Demystifying your scholarship: Thank you notes and donor ethos

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

A myriad of students may have noticed something new on their myPugetSound home page to do list this semester: A request to write a Thank You Letter to the donors of a named scholarship that students may be receiving in their financial aid package.

There’s more to these letters than meets the eye. Some students, especially returning students, have noticed an odd shift in their financial aid packages after receiving news that they’ve been awarded a new scholarship. Instead of finding their cost of attendance reduced by the scholarship, they find that their Puget Sound Alumni or merit scholarship has been reduced by the amount the new scholarship is equal to. In other words, the money has been moved to a separate name, and the student sees little to no actual change in their cost of attendance.

While these letters make sense and really aren’t a significant burden on students, I can’t help but feel as though they reveal some of the ugly truths behind the costs of higher education.

By allowing our higher education system to be dominated by privatization and capitalism, we’ve created a vacuum for students like me, who have high need for financial assistance. We barely make it through the first year financially, working hard to cement a place and set high expectations of ourselves, and then seemingly get rewarded — but it turns out, this reward is actually just a name attached to our financial aid package, and nothing actually becomes less costly. Then we’re asked to write these letters, but as you can imagine, it almost feels like we’re beggars, throwing ourselves at the feet of our sponsors, bestowing them with the power over our education on the grounds that they are providing money towards it. Hearing that these donors are desperate to hear our stories gives me the impression that they’re looking for evidence of the good work they’re doing, like a pat on the back for helping someone get through the outrageously expensive process of higher education.

The practice of writing and sending appreciative letters to the donors of scholarships is not a new practice on campus, as Director of Donor Relations and Campaign Programs Rebecca Harrison ‘01 explained: “We have always requested that students write thank you letters to their donors for these stewarded funds. If there’s a living donor who’s receiving updates on their fund, we ask for thank you letters. Several years ago, if students didn’t complete that task, they would get a registration hold. We don’t do that anymore, but we’ve been struggling with how to incentivize students.”

“We understand students are busy, and so we give a lot of time — and it’s a nice thing to do. Our donors are starting to complain to us, because we still send them reports but they don’t hear from students. And they’re paying more attention, they want to hear from students, they like to hear your stories, they like that extra touch. So we put our heads together with Student Affairs and asked, ‘What can we do to incentivize students to do this task without being a total burden?’ We learned from other offices that a checklist item was working, so now any student who receives a stewarded fund sees this checklist item on their account.”

Naturally, I want to thank whoever is helping me attain a higher education. But this whole situation unfortunately demonstrates the way capitalistic power structures have infiltrated higher education in the first place. The fact that higher education, which is so vital to a person’s self-awareness and humanity (especially in our current sociopolitical climate), has become so unattainable that students must attend schools under the assumption that they will need financial assistance, is pretty unbelievable.

The reality is that my education shouldn’t rely on someone else’s money. It shouldn’t rely on anyone’s money because education is a human right. I try to keep this in mind as I write letters to my donors, ever so grateful for their generosity. But the fact that a Puget Sound education is so expensive, that there exists a class of alumni who donate exclusively to helping others obtain it, is a glaring issue. On top of that, there is undeniably an amount of damage to one’s pride and independence that comes from being told via email that someone else has elected to hold power over your education and whether or not you can return to campus next semester.