And Just Like That, She Became Unhinged

While working as a higher education consultant finds its reward in helping institutions sort out problems no one has the time to solve, it can be mentally exhausting. Currently, I’m auditing all the scholarship endowment funds for an institution—focusing on records management, compliance and cross-divisional policies, procedures and workflows. The goals for the project I’m working on now include:

  • determining if the information advancement, the business office and financial aid holds are consistent and correct (or not),
  • verifying corpus amounts and spending rules,
  • ascertaining if the funds are being spent according to donor intent and within the confines of the law (or not),
  • assessing the institution’s effectiveness and efficiency in deploying scarce resources, and
  • recommending corrective actions and improvements.

It’s a labor of love; I know the work will positively affect getting more funds to students in need. I’ve reviewed hundreds of scholarships (maybe more than a thousand?) over the years, and I never ceased to be moved by the donors’ stories and why they give to help strangers. The stories I could tell you.

What I’m most struck by is how often people create a scholarship endowment to memorialize someone they loved dearly, who was kind and generous to them or influenced them in some profoundly positive way. Rarely do people create a scholarship in their own names. (Let that be a note to all fundraisers and others who think giving is about the donor’s self-aggrandizement.) In the hard-copy archives, I examine the exquisite cursive (albeit sometimes shaky from an elderly hand) on a now-fragile yellowed note card or personalized stationery detailing the qualities of their dear departed parents, spouse, child or friend.

Reading through the records this week, a story dating from the late 1970s moved me. An impoverished student from a troubled home could no longer pay for college. His professor, recognizing the young man’s talent, talked to a woman who lived in the student’s town, asking if she knew anyone who could help him. The student needed $350 for each of his last two semesters. She then wrote to a man originally from the town who had become a successful businessman on the other side of the country. Meanwhile, the college president wrote a personal letter to the student, telling him not to give up hope and to go ahead and register for classes. The student’s letter in response reflected astonishment, humility and gratitude.

The man, who lived thousands of miles away and never met the student, ultimately gave the funds for his education (and additional funds for books and supplies). He even wrote a two-page letter of encouragement to the student. The donor’s experience with this student inspired a more significant gift to create an endowment in the donor’s mother’s name as he remembered her work as a teacher of students from poor rural locales. Accounts like this one fill the files documenting scholarship giving.

The stories illustrate the capacity of individuals to see past their own struggles and pain to consider the well-being of others. During this consulting period, I’ve read letters from parents who lost a daughter in a tragic car accident, a spouse who lost the love of their life from sudden illness, a colleague who lost a co-worker to suicide and a nephew honoring the selflessness of an aunt who always offered encouragement and acceptance of his passions and dreams. They all wished to leave something behind that might relieve the suffering of others and instill hope for a more prosperous future. During these readings, I found an outpouring of human emotion. What profound offerings of love, compassion and generosity in the face of injustice.

Last week I found myself in need of a break on Friday evening. Like anyone after a week of intense concentration at work, the chore of cooking and cleaning couldn’t be further from need or desire. Nearby the university where I’ve been consulting is a charming downtown with lovely locally owned restaurants. I set my sights on a place touting Southern comfort food. Unfortunately, arriving after 6 pm without a reservation meant there were no tables until 8 pm If you are a lone dinner (#academic nomad/ #higheredconsultant), sitting at the bar for dinner means kissing a quiet meal of decompression goodbye (people think you are lonely and need to talk—I don’t). Still, despite my better judgment, I jimmied my way onto an available bar stool.

Immediately, the fellow next to me started chatting me up and offered to buy my first drink. Despite his wife telling him to leave me alone since I had already mentioned a tiring week, the conversation continued like a rapid-fire assault (they had started imbibing long before my arrival). We bantered back and forth, seeking nuggets of information to connect us, whether people or places. We arrived at the fact we were graduates of Ohio University from the late 1980s, which led to a discussion about alcohol-fueled Halloween festivities, O’Hooley’s, the Union and late-night trips to the burrito food truck.

The woman stated she was a special ed teacher for the local school system. She politely inquired about my profession. I explained what I did for a living and why I was in the area. They detailed their life as parents with children in college. The couple noted the importance of scholarships and even asked if there were any scholarships I knew of for their daughter, who attends the university where I’m a consultant. The conversation was pleasant and lighthearted as we shared experiences of being parents with children in college.

And then, it was like a switch flipped for the woman, provoking a rant I’ve rarely seen in person, much less directly in my face—the topic: federal loan forgiveness for students. Please note I did not bring up the subject, nor did I allude to it. (Who would want to get into a hot topic debate when you first meet someone?) I can’t begin to explain her rambling monologue’s circuitous path as it pointed to socialism, lying Democrats, Biden and Pelosi, et al. She gesticulated when perseverating about how she had to pay back her student loans and work several jobs, and that when you borrow money, “You know what you’re getting into!” She also tried to act as if she was looking out for the poor by arguing a “lowly struggling steelworker’s taxes shouldn’t be used to pay for student forgiveness.” When I said, “What about corporate tax breaks, and who pays for those?” she insisted it wasn’t the same thing.

I did try to put on my best “Just Explain It to Me!” hat. I even used a conversational tone and phrases like “Have you ever considered…” I attempted to explain how college financing differed from the 1980s when she went to school. I talked about cost versus price. I mentioned the average amount of student debt was far more significant today than in the 1980s and that proportionately more for the poor. She lost it when I told her what she paid even in the 1980s wasn’t the actual cost, because taxpayers subsidized her education. The diatribe continued without cessation. She was hell-bent on being angry that someone might be getting something she wasn’t. There was such fear and vitriol in her whole being her body shook. Her voice continued to rise, and the stir provoked the attention of others around us. I thought she might strike me if not for her husband elbowing her to calm down.

Finally, I said, without returning the anger, “It’s clear we can’t have a conversation about this. We all came here to enjoy a good meal tonight. I think we need to end this conversation and do so.” I turned away and let the bartender know I was ready to make my order.

I spent the rest of the night and all this past weekend thinking about this woman and her attitude toward students who had received a federal loan—mind you, these are loans provided to the poorest of students, who likely had private loans as well. I wanted to ask if she and her husband had continued to receive their salaries during COVID through the PPP loans that they were ultimately forgiven. I thought about so many things.

I thought about the duplicitousness of her wanting scholarships for her own children but not wanting others to receive help. I thought, “How can she earn a living by giving differently abled kids access to public education and not want to give access to students whose families didn’t have money for education?” I wondered, “What kind of logic fuels the perpetuation of suffering when relief can be afforded?” and “Doesn’t it make all of us better to have an educated populace?” My brain recalled various studies and statistics evidencing the benefits.

Mostly, I thought that trying to help students shouldn’t be a political issue. The amount of personal fulfillment and success I’ve seen produced over the course of decades from scholarship dollars provided by donors could easily prove the point that human compassion and the pursuit of happiness has no political affiliation.

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