The Great Financial Aid Misconception
By Eileen Fenn '02
from Connecticut," I said over and over that humid afternoon
in late August. It was my first day at St. Lawrence University, and
fellow members of my first-year college wandered in and out of my room
as my roommate and I unpacked. Having lived in Connecticut my entire
life, I was largely unprepared for what my statement immediately led
those from other states to assume about me.
"So, is that your Saab in the parking lot then?" asked one
neighbor after he learned where I was from.
"No, I don't have a car," I laughed.
"Really?" he asked. "Not even a Volvo?"
"Maybe if I saved up and bought myself a used one," I said
from behind a pile of sweaters.
"Oh come on! You're from Connecticut!"
I suppose that at first glance I seemed like the typical St. Lawrence
student of yesteryear. I am a white New Englander, and I'd just graduated
from The Taft School in Watertown, Conn., one of the most prestigious
prep schools in the Northeast. I knew little about financing an education
as a high school senior, only that a reason I was able to go to Taft
was because they gave me financial aid. Likewise, one of the reasons
that I came to
St. Lawrence was for the financial aid package I was offered. In fact,
in receiving financial aid I am among the majority of St. Lawrence students,
regardless of where they come from (see box at right).
There may be an archaic, preconceived idea that all St. Lawrence students
are wealthy, but that has not been my experience at all. Although there
are plenty of people who don't need to hold down a campus job and who
have their Spring Break vacations funded by their parents, a lot of
students here have to budget to pay for their books every semester,
too. The economic status of students varies as widely as our interests
I often bristle at the "Larry" stereotype - that St. Lawrence
is largely populated by wealthy, unmotivated students who are here to
party for four years - because overwhelmingly that is not what I found.
Of course there are students who can look forward to a jaunt around
Europe after they graduate, but there are plenty who hope to find a
job immediately so they can begin paying off their student loans.
Likewise, I don't think that economic disparities generally prevent
St. Lawrence students from forming friendships. I have friends who pay
full tuition and some who get full aid. I had to budget my savings and
work every summer, although not all of my friends did. I couldn't go
out to dinner twice a week, and would usually choose to see a movie
free on campus over paying to see one in town. I don't have a car, so
I often had to ask friends for rides or sometimes take a bus home for
vacations. Often, one of my parents would make the drive up to get me.
Ultimately, if I wanted to pay my phone bill I had to prioritize how
I spent my paychecks. It was sometimes frustrating to see people around
me be frivolous and carefree about spending, but I realize that in life
there is always going to be someone with more money than I. On the flip
side, there will also be people who are really battling to get by financially
and are far worse off than I. I more often felt blessed rather than
uncomfortable simply because I was a scholarship student.
Receiving a scholarship from St. Lawrence made me realize how incredibly
fortunate I was. Even though I needed financial aid in order to attend
St. Lawrence, I know four years ago that I would eventually attend a
college, if not here, then somewhere else. I met people from small towns,
big cities and even quite a few from Connecticut who received aid. My
need always seemed marginal when compared to that of some first-generation
college students I knew; in fact, it paled in comparison. In four years
I gained immeasurable perspective on the sacrifices different families
and individuals make in order to afford a college education. Appearances
can be deceiving. I'm not sure if there is a "typical" St.
Lawrence student anymore.
A Phi Beta Kappa and English honors graduate, Eileen Fenn wrote
this essay as the culmination of her internship in University communications
during her final semester at St. Lawrence. Over the summer, she headed
for Mississippi to begin a stint with Teach for America.