When she was a senior at Thurgood Marshall Academy in Washington, D.C., Faith Hudson’s school called a special assembly. She didn’t think much of it; visitors often came by for panels and to learn more about the small public charter school in Southeast D.C
It wasn’t until Hudson entered the school auditorium and saw George Washington University’s mascot that she began to suspect this might not be a typical school meeting. Then her family appeared, and she knew it would be no ordinary day.
Earlier that year, Hudson’s school counselor had nominated her for GWU’s Stephen Joel Trachtenberg (SJT) scholarship. GWU awards up to 10 scholarships each year to students in the District, covering tuition, room and board, books and fees.
As it turned out, GWU chose Hudson.
As her family gathered around her to celebrate the achievement, Hudson didn’t know what to think.
“It was crazy. I was really in shock,” she says. “It really didn’t hit me. I was in a daze; I was speechless; I had nothing to say.”
In one stroke, the scholarship eliminated all of her concerns about paying for college — the complicated equation of aid, loans and part-time jobs.
“I didn’t really expect to get the scholarship, if that makes sense,” Hudson explains. “I expected to get money to go to school, but not a full ride, you know? So getting a full ride was just like a dream come true.”
For most students in the U.S., paying for school is a major stressor. At a private four-year school like GWU, where tuition and fees will cost just under $54,000 for the 2017-18 academic school year alone, the price tag is even more prohibitive. GWU’s financial aid office estimates that the total cost of attendance is $70,000 annually, with room and board, books and incidentals taken into consideration.
Today, Hudson is a rising junior at GWU, majoring in criminal justice with a minor in psychology. She is involved in community organizations on campus and her close-knit sorority, and she works at CVS pharmacy to make some money on the side.
“Having the scholarship made life a lot easier, so it just feels like this was where it was all meant to be,” Hudson says.
The SJT scholarship is named for GWU’s former president, who transformed the school into the glitzy research institution that it is today. Take a stroll across the GWU campus, and you will see signs of transformation and new construction everywhere.
Hudson’s residence hall last year, the District House, is one of many new buildings on campus that are part of a larger transformation of the campus and, by extension, the Foggy Bottom neighborhood where it is located. District House just opened its doors to its first class of students in fall 2016.
Much of the ongoing building campaign was set in motion by Trachtenberg, who led the school from 1988 to 2007. Through his efforts, the school grew its endowment from $250 million to $1.57 billion today. With all the changes came a jump in the U.S. News and World Report rankings and greater national recognition.
Yet GWU’s new identity and correlated higher price tag make the school inaccessible to many of the District’s lower-income residents.
GWU students tend to be from higher-income backgrounds, and the school has made great efforts to recruit a diverse student body from all 50 states and 130 countries. The median family income of a student attending GWU is $182,200, and 70 percent of students come from households in the top 20 percent of earners. Only 2.5 percent of students come from the bottom 20 percent.
At $93,294, the D.C. metro area’s median income is the highest in the country. Yet there is great economic stratification within the city itself. Poverty is increasingly concentrated east of the Anacostia River in Southeast D.C., where 33 percent of residents live below the poverty line, compared with the 12 percent poverty rate in the rest of the city.
“Like most cities in general, D.C. really continues to struggle with the legacy of segregation and racial discrimination that led to the city’s African-American population and the population that lives in poverty being concentrated in one segment of the District,” says Claire Zippel, policy analyst at the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute.
The cost of living has gone up along with gains in median income.
“We’ve seen that rising housing costs and gentrification have served to retrench patterns of racial and economic segregation in the city,” Zippel explains. As a result, although the childhood poverty rate in D.C. is 26 percent overall, in some communities east of the river almost half of the kids live in households that fall beneath the poverty line.
The SJT program is designed to ensure that a select group of talented D.C. students can attend GWU, despite the cost.
“The goal of the program was to really attract the best and the brightest, the most talented students from the District of Columbia here to GWU,” says Helen Cannaday, associate provost for diversity, equity and community engagement at GWU.
Cannaday oversaw the program in its earliest days, welcoming GWU’s first cohort of five SJT scholars to the school in 1990. Since then, the program has expanded and now brings up to 10 students to GWU annually. Leadership of the day-to-day management of the program has since passed to George Rice III, but the program is still housed in the Office for Diversity, Equity and Community Engagement, which Cannaday leads.
“We saw that a lot of students were being courted away to schools outside of the District, because of their test scores and their GPAs,” Cannaday explains. “We wanted to find a way to keep them here in D.C. and assist them in continuing their education and meeting their professional aspirations.”
Since then, the scholarship has helped educate more than 160 students. The program boasts a graduation rate of approximately 92 percent.
SJT scholars acknowledge that as high school seniors it can be tempting to want to leave the city to experience something new and different. Adam Middleton, a former SJT scholar, understands the feeling. When he was a senior, he received a range of offers from highly competitive schools across the country.
Yet, when he was pondering his future, D.C. had a definite appeal.
“After submitting all my applications in January, I was overcome with a sense of the foundation that I could continue building on by staying in the city, not only because I was born here and already very familiar with it, but because it’s a very political city,” Middleton says. “It’s not just any other hometown.”
Middleton was involved in multiple advocacy organizations in high school. His participation in the Promising Futures program led to a brief appointment on the Mayor’s Commission on HIV/AIDS. That brush with the political machine of the city opened up a new world of possibilities to him.
“Although I grew up here, I felt fairly removed from politics and political conversation,” Middleton says. “With GWU being so politically engaged, it was a great opportunity to use my adulthood to learn more about not just D.C. as my hometown, but D.C. as a political institution.”
Middleton graduated from GWU in 2015 and still resides in the District, where he now works in communications.
“I’m very happy in my career right now, and I don’t really see a reason to leave,” he says. “If I were to leave, it would be to decisively shake things up.”
Fostering leaders who will then return to improve their communities in D.C. is one of the explicit goals of SJT scholarship. “Our alumni have been actively involved in leadership positions here in the District or Maryland or Virginia,” Cannaday says. “They’re lawyers, doctors, teachers, social justice activists.”
Hudson, however, worries that some high school students in certain parts of the city might never know about the opportunities that surround them in the District.
GWU is located in a corner of D.C. along the Potomac River, close to the Watergate Hotel, the Kennedy Center and Georgetown’s waterfront. Some refer to Foggy Bottom — with its quaint, colorful row houses — as a “mini-Georgetown.” Although it is only 20 minutes away from Southeast D.C. on the Metro line, the two parts of the city can feel worlds apart.
“I feel like there are so many students that could be in my shoes that aren’t because they didn’t have the opportunity or the resources or just didn’t know about stuff that they could have known about,” Hudson says. She and other students in her SJT cohort plan to start the SJT Organization next fall, which will initiate greater outreach with D.C. high schools. They plan to tutor high school students, have workshops on campus and educate students about the college opportunities that exist in D.C., such as the SJT scholarship.
“I want to give back,” Hudson explains. “I feel like coming from Southeast D.C., it’s low-income, so we don’t have a lot of resources. People kind of forget about that side of D.C. A lot of people kind of give up on the high schools there and the students there.”
To date, school counselors have been the ones to select and nominate promising students for the scholarship, but Hudson said she believes that more students should have the chance to advocate for themselves. The scholarship now requires students to submit a separate essay, she points out, so the program is already moving in the direction of seeking more student engagement.
“They’re giving more students a chance to go after it themselves rather than just relying on the counselor,” Hudson says. “If you show interest and talk to your counselor, and you do what you need to do to be qualified for the scholarship, then there wouldn’t be any reason for them to not nominate you.”
D.C. students have a number of options when it comes to paying for college. In 2015, D.C. Council member Vincent B. Orange proposed turning the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) into a tuition-free community college and renaming it after the late Marion Barry, a controversial but generally beloved former mayor of the District.
That particular proposal did not gain traction, but UDC initiated the District of Columbia University Partnership (DC-UP) in fall 2016, which offers a full-ride scholarship and a $6,000 housing stipend to high school students in the District who graduate with a 3.7 GPA or higher. Students with a 3.0 or higher are eligible for tuition discounts.
D.C. residents can also apply for the DC Tuition Assistance Grant (DCTAG) program, a District initiative that provides up to $10,000 toward the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition at public colleges and universities in the U.S. Students can also receive up to $2,500 every academic year toward tuition at private colleges and universities in the District as well as the nation’s historically Black colleges and universities.
Attending GWU, however, offers SJT scholars many of the institution’s resources and the opportunity to connect with its diverse body.
“Growing up in D.C., I went to schools that were 80 percent African American and the remaining percent were mostly Latino,” Middleton says. “So to be at GWU where it was flipped — 10 percent African American and plenty of international students— that was a fantastic experience for me just in terms of being around different walks of life.”
He is still friends with people he met at school from Alabama, New York and Los Angeles, connections that continue to enrich his life.
“You know, that wouldn’t have happened if I just stayed in D.C. and did D.C. things,” Middleton says. “I’m grateful for the experience to meet so many people and just connect with them — because we bring different opportunities to the university.”
- This story also appears in the July 13, 2017 print edition of Diverse.
Catherine Morris can be reached at [email protected].