Deborah Jensen Barker ’80, P’16
Scholarship Appreciation Luncheon
May 10, 2012
Thank you, Barry. Good afternoon everyone — students, scholarship donors, faculty, administration, trustees, alumni, and friends of Bowdoin…It is such an honor for me to speak to you today. I’d like to share with you a bit about my journey as an advocate for students and a passionate supporter of funding for education.
When I applied to college, I had no idea how fortunate I was. My parents could afford to pay. It never crossed my mind that I might not be able to attend any college I set my sights on. When I graduated from Bowdoin in 1980, I didn’t have to worry about choosing a career that paid well in order to repay student loans … I didn’t have any. I had no problem signing a lease on an apartment in New York after graduation, because I had no financial obligations. I took these advantages for granted.
My goal of a career in finance took me to Wall Street, to Harvard for my MBA, and back to New York as an investment banker. I married and moved to the suburbs. Still working and looking for volunteer work in my free time, I joined a local women’s service organization. I was placed on a teen mentoring project; six of us were paired with six young women from Newark, New Jersey, who were attending an alternative high school called the Chad Science Academy. I’d say that the school was in a down-and-out part of Newark, but pretty much all of Newark is down-and-out. Chad was started during the race riots in the 60’s to get children out of the broken public school system. Sadly, 50 years later, the public school system is still broken.
Through Student/Partner Alliance, my friends and I acted as mentors to the girls and helped pay their high school tuition. We met once a month and did something cultural, intellectual or fun. We put on resume writing workshops and went bowling; we worked on dining etiquette and had book group discussions. We were matched up in the beginning of their freshman year and we saw them all the way through to graduation.
My interest in scholarship assistance to open doors started small. Chad’s tuition in the mid 90s was $3,000 a year. The scholarship we provided to each of the girls in the team mentoring project was $1,000. I made my first gift while I was still working, when I asked that my annual United Way pledge be designated to Student/Partner Alliance, and we were able to add one extra student to the program. I moved on to supporting students directly; my life has been enriched as I have mentored and funded dozens of young people from this program since 1994.
From the moment I met our first group of girls, I realized I was hooked. While teenagers can be tough — I know, I have two at home — these young women were gritty and ambitious. Most of them came from nothing and faced many obstacles to stay at Chad. And yet, they were committed, and they had such high hopes for the future. I saw how little time and energy it took to make a difference in their lives. For me it was personal; and the results were so compelling. With the odds against them to even graduate from high school, we proudly sent our first group off to Emory, Rutgers and Cornell.
One of my favorite students over the years was Daphney Olius. She was from a single parent household — her father took off before she was born — and her mom was struggling to make ends meet while raising her three kids. Equipped with four years of biology, chemistry and physics from Chad, Daphney had great grades and SATs. We encouraged her to aim high for college. I was thrilled when she applied and was accepted to Bowdoin in 2002.
Daphney was only able to come here because Bowdoin made it possible for her; as a Chamberlain Scholar, she received almost full financial aid. Proudly, I was here at her graduation in 2006 to see her receive her diploma as a biology and Spanish major. She went onto an accelerated nursing program at NYU. Now she is a practicing nurse and is married, living in Maryland. She wrote me recently: “I don’t know if I ever thanked you for telling me about Bowdoin but I had great experience there. It was a perfect match for me…Bowdoin balanced me out for the real world and I felt so confident at NYU. That’s why I tell everyone who will listen that it [is] a great school.” That first $1,000 scholarship she received at Chad was leveraged into tens of thousands of dollars in college and graduate school aid, and allowed her to reach her dream of being a medical professional.
When I retired from my full-time job, I knew I had the time and the desire to try to do more to help these young people. I called the principal at Chad to ask if there was any volunteer work I could do to help out and spend more time with the students. He mentioned that Chad would be graduating its first senior class that year – did I know anything about college guidance? I laughed and mentioned that in the distant past I had in fact applied to college – and he said “that’s perfect – when can you start as our college guidance counselor?” Over the next 10 years, I worked with over 400 students on their college choices, applications and financial aid forms. And in that time, 95 percent of them went on to college. And remember, this is in Newark, where today only 38% of graduating seniors go onto college…and that doesn’t take into account the so many kids who drop out before they get to senior year.
Once I began working at Chad, more opportunities to offer financial support presented themselves. Each fall, Chad had a grace period for students who were behind on their tuition bills. After that time, students were called to the main office and sent home until their tuition was paid. Invariably, I would be in the office gathering files when students would arrive to be sent home. I remember one day when a junior named James Williams came in, waiting for his mother to bring him home. She came into the office, high on something, and berated him for wasting her time and her money. She walked out and told him she didn’t care if he went to Chad or to any school at all. He owed $876. I called my husband and asked if I could write a check to keep him in school, knowing what the alternative might be. I did; he graduated and went onto Seton Hall. Three years later, I received a letter from him from out of the blue. In the letter was a check for $10 and it said “I know this check couldn’t cover the entire $876 you endorse[d] for my tuition at Chad Science Academy. But at least it is a start…” The next time I called Randy about writing a check, it was for a young woman who went on to Lehigh on a basketball scholarship. It got to the point that he didn’t want to take calls from me when I was at Chad!
In our country today, it has never been more important to get a college degree, and yet, never has access to college been so financially challenging. In 1976, when I arrived on campus, the median household income in the United States was $11,360, and private college tuition was about $4,000. Fast forward to 2010, when the median household income is $48,753 and college tuition has grown to over $50,000 a year. That means the doors to college are closed to many, and many must choose a school based on price rather than on their dreams. It is difficult for almost anyone to take college access for granted today.
We are so fortunate at Bowdoin that those who have gone before us created a strong history of commitment to financial assistance. As far back as 1814, students were awarded aid to help pay their tuition. Today, 43% of the first year class receives aid, with an average grant of $34,950 and no loans. Over $28 million of Bowdoin’s operating budget is dedicated to financial aid. In the last Capital Campaign, Bowdoin set out to raise $76 million in Financial Aid endowment, and raised $103 million, thanks to so many of you in this room today. During the Campaign, we hoped that raising new financial aid endowment would allow us to focus on other needs. But the bar keeps getting higher.
With a greater percentage of students on aid, and an average grant that is higher, we continue to need to raise these funds to keep Bowdoin’s doors open to the best and brightest students. When Randy and I were approached to make our Capital Campaign gift, we didn’t think twice about establishing a financial aid scholarship. If you read the Bowdoin Daily Sun, you know what Scott Meiklejohn’s favorite number is; mine is 832, the number of scholarship funds listed in your program today. Randy and I are proud that ours is among the 832. Thank you all for your generosity in making the list so long.
Which brings us to today at Bowdoin and La’Shaye Ervin, our student speaker. As Barry mentioned, a group of us organized a women-only outing a couple of years ago, intended as a bonding exercise to bring female trustees, staff and administration together. We set our sights high – literally – with a goal to climb Mt. Katahdin. We were joined by female staff from the Outing Club, and importantly, female students. As with all Bowdoin events – the highlight is always the students!
I remember the moment that I first met La’Shaye in September 2010. Our group gathered at the Schwartz Outdoor Leadership Center, and in she walked, a petite junior with long dreds, a big smile and an even bigger backpack. From Brooklyn, she had never done anything outdoorsy growing up, but here she was planning to lead us up Maine’s tallest peak! All from different backgrounds and professional interests, our group shared a common goal and a common bond in Bowdoin. Over the next few days, that bond deepened through conversation and shared experience. Shelley Cyr, a trustee and Associate Dean at Brown Medical School, counseled La’Shaye on her options of a pre-med or a bio major. We all shared a moment of silence on the anniversary of 9/11 and reminisced about where we’d been 9 years before. And La’Shaye and I had a great discussion about the differences between being an Episcopalian and a Rastafarian. Only at Bowdoin, right? La’Shaye is intelligent, willing to take risks and an eternal optimist. La’Shaye puts a face on why Bowdoin is such a fantastic place today.
After the Katahdin trip that fall, I came back here in May for the Scholarship Luncheon. Imagine my surprise when I arrived and there was La’Shaye, seated next to me at the table. It was only then that I discovered that income from the Barker Family Scholarship Fund was assisting her with her tuition.
When I was preparing for today, I wanted to make my case for the continuing need for financial aid using statistics. I wanted to weave in historical data and trends and the benefits of socioeconomic diversity to a student body. But I couldn’t. Because for me, it’s not about numbers; it’s about people: people like James, Daphney and La’Shaye.