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Student threatens hunger strike to pay tuition

Lee McKinstry

Editor In Chief

It was June 6 when Amy*, a rising junior from Texas opened her financial aid allocation letter from the College of Wooster. A few sentences in, she had to sit down. She would have to pay $10,000 more in tuition costs than the year before, leaving a total of $22,000 standing between her and her returning to Wooster. Amy has been paying for college independently since her first year, after her parents told her they would not offer her financial assistance. This year, she was also unable to find a co-signer for loans.

“There was such a huge gap between this year and last,” said Amy, a first-generation American minority student, “I knew I was going to have to stop spending any money if I wanted to come back to Wooster.”

But that’s not all she decided to do. By June 8, Amy had sketched out another fundraising plan, one she was well aware many people might find irrational and self-destructive.

She resolved to go on a 67-day hunger strike, allowing herself to eat only when a small donation was made to her college fund.

Amy called the project “The Starving Student Fund,” and that June she started a blog documenting her unconventional fundraising strategy. “Paying for college is going to kill me sooner or later,” the home page reads, “to draw attention to [rising college tuition], I decided to start sooner rather than later.”

A table on the website breaks down the fast into six hour increments. Beginning at 6 a.m. on Sept. 1, for every $37.50 raised, Amy would push back the beginning of the fast six hours. For every $150 raised, the strike would pause for a day. If she reached $10,000 before Sept. 1, she wouldn’t have to fast at all. Potential donors could make their donations through PayPal.

“The idea of starving oneself for 67 days is crazy, and on my website I said ‘I know this is not safe,” said Amy. “But I decided to do this because it was the only thing that people would take seriously. I thought there needed to be a physical aspect to this to show how strenuous this was and how far I was willing to go to complete college.”

Amy remembered getting a couple of emails asking if it was a form of manipulation.

“The only thing I could say was ‘Yes,’” she said. “But isn’t it also a form of manipulation for a school to say ‘xyz’ about why you’re an asset, and manipulate your thoughts and feelings about a school and then just turn the tables on you financially? They knew my circumstances, but they didn’t do anything. I felt worthless. I wasn’t worth $10,000. I felt damaged. I felt like I had done something wrong.”

Amy contacted the College after starting her project. Representatives from Financial Aid did not directly confirm whether they knew about her specific case.

Amy’s situation echoes those of many College of Wooster students, whose unusual economic difficulties still do not qualify them for federal financial aid. Amy has held back from declaring herself an independent on her tax returns so that she can stay on her parents’ health care plan. Amy’s parents, however, have never put a cent into her college fund and she’s been saving money since middle school for her college tuition expenses. Two summers ago she worked as a waitress in a strip club to make money, while also holding down an unpaid internship at the Breakthrough Collaborative, a nonprofit that helps high-performing low income students become the first in their families to attend college.

“I had to juggle working at a strip club and being objectified every night and talking to kids all day about breaking the cycle of poverty through education,” said Amy. “It was a weird summer.”

According to federal guidelines, however, the College can offer her no more aid. Students must meet very specific guidelines in order to be considered “financially independent” on their financial aid forms, including being married, a veteran or over the age of 24. Parents refusing to contribute to the student’s education or being unwilling to provide information for FAFSA forms do not qualify as unusual circumstances meriting more aid. “Dependency overrides” are done on a case-by-case basis, and are extremely hard to obtain.

“To be fair to all students, we cannot award additional aid when a parent is capable of helping pay for college but is, or claims to be, unwilling,” said David Miller, director of Financial Aid. “Regrettably, we sometimes have to tell students we have already offered them all the aid for which they are eligible and we cannot increase their aid. This only happens after we have exhausted every reasonable avenue for increasing aid eligibility.”

This year, other students are taking matters into their own hands. In conjunction with the Women’s Advisory Board, Josh Ware ’13 and Sarah Kristeller ’13 are in the process of creating a scholarship for students in just these kinds of unusual situations. This year, both Ware and Kristeller were almost unable to return to Wooster after unexpected financial setbacks and personal developments. Once here, they began working with Wendy Barlow from the WAB to establish an emergency fund for students who have encountered unforeseen economic obstacles that the College cannot cover.

“It would be for a situation outside the scope of any scholarship,” said Ware. “This has a lot less to do with true dissatisfaction with the administration, but does have a lot to do with the fact that people tend to overlook unique financial situations which arise. Speaking as a child of government assistance growing up, and poverty, it is easy to forget that not all people in dire financial situations fit into the preconceived regulations which aid and assistance come attached with. The Women’s Advisory Board, Sarah, and I have worked to come up with a solution for when the next student in an unforeseen dire monetary emergency falls into a trap like we did.”

They hope the fund will be available to students starting next year.

And what about Amy? Well, it turns out she didn’t need to fast after all. With one week left before school started, Amy had raised $9,976. Her friends later gifted her the last $24. The funds came from anonymous donors, old bosses and friends. Wooster also assisted, through an avenue that surprised Amy. Chuck Wagers, Head of Dining Services, sent an email on her behalf to the office of the Dean of Students, asking if there were any other funds she should look into. As a result of that email, Amy received another $4,000 of aid. Combined with a Stafford loan and her original financial aid package, her tuition, room and board are covered for her junior year.

Amy isn’t sure how she feels about that. As she sits in the Wired Scot many months after she first uploaded her first blog post, she fidgets with a box of Tic Tacs, pausing while a gaggle of drunk girls passes from Mom’s. After all that planning and publicizing, Amy doesn’t know if Wooster was worth the effort.

“If I hadn’t come to Wooster, I would still be poor, I would probably still be in debt. I’d still have circumstances outside of my control that would have really burdened me,” said Amy. “But here, I’m asking myself, am I just learning poor money management? I’m spending everything that I have on this school, and it’s all I think about. I don’t have the time or means to grow up here.”

Amy almost didn’t come back to Wooster. She considered transferring, but thought she wouldn’t get as much aid at other schools. Today, she seems deflated and tired, relating her frustration with Wooster with the disenchantment of an abandoned lover.  She sighs when she pulls out her phone to calculate once again how much money she’ll have to pay Wooster and for how long. She looks up.

“I think I’m going to look back on [Wooster] and say  ‘I learned about how you can’t really feel like you’re much of an investment until much later. I’m going to say I felt used.’”

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