances and financial aid through quarterly sessions, from the difference between subsidized and unsubsidized loans, to understanding options for financial aid over the summer, to the basics of investing. Financial worry is a major source of anxiety for low-income and first-generation students, and the workshops aim to equip students with tools to fight that stressor.

Cockrell talked about one work-study student last year who was panicking when she wouldn’t get her paycheck for two weeks, but needed to get her textbooks as soon as possible before she fell behind in class.

“She didn’t know she could get an emergency loan of $500, and if you know you have money coming through, then that’s a very viable solution that most students don’t know about,” Cockrell said, adding that the student was able to get her books.

The SES Common Application will connect students with “the tons of great funding opportunities for co-curricular involvement and experiences such as joining a fraternity or sorority, going on an Alternative Student Breaks (ASB) trip, or applying for funds for professional attire” through one application and launches late winter.

“Low-income and first-generation students have had to repeatedly write this essay, this narrative, about why they’re deserving of this money, over and over,” Cockrell said. “The Common Application will reduce that significantly.”

The Peer Mentoring program will feature four upperclass mentors paired with four low-income and first-generation students each, who will meet on a weekly basis beginning this fall to go beyond the basics of understanding what financial resources are available, and will provide a comfortable, social space to learn they’re not alone in dealing with challenges at Northwestern.

“A lot of people feel like throwing money at this issue will change things but it’s about changing the culture and really engaging all faculty, staff, and students,” Cockrell said.

Students are furthering their voices this year through the SES Student Advocacy Committee, consisting of 45 low-income, first-generation, and allied students. Members will develop initiatives and craft partnerships with other student groups to organize events that bring attention to their student experience.

Amanda Walsh, president of QSN worked closely with Cockrell on planning for the creation of the Advocacy Committee. “I pushed for the Advocacy Committee because I felt like there were students on campus that were hurting and needed a place to express those fears, that sadness about their experiences, without retribution,” said Walsh. “The committee will allow us to facilitate that conversation with administration, devote 100% of our energy to advocacy, and strengthen those voices.”

Cockrell also said that the SES Faculty & Staff Council, a forum of 18 staff and faculty members across schools and departments, will continue meeting to share best practices and reduce common scenarios like “professors not posting the syllabus till days before class and students finding out there’s $300-$400 required course material” and other non-inclusive practices.

“We’re really trying to remove shame and reframe what it means to be low-income and first-generation,” Cockrell said. “Some people have said, ‘Oh my gosh, 20% low-income students, are we going to be lowering our requirements?’ No! I would argue these students work harder — they are balancing work, home, and school, while still competing at the highest levels to get into a university like Northwestern.”

As part of Wildcat Welcome, SES is having its inaugural Resources to Receipts workshop Friday, September 18 from 1–2:30 p.m. in Room LR5 in Tech (2145 Sheridan Road), to introduce a class of students of any background to smart ways to spend and save in preparation for a new school year and opportunities.

“Education is that one factor that can affect your life trajectory and allow folks to move to the next socioeconomic class. It’s really a life changing factor for not only students, but their entire families as well,” Cockrell said.

Making Northwestern more accessible to low-income and first-generation students is “just one thing we can do to affect huge societal change.”


Check out the “We Are First” video from SES, giving a glimpse into first-generation and low-income experiences at Northwestern.