Taupule Atafua thought college was out of reach.
The Pacific Islander student left her home in American Samoa for a better education, but figuring out how to apply and pay for college was difficult.
“I’m a first generation student, so throughout the whole college application process, my parents couldn’t really help me,” she said. “I had to spend a lot of time seeking out help and college was looking not possible.”
The University of Washington’s Diversity Scholar Award made higher education possible for the now 20-year-old business major. Atafua was one of 50 students from underrepresented communities to receive a $40,000 scholarship, awarded for academic success and financial need. “I wouldn’t have made it to college without it,” she said.
The scholarship is one of the ways the university’s Multicultural Outreach and Recruitment Team is providing college access for low-income, minority students. The program, part of the university’s Office of Minority and Diversity Affairs, engages middle and high school students with resources to plan—and pay—for college.
Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander students face unique challenges to college education, said Merissa Tatum, the program’s assistant director. She said the students often come from low-income and refugee families without a “college-going culture.”
Because of this, students often have a lack of family support. Parents may be refugees who have difficulty navigating application and financial-aid systems or may not think higher education is necessary.
The expectation for students to work after high school to support their households is especially common for Pacific Islanders, according to Atafua.
“We’re a family-driven culture,” Atafua said. “It’s always a burden and responsibility for the eldest child to work and provide for the family.”
Last year, nearly 28 percent of students at UW identified as Asian. Because the statewide population of Asians is closer to 7 percent, there is a misconception that individual Asian groups are well represented. That misconception casts a shadow on the disparities and struggles among specific groups of students who are classified as Asian.
Cambodian, Laotian, and other Southeast Asian students together made up less than 1 percent of the university’s total population. Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students also made up less than 1 percent in the same year.
A team of diversity recruiters at UW is tasked with reaching out to connect middle and high school students from these cultures and other underrepresented minorities with resources.
When UW’s Southeast Asian recruitment and outreach counselor position was ended in November 2013, the API community organized over the course of seven months to have the position reinstated. The community demanded that UW commit to reaching out to underrepresented populations. Over 50 API community leaders gathered at Asian Counseling and Referral Services (ACRS) on July 31 to meet with UW President Michael Young. The position was subsequently reinstated.
“Connecting with these communities is really pivotal because we identify with the people we work with,” Tatum said. “It’s powerful for students to visually see someone who looks like them, who overcame adversity and come from low-income families but were able to pursue higher education.”
The Office of Minority and Diversity Affairs works with more than 15,000 students from kindergarten through high school, bringing resources directly to schools, community centers and more in underserved areas.
“It’s a challenge to get information out there and meet the students and families where they are,” Tatum said. “In disadvantaged communities, many students don’t have access to college simply because they don’t have information. They don’t know about test prep for SAT or ACT; they don’t know fees can be waived; they don’t know scholarships and grants are available to them once they get to college.”
Most low-income students qualify for state and federal assistance, but Tatum said this process can be difficult. Students must apply through the Free Application for Federal Student Assistance before February 28 to qualify and awards are income-based.
Grants don’t have to be paid back, but for students who need to take out loans to cover tuition, it can be difficult. “Many students might not have the education to know what taking out a loan actually means,” Tatum said.
That’s why her team works to inform students about diversity- and need-based scholarship opportunities. “Being able to share information that’s unknown to these communities is critical for us,” Tatum said.
State lawmakers in 2007 created the College Bound Scholarship program to provide guaranteed tuition to low-income students who kept their grades up, stayed out of trouble and applied before June 30 of their eighth-grade year.
More than 150,000 students have applied since and UW’s third group of College Bound scholars started school this year, Tatum says.
To apply, students must be low-income, eligible for free- and reduced-lunch or in the foster care program and in seventh or eighth grade. If they maintain at least a 2.5 grade point average and don’t have a criminal record, the scholarship will cover tuition, some fees and a small stipend for textbooks.
“Money is a big issue for my culture,” Atafua said. “Not a lot of us can afford tuition alone, then add books and dorms on top of that—college starts looking pretty not possible. That’s why this approach is so important.”
The UW senior has been a student ambassador for the program since last year. Atafua said she wants to connect students to the resources that made college possible for her and share her experience.
“We look like them, we relate to what they’re going through, we’ve been there,” she said. “I would not have been able to go to college if it weren’t for a scholarship and it’s important to let students know those options are out there.”