Student Council’s Financial Accessibility committee released its Guide to Being Not-Rich at U.Va. Nov. 11 to provide a collection of resources for low-income and first-generation students at the University.
The guide was developed over two years and includes financial and academic information. In addition to sections on financial aid, insurance and personal finances, the guide includes mentorship opportunities, academic advice and study abroad tips for FGLI students.
Created in 2019, the Student Council Financial Accessibility Committee’s first project was to release the guide. Cecilia Cain, second-year College student and chair of the committee, said that the committee has taken on a variety of tasks related to increasing financial resources for students at the University, including running Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Medicaid workshops and advocating for a tuition freeze. Cain said that lowering textbook costs and creating scholarships for descendants of enslaved laborers are next on Financial Accesibility’s agenda.
Ellie Brassachio, a 2020 College graduate and former Student Council president, said that the title of the guide was inspired by the University of Michigan’s Being Not Rich at UM, published in 2018.
“I think the title allows greater accessibility to anyone that needs the resources in the guide, no matter if they identify as FGLI or not,” Brassachio said. “Many students that are technically considered FGLI do not identify as such, so they may see a resource branded for FGLI students and not automatically know it could benefit them.”
8.5 percent of the University’s undergraduate population identified as low-income this fall, while 13.2 percent were first-generation college students, according to deputy University spokesperson Wes Hester.
Brasacchio, who was one of the original contributors to the guide, said that there are limited resources available to low-income and first-generation students that are not being openly publicized by the University and are thus difficult to access.
“Sometimes the issue isn’t that the resources don’t exist, it’s that people don’t know about the resources,” Brasacchio said. “Especially for first-gen students where it’s even more difficult for them to navigate the institution, having a one-stop shop for where people can get resources and orient themselves to what’s going on in the space was the intent of creating that guide.”
According to Brasacchio, the guide is a positive step towards consolidating resources for low-income and first-generation students. When she arrived on Grounds in 2016 as a first-generation college student, Brassachio said that the only resources available to her — the Office of the Dean of Student’s Hoos First program and AccessUVA, which is run out of Student Financial Services — were difficult to locate and placed within different offices, which made her feel alienated from the rest of the University community.
This sense of alienation was only compounded by her inability to join social institutions, such as Greek life, due to financial barriers, she added.
“The first thing that people don’t realize is the sense of alienation that a lot of FGLI students feel from the rest of the U.Va. community because they don’t have money for resources or because their parents didn’t go to college,” Brasacchio said. “Navigating institutions such as Greek life — even though only a third of the University is involved in Greek Life — it seems like when you’re on Grounds that everyone is involved in it, so not being able to take part in those institutions can make you feel like you’re not welcome there.”
With no dedicated office or contact person for support, Brasacchio said that first-generation and low-income students are often left to dig through the Office of the Dean of Students, Student Financial Services and Career Center websites to find programs or resources themselves — something that takes time and energy that many students may not have.
Following her graduation from the University, Brasacchio said that she felt just as alienated and lost as she did coming into college as an FGLI student. At the time, the University had no set of resources for FGLI alumni, and the resources that were available weren’t well-known and were difficult to find, according to Brasacchio.
Wanting to keep in touch with FGLI student communities on Grounds, Brasacchio was inspired to create a service for FGLI alumni and has been working with the Alumni Association to create a FGLI Alumni Network. The network intends to service both alumni and current students through mentorship opportunities, resource publication and community building.
In addition to providing a collection of resources for first-generation and low-income students, the Financial Accessibility Committee hopes that this guide sends a signal to low-income students at the University that they are wanted and that there’s a community willing to give them what they need to thrive at the University.
Cain said that she had an emotional response reading the letters written by other low-income students in the guide. In her experience, Cain said that being a low-income student at a University with a median income of $155,000 is daunting and may leave students with feelings of imposter syndrome.
According to Cain, this makes the guide — and the sense of support students experience while reading it — all the more important.
“When I read it, there were notes from others that made me feel some kind of sense of community and solidarity with other students here, at a time when I was feeling especially isolated and like no one really understood my background or my experiences,” Cain said. “So that felt really important for me to make sure other students experienced that.”
While efforts by FGLI students and advocates to put together resources — including the guide and the alumni network — are impressive, Cain noted that alone, these students cannot create the cultural shift needed at the University to ensure that all FGLI students at or coming into the University feel welcomed and appreciated.
“I think it’s hard to like be a student here and to not necessarily feel like the administration cares about you outside of the statistics you’re providing for them,” Cain said.
Paige DiPirro, fourth-year College student and vice president of the Financial Accessibility Committee, echoed this sentiment and said that FGLI students cannot be the only students pushing for changes in financial accessibility.
“U.Va. doesn’t demonstrate a vested interest in this,” DiPirro said. “If it has to continue being FGLI students being the only advocates to push for these things, we’re not going to see the cultural shift or, you know, the resource allocation that’s necessary.”
This need for increased attention and advocacy has been heightened by the stresses the COVID-19 pandemic have placed on FGLI students. In addition to stress associated with their own academic success and livelihood, Cain said that FGLI students are burdened with worrying about their families who live on the verge of financial insecurity, which causes FGLI student’s emotional stress on top of financial stress.
“A lot of students are concerned about their families at home who don’t even have the access we have here as students and that’s like not only financial stress, that’s emotional stress to put on students.” Cain said. “It has not been apparent to me — or I think a lot of other students — that [the University is] prioritizing students’ well-being or even understanding that our academic success is very contingent on all of the other variables in our lives.”
DiPirro said that people underestimate what financial and emotional stress can do to the brain, especially in times of crisis. DiPirro said that worrying about rent, food and job security is debilitating for many FGLI students, making college an emotionally exhausting experience even without the pressures of a pandemic. The pandemic only heightens these concerns, and with necessities such as food and healthcare uncertain, DiPirro said that she — and other FGLI students — feel even more isolated.
“Everything is a very different experience when you are kind of riddled and obligated to think about every aspect of your livelihood all the time,” DiPirro stated. “And with COVID, you’re dealing with the same financial stress and the same strains that you would in a normal semester, except every difficulty is turned up to 11.”
The University is one of two public universities in the United States to meet 100 percent of the demonstrated financial need of students. Last year, AccessUVA — the University’s primary financial aid service — distributed over $155 million in need-based financial aid. The University also covers all fees and tuition for students from Virginia whose families earn less than $80,000 per year, and for Virginia families earning less than $30,000 per year, the University covers tuition, fees, room and board.
Hester said that the University’s graduation rate is a positive indicator of the University’s financial programs.
“A testament to the University’s work in helping low-income and first-generation students succeed is U.Va.’s 93 percent six-year graduation rate, which is best in the nation among public universities,” Hester said.
In addition to Hoos First and AccessUVA, the University runs financial accessibility programs such as the First-Generation Student Support program through the Office of the Dean of Students, which provides consultations with first-generation students, as well as the Rainey Academic Program, which allows FGLI students the opportunity to take summer classes and meet with faculty the semester before they begin at the University.
Despite the benefits of the University’s financial programs, Brassachio said that the most crucial resources for FGLI students come out of FGLI-run student organizations, such as First-Generation Low-Income Partnership, a program that allows students to contact and build community with other first-generation and low-income students on Grounds.
For Brasacchio, FLIP was the biggest contributor to creating a sense of community and belonging during her time at the University.
“When students came together to build FLIP at U.Va. — which is really where the FGLI community is housed now — we really wanted to make sure that we were building that sense of community first with FGLI students,” Brasacchio said. “FLIP at U.Va. has really taken off in the short time that they’ve been an organization and have really filled a big gap at U.Va. for building that community.”
FGLI-run student organizations at the University, including FLIP and Rise Together — a mentorship and academic support system for FGLI students — came together under Student Council’s FGLI coalition, which was started in 2019. The coalition brings together leaders and members of FGLI organizations across Grounds to forge a community among first-generation and low-income students and provide a forum for FGLI advocacy within Student Council.
Student Council also offers other resources for FGLI students, such as the Transfer Student Resource Guidebook, which serves as an additional repertoire of financial resources offered by the University, and UVA Mutual Aid, a student-run collective offering small grants without stipulations to students.
Earlier this year, the University was ranked in the bottom 15 percent of institutions in terms of social mobility, which is the ability of students to move from one class to another.
DiPirro said that she hopes that the University begins providing and publicizing resources for first-generation and low-income students — if it fails to do so, DiPirro said that the University may lose a community of students that add something that commonly goes unrecognized.
“They bring value and grit to the University that I can assure you a lot my peers who come from very privileged backgrounds don’t have, and those experiences are valuable and incredibly important,” DiPirro said. “Without those voices at the table, we’re a worse institution.”