Problems with the Presidential Scholarship

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During last week’s Student Government Association (SGA) Senate Meeting, concern about diversity within the University’s Presidential Scholarship recipients was expressed to the University’s President Dr. Pestello and its Chief Diversity Officer Dr. Smith. Although Dr. Smith commented on the barriers that high standardized test scores pose to students of color accessing a scholarship, neither Dr. Pestello, Dr. Smith nor a number of other University administrators could speak to the process by which presidential scholars are selected. This was quite shocking to me, and I think it is indicative of a greater lack of knowledge and awareness about the Presidential Scholarship within the greater University community. As a presidential scholar myself, and with interviews for the scholarship coming up in just a few months, I thought it was important to share some of my thoughts on the Presidential Scholarship in hopes of starting a dialogue that would hopefully improve a scholarship program with many problems.

The first problem I see with the Presidential Scholarship is its lack of a clear identity, which I think is a problem for a scholarship that offers full tuition and is a strong recruiting tool. On SLU’s main scholarship web page, the only description given of the scholarship, outside of eligibility and application requirements, is that the scholarship is for “exemplary student leaders.” This is a vague description, especially when compared to the description of the Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship. The scholarship’s lack of a clear identity causes problems before and after the scholarships are awarded.

During the interview process on campus, current scholars, University employees, and alumni are asked to interview candidates. After three years of interviewing, it is clear that no one involved in the process really knows what type of students they are supposed to be looking for. This means that personal preferences may dictate most decision making. I usually favor students with clear passions that they hope to bring to SLU because I think that they have the greatest potential to change SLU for the better, but others may favor extensive extracurricular involvement or a Jesuit educational background. Also, interview grading criteria essentially requires excellent interpersonal communication skills of individuals, but being a polished speaker is not a requirement for leadership, and I think this bias in the grading criteria eliminates students who would be great leaders at SLU.

The second issue with the scholarship and the one with the most serious consequences is the severe lack of diversity in the recipients, especially when you look at racial and ethnic diversity. There are virtually no Latinx or black students who receive the Presidential Scholarship, which is a major problem. A full-tuition scholarship is one of a university’s greatest recruitment tools, and if that recruitment tool is completely ineffective in recruiting students of color, which is something the University struggles with in general, then it should be changed so that it recruits a diverse pool of students. I do acknowledge that because of the inequities present in our country’s public education system and the biases represented in standardized tests, simply changing recruiting and advertising strategies may not be enough to change the diversity of scholarship recipients significantly, but I don’t think that’s an excuse to not try. Also, if our scholarship is furthering inequities in educational attainment, then we should seriously consider changing the scholarships requirements so that it can be open to students with great leadership and academics that may have less than a 30 on their ACT.

The final problem I see with the Presidential Scholarship is that it promotes a problematic culture of elevated social status within the scholarship recipients and not a culture of leadership. As a Presidential Scholar, the only things really required of your time are attending fancy receptions with free food and completing a Crossroads course your first semester on campus. When I think about Presidential Scholar culture, I immediately think of off-campus parties, stuffing leftover food from banquets into Tupperware containers and upperclassmen drinking too much free alcohol on interview weekends. For me, it is a serious issue that this University has given me a full-tuition scholarship and those are the things that I associate with it. This issue has a lot to do with the scholarship’s lack of identity, and I believe if the identity problem is fixed that we could create a better culture inside the scholarship community.

I believe the scholarship should be awarded to a diverse group of students with a common identity of service and leadership who have aspirations to pursue their passions at SLU and work towards fulfilling the University’s mission. Others may disagree with me, but I think we can all agree that it’s time to have a conversation.