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Golden Opportunity

As the Federal Pell Grant program marks its 50th anniversary, we look at how the grants — and other critical support — allow Seton Hall students to succeed.
By Katharine Gammon

Sampson Davis ’95 grew up in Newark as the fifth of six children, and college wasn’t exactly on his radar. His family life was rough, his living quarters cramped, and although he was a good student, his life revolved around survival — not long-term planning. “College was like dessert,” he says, “Higher education was on the menu, but it wasn’t what I was focused on at the time.”

A recruiter from Seton Hall came to his high school and spoke about the science and medical academic opportunities there. Something lit up in Davis — he and two friends, Rameck Hunt ’95 and George Jenkins ’95, made a pact to go to college, and all three were accepted to Seton Hall.

But there was a problem: Davis was the first in his family to pursue higher education, and there wasn’t money for college. Fortunately, he and his friends were all able to get federal Pell Grants along with support from the University to fund their studies.

Every semester, Davis would work creatively to figure out how to remove the balance on his account so he could register for more classes. He flipped through enormous books of scholarships to find ones that he could apply for — like a golf caddie scholarship from a local golf course. He’d search high and low for anything that would help him pursue his dreams. “Having that support was everything because I couldn’t afford it,” he says. “Without it, I would have never been able to achieve this level of accomplishment.”

Seton Hall has historically been committed to being a university of opportunity, and that commitment continues for students, says Dean Majid Whitney. “These opportunities really change the scope of their lives, and ultimately break the cycle of poverty that plagues so many families and community members.”

Since its beginnings, the University has welcomed students seeking higher education regardless of their socioeconomic status. Each year, Seton Hall provides more than $150 million in direct financial support from its operating budget, money that is granted in addition to what’s given to students through the Pell Grant program, now in its 50th year.

The Pell Grant is one of the first forms of financial aid that a student will receive, Whitney says, and plays a crucial role. Students must meet certain financial requirements and complete the Federal Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Ninety-eight percent of Seton Hall’s full-time undergraduate students who file the FAFSA application and demonstrate need receive financial assistance from the University’s program.

“I think we do a really good job of ensuring that the students at Seton Hall are completing those applications and are able to benefit from all forms of support,” says Whitney, since additional help is almost always needed.

He adds that a Pell Grant has a lifespan of about six years or 12 semesters — encouraging students to finish their studies in a timely fashion. The program has also expanded to cover summer tuition, which has helped students get the classes they need. “Every dollar matters,” says Whitney. “And Seton Hall has just done a really beautiful job of complementing the aid provided by Pell and other forms of scholarships by filling in need-based gaps for students who are financially vulnerable.”

Seton Hall’s Catholic roots play into its devotion to helping everyone succeed. Access without support is not opportunity, Whitney says. “I think it’s one thing to open your doors. I think it’s another thing to provide support when someone is through its doors so that they have an opportunity to succeed.”

He adds that this aligns with Seton Hall’s mission to develop servant leaders in a global society — and notes that servant leaders are not always going to come from financially privileged backgrounds. “I believe that providing these additional resources to students really casts a much wider net in terms of who we are able to invite to our community to really be a part of the change that we wish to see in the world.”

Part of Seton Hall’s commitment to students of all backgrounds includes helping them flourish. In December 2020, the University Board of Regents unanimously endorsed a strategic plan which calls for a student experience that is “equitable and consistent” and “enhances student support and retention.”

Andrieh Darwich ’19 says the Pell Grant was an opportunity to continue his education with less worry about whether he’d be able to pay for it. “The grant created a sense of comfort that the school was advocating on my behalf, that I should be able to pursue higher education without fear of financial instability,” he says.

He notes that the Pell Grant and other support can be a life-changing experience for students who otherwise might have to choose between continuing their education and affording a car, meal or textbook.

Darwich is now pursuing a medical degree at Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine. “Seton Hall has also impacted the way I view the world,” he says, “as it has exposed me to many different ways of thinking, from theological to real life, and has put me in contact with phenomenal advisers, where every conversation, meal and constructive feedback has shaped me today.”

The Federal Pell Grant Program was created by the Higher Education Act of 1965 as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s plan to improve higher education. Pells were designed specifically to be federally funded grants that did not have to be repaid like student loans. Students may use their grants at any one of approximately 5,400 participating postsecondaryinstitutions. In August, President Joe Biden announced a plan to cancel up to $20,000 of student loan debt for Pell Grant recipients, although a court challenge makes it unclear if the program will go into effect before the next payments are due in January.

The program has been incredibly successful — researchers say Pell Grants boost college enrollment, reduce drop-out rates and improve student outcomes. But the money doesn’t go as far these days: in 1975, a Pell covered 79 percent of school costs; today it covers less than 29 percent.

Each year, Pell Grants help about 5.4 million full-time and part-time college and vocational school students nationally — paying about $6,495 toward a student’s tuition, fees, room and board. At Seton Hall, 31 percent of undergraduate students — and 33 percent of new freshmen — received the grants.

It may seem like a small amount, but that support can mean the difference between success and dropping out, says Jason Oliveira, who directs Seton Hall’s Educational Opportunity Fund programs. “A lot of people may not see it as life changing because it’s only $6,000 and change, but for a family, your income cannot exceed $36,000. So when the federal government is offering you $6,000, that’s a sixth of your income,” he says, “which is a big deal.”

Oliveira says the Educational Opportunity Fund programs, which were created in 1968 to ensure access to higher education for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, have the highest retention rates and graduation rates on campus. “It’s because of these opportunities that students are given,” Oliveira says.

Students who are the first in their families to attend college also face unique challenges. At Seton Hall, the Resilience, Integrity, Scholarship and Excellence (RISE) program helps low-income, first-generation or students with disabilities stay in school and graduate. The program gives students a comprehensive plan that includes academic, professional and social support, including tutoring and coaching, personal financial advising and career counseling and planning.

Ana Da Silva ’07 was a first-generation student. Her family moved from Brazil to New Jersey when she was 3, and she was raised by a single mother. “So times were tough, and college education was always out of reach,” she says.

Da Silva was able to secure several scholarships, along with the Pell Grant. She was able to afford all four years, and graduated with less than $20,000 in loans. She majored in criminal justice and has worked for the Jacoby & Meyers law firm for 14 years.

“I loved Seton Hall because it was such an intimate classroom experience,” she says. “It gave me the chance to get to know students and teachers. I was never just a number in a class of a hundred.”

Ricardo Muñoz ’21 says the Pell helped him cover the cost of tuition, which removed a major burden off his shoulders and allowed him to focus more on academics. Muñoz studied biology and is now a second-year medical student at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.

“Seton Hall had a major impact on my academic journey,” he says. “It allowed me to meet great faculty and staff who assisted me the whole way. They believed in me and my dream of matriculating into a medical school.”

“Some of the most impactful moments at Seton Hall were when I would sit down with my advisers to talk about my life and education. They truly cared about my education and my overall health, and it’s something I still carry with me to this day.” Ricardo Muñoz

Ricardo Muñoz ’21

Sampson Davis has also carried his Seton Hall education with him. He and the two friends who came to the University with him graduated Seton Hall’s Pre-Medical/Pre-Dental Plus program, designed to encourage minority students to pursue medical careers. Then the three headed off, still together, to the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.

Davis became an emergency room doctor, Hunt became an internist and Jenkins a dentist. Together, they formed the Three Doctors Foundation, which uses peer and mentor programs to motivate youth to become leaders and succeed in their community. The foundation was engaged on Seton Hall’s campus until the COVID-19 pandemic, holding walkathons to promote healthy activity.

Davis says opportunities like the Pell Grant produce graduates who give back — and generate
a self-reenforcing cycle.

“Having this huge gamut of people from different walks in different atmospheres of life helps us strengthen our community,” he says. “It helps us build our community, our neighborhood and it helps to give back in ways that we don’t even realize in the moment.”

Katharine Gammon is a freelance writer based in Santa Monica.

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