In light of new housing lottery, are Frances Perkins Scholars really considered equal to their peers?

 Photo courtesy of Izzie Burgess ’19  Dickinson Hall has been used as Frances Perkins housing since 2014.

Photo courtesy of Izzie Burgess ’19

Dickinson Hall has been used as Frances Perkins housing since 2014.

BY MRINALINI PANDEY FP

Right after I returned to campus from winter break, I learned about major changes announced by the Office of Residential Life to the Frances Perkins (FP) housing situation. It was decided that next year, all FPs will move out of their current house, Dickinson Hall, to non-residential apartments on 57 College Street, 3 Park Street and 17 Morgan Street. These three buildings will have no wi-fi, no laundry and no housekeeping. When I decided to inquire further into this rather alarming development, I learned from Residential Life that the decision is a “purely financial” one, but will supposedly create a community bond for FP students. 

Dickinson Hall was allotted to the FP program by the College in response to a 2013 lawsuit filed with the Office of Civil Rights by an FP student who had an accessibility issue. Amazingly, the old FP building that was deemed non-compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act — which our college must comply with to continue receiving federal aid — is 57 College Street, one of the three “options” that will be available to us next year. It is mind boggling that the institutional memory of a college as old as Mount Holyoke College could be so short that the administration forgets about events from four years ago. 

Before Dickinson was assigned to FPs, it housed first-years — as ResLife intends to do now — and apparently, many first-years complained about feeling alone at Dickinson. Evidently, ResLife finds going around in circles rewarding, and the student community must bear the cost.

The new FP room and board charges will stay the same, despite the fact that the new housing will have no wi-fi, laundry or housekeeping. These charges are not covered by FP scholarships. This is a cost that we will bear out of our own pockets, or with a loan. FPs who decided to use residential facilities did so because we feel we would best utilize our time in college if we could concentrate solely on academics for a few years, and not have to worry about finding a laundromat to wash our clothes. Is it unreasonable to expect that we, at least, get the same opportunities that are made available to the rest of the student community? 

Despite all this, I am trying to be grateful, as it has been suggested we FPs should be, for whatever we are getting. To me, a system that expects that a group distinguished only by age to be grateful when crumbs are passed out to it is a system that discriminates on the basis of age. In the oldest college that gave women a voice in the United States, I understood from the tone of staff and fellow FPs that I should not voice my opinion too loudly, lest I be heard. But why? Are we not here on merit like the rest of the student body? Our selection process, just like every other student’s, has two steps. 

In the first step, colleges select us based on our transfer applications. In the second step, the roles are reversed, and we select the college, because we are the chosen few who are deemed “meritorious.” I personally turned down four other colleges, including Columbia University, to come to Mount Holyoke. 

Why did I come here? Because Mount Holyoke promised me an environment where I could see myself flourishing. As a 30-year-old, I need more stability than I needed 10 years ago. This need is shared by most FPs, which is why the College promises us that we will not have to change our rooms throughout our time here. In fact, the ability of our program to attract the best students is fundamentally tied to our College’s recognition of this need. For me, personally, housing was the main concern, and Dickinson Hall was the single biggest reason I chose to come here. So, this move will hurt our program by dramatically reducing the pool of meritorious students who would choose to come to our college as a first choice. 

I should also mention that the Residential Life website has been changed in the last 20 days, updated to reflect our upcoming address. But before, prospective FPs were still browsing pictures of Dickinson Hall and putting in their applications to come to Mount Holyoke, when they are probably never going to live in it. I took screenshots of the page before the change — if nothing else, I get to pretend to be an investigative reporter.

Our school has an honor code. Honorable conduct is one that inspires trust in others. Although it was quickly disputed, there was a rumor that our program was already at the peril of coming to an end due to a paucity of funds. Because of this, I felt I should not attract too much attention with my displeasure of the housing changes. The spreading of falsehoods such as this make me feel strangely marginalized within my community, especially because in 2014, our then-college president Lynn Pasquerella went to a summit organized by President Obama in the White House, and pledged at least 25 scholarships to the FP program each year. 

The school makes a show of transparency by soliciting the views of the student body about what it is looking for in the next president, a question that has only indirect relevance to us students, while imposing autocratic decisions made without our consent, and without any transparency in issues that have direct relevance to us. I could go on, but washing dirty linen in public is not my aim. The point is, none of this inspired any trust in me. I have met many wonderful students and professors who try their utmost to instill a spirit of trust in our community. But I feel that their best effort will fail to accomplish its aim, when the administration itself breaches the trust of the student community in such brazen ways.

This program was established in the honor of Mount Holyoke alumna, Frances Perkins, with the firm belief that women of non-traditional age have immense potential and endless possibilities, just like any other student. But to ask them to be grateful for even being a student here and expect them to silently suffer unfairness, not only contradicts the school’s vision to empower women, but completely disregards our shared values for equality of all students. 

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