Every year, UChicago launches a campaign to solicit donations from fourth-years towards the Senior Class Gift. The linchpin of the campaign is the Odyssey Scholarship program, designed to support diverse, low-income undergraduate students, many of whom are the first in their families to attend college. The relationship between the University and Odyssey Scholars may appear to be a benevolent one: The administration has graciously accepted us onto campus and we should be unconditionally grateful for its generosity.
We, the undersigned graduating Odyssey Scholars, would like to challenge this narrative. We believe that the University often exploits Odyssey Scholars for two purposes. The first is to capitalize on our talents and labors as scholars and advocates while providing us little support. We are regularly paraded out by University administrators as evidence of a diverse and inclusive environment—one that we have had to work hard to create and maintain for ourselves. The second purpose is to boost donations and increase the University’s overall prestige and ranking.
In the eyes of the institution, Odyssey Scholars check several boxes in the rubric of diversity. Low-income? Yes. Students of color? Often. First-generation? Mostly. The Odyssey Scholarship provides marginalized students greater access to education, but this serves a double purpose. By accepting non-traditional students, the University lays claim to its twin values of diversity and inclusion. With the rollout of the No Barriers program, the University garnered national support and acclaim for its “pioneering” commitment to removing educational barriers. Admitting and funding low-income students becomes a pathway for prestige and honor for the University.
Marginalized students are only worthwhile to the University insofar as they can produce value and innovation in their respective fields. Acceptance of non-traditional students is a calculated move in enhancing the University’s image and reputation. On many occasions, top administrators have argued that the University’s “rigorous inquiry” and “intellectual culture” rely on the diversity of its students and scholars. We saw the dangerous implications of this after the Donald Trump administration threatened to terminate DACA. In a public letter to Trump, President Robert J. Zimmer condemned this move on the basis that it would starve the University of the “talent and energy that [immigrants] bring to this country.” In the same way that the University believes that immigrants are only important for their contributions, the University denies the humanity of many low-income students and students of color on this campus.
As Odyssey Scholars, we are deeply familiar with the burden of producing value for the University. Marginalized students and multicultural organizations are responsible for making the University a welcoming environment for diverse students. By inviting speakers, holding workshops, and planning events, Odyssey Scholars put in the labor of fostering community because the University will not. Marginalized students have to conduct research, organize students, and advocate for resources from administration. But time after time, the University has refused to allocate more time and attention to the needs of marginalized students. For years, students have been asking for greater food security, a welcoming housing culture, reliable and adequate financial aid, and enhanced bias reporting mechanisms with little substantive support or acknowledgment from the University. Only after years of advocacy were low-income students granted the Center for College Student Success. But at what cost? Students struggle with these extra responsibilities while attempting to maintain grades, part-time jobs, social lives, and their well-being. We advocate for ourselves because no one else will. With this burden, our mental health suffers and the University fails to sufficiently provide the resources we need. And all the while, the University administration pats itself on the back and calls this campus welcoming and inclusive.
At the end of every school year, the University asks fourth-years to donate to the Senior Class Gift, where one of the programs to which you can donate is the Odyssey Scholarship program. Students guilt other seniors into donating by lambasting those who refuse to give, referring to those unfortunate Odyssey Scholars. Wealthy donors inform students that they will only donate to the Odyssey Scholarship if enough students give to the Senior Class Gift.
This is all misleading. The University’s No Barriers program guarantees full financial support and a need-blind admissions policy. According to the program, students will not be turned away for their inability to pay tuition. The University needs to make good on its commitment to low-income students, regardless of donations. Donating to the Odyssey Scholarship program just removes part of the burden from the University to support low-income students. Don’t fall for this trap.
While the donations the University solicits from both us and alumni are not insignificant, they do serve another purpose—to boost the prestige of the University. However, when the University has continued to exploit us while denying us necessary resources like mental health care for years, we refuse to let the University do so in our name. The University must stop manipulating our image to guilt more donation dollars from students. If UChicago is serious about its commitment to marginalized students, it needs to support us not just in the admissions process, but after we arrive on campus too. To fourth-years, other students, and alumni: Until the University actualizes this commitment to fully support low-income students and students of color, we ask you to refuse to donate.
Alyssa Rodriguez, Julie Xu, Soreti Teshome, Tunisia Tai, Diego Cardenas, Ada Alozie, Kenya Senecharles, Eric Holmberg, Ben Glover, Claire Moore, Larissa Santana, José Heredia, Shayla Harris, and Sara Zubi