South financial aid recipients face stigma; school responds, works to provide relief

illustration by Sarah Warner

illustration by Sarah Warner

Alexandra Sharp, co-features editor

Field trips. School supplies. Standardized tests. According to some South students, it is easy to forget how often a public school in an upper-middle class society comes with price tags. However, for many South students, financial difficulties and the label that comes with them are a constant worry.

According to Dr. Lara Cummings, assistant principal for student services, 19.73 percent of South students receive free or reduced services. Students who receive these services meet guidelines that help them purchase academic materials and lunch plans at a reduced cost. In order to appropriately help these students,  Dr. Jim Shellard, assistant principal of student activities, works to grant economic assistance to all areas of student interest.

“I would like to think that opportunities exist for all students in the school to do whatever it is that they want to do,” Shellard said. “There are financial limitations but at the same time, I think [South] tries to go the extra yard to try to find ways that we can provide for those students.”

A recipient of South’s free materials program, senior Nurul Hana Mohammed-Rafee, can attest that South’s financial aid policy alleviates stress inflicted on families struggling economically. According to Mohammed-Rafee, receiving financial aid her sophomore year eased the burden that school costs placed on her parents.

“There was a lot that I wouldn’t ask my parents for freshmen year that I could do sophomore year, like go on […] field trips,” Mohammed-Rafee said. “Sometimes [field trips can cost] 20 dollars and I would have to ask my parents [for money]. […] I would feel bad for asking, but financial aid [now] covers [my] field trips.”

According to senior Yoana Sidzhimova, there is a stigma associated with students who receive financial aid. Although, she personally tries to combat this negativity by being open about her situation, she admits to sometimes fearing judgement from others.

“[…] A lot of people are insecure about [their financial assistance], and there’s that fear of how people are going to see me differently if they know I am receiving financial aid,” Sidzhimova said. “There are people that are going to judge you regardless. […] But you don’t really need those people in your life. […] I need [financial aid] and I get it, and I’m thankful that I get it.”

Agreeing with Sidzhimova, Mohammed-Rafee not only recognizes that a stigma against low-income families exists, but also has experienced it herself, at South. This stigma affected her when she attempted to purchase a driver’s education textbook under her free materials policy.     

  According to Mohammed-Rafee, a bookstore employee responded to her request with “how smart of you”, which Mohammed-Rafee felt gave a negative connotation regarding her family’s economic status.

“[Their] attitude made it seem like I was cheating the school or […] taking every advantage I could of the financial aid,” Mohammed-Rafee said. “[It was like they thought] the school offers me help and […] I took all of it and maybe more.”

When attempts were made to address this alleged situation with the bookstore, the representative decined to comment and disregarded the claims towards the employee.

With this stigma in mind, Cummings’ goal is to make every student’s experience at South the same regardless of their economic situation.

“There were times [at South] that [Shellard and I] witnessed […] kids having to walk into the bookstore and say, ‘But I’m free and reduced’ or it was called [to the] attention [of] other students or around other parents,” Cummings said. “And we just felt very strongly that that’s not appropriate. Whatever their reason is for qualifying, that’s confidential and it’s personal.”

Many South students also believe a stigma exists towards need-based college scholarships. For Sidzhimova, this stigma affected her experience applying for Questbridge, a scholarship that helps high academic-achieving students pay for top universities in the United States. According to Sidzhimova, she was in a car with fellow students that referred to Questbridge students as “poor people” who “didn’t deserve to go to [their] school […] because they are not financially capable of paying for college,” unaware that Sidzhimova was a Questbridge applicant herself.

“Sitting through that car ride was the most excruciating thing ever,” Sidzhimova said. “It was so disgusting, […] and I hate people who [think that] just because [their] family’s well-off, [they] can’t see the value in the opportunities that are present to [low income families]. […] You might be low-income, but that does not in any way, shape or form diminish your ability to perform academically or in any extracurricular clubs.”

According to Cummings, if a student is struggling financially, they should talk to someone trusted in the building. She says that whether their economic situation affects their time at South or their ability to afford college, there are policies at South to help.

Sidzhimova is an example of a student who reached out to staff members at South she trusted to discuss her financial worries. According to Sidzhimova, she believes one’s economic status should not foster feelings of shame for there are many students at South who are in a similar situation.

“Being in a low-income family, one, isn’t something you can control and, two, shouldn’t be something that has you identify with a different social group,” Sidzhimova said. “[…] There’s a lot of other people who are getting [financial aid], and we should be totally open and talking about it and realizing that it [helps] a lot of our friends.”

South’s financial aid packages cover academic services, but in many instances, not extracurricular or athletic materials. This affects Sidzhimova, who finds it difficult to pay for Model United Nations conferences. According to Sidzhimova, her position as president allows her to see a different side of receiving financial aid.

“As president, you sometimes see people just say [it’s okay to ask for aid] to make you go to their club, but it’s not a lie,” Sidzhimova said. “[…] When our school says they don’t limit opportunities based on any financial problem, that’s so true. And I can attest for that with Model UN.”