When The New School’s Financial Aid Office cancelled Samantha Rivera’s Federal Work Study award — although she had painstakingly secured the required on-campus job — the 18-year-old had no choice but to leave the university after her first semester as a freshman at Eugene Lang.
The former Journalism + Design student could not afford to pay the remaining tuition that was not covered by her other loans, grants, and scholarships without the approximate $3,000 in Federal Work Study money. Having spent just four months living in Manhattan, Rivera was forced to move out of her East Village apartment and return to her mother’s house in Denver, Colorado.
Now her educational future is uncertain.
“I want to go back to school, but at this point, I don’t know if I really have the money to go back,” Rivera said. “I honestly felt like The [New School] administration didn’t really care for me to go to the school, because as a student who already couldn’t afford it, I was going out on a limb to go to [Eugene Lang]. I really really wanted to be there, and it just felt that the situation wasn’t taken seriously.”
Federal Work Study scholarships at The New School require students to take at least six credits, file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), and obtain an approved on- or off-campus jobs by Oct. 14, 2016 in order to receive their government-allocated monetary award. Some New School students have been given time extensions to find jobs once this deadline had passed.
But students receive limited step-by-step support in solidifying their Work Study job opportunities. Many students have expressed frustration in the past in dealing with administrators in the Advising, Human Resources, Financial Aid, and Career Services Offices. Others feel burdened and left behind by The New School’s high tuition costs. This lack of monetary and administrative support has pushed students like Rivera to leave the institution.
Rivera had started applying in mid-September to the various job listings advertised online through The New School Job Site. She said she chose The New School over the University of Denver, Fordham, Marymount Manhattan, and other colleges she was accepted at because of Lang’s potential to “expand [her] mind and [help her] grow as a person.” She wants to pursue a career in fashion journalism, with dreams of one day working at Vogue.
When she hadn’t heard back from any department by Monday, Oct. 10 — just five days before the deadline — Rivera recalls feeling “really worried,” since she said her ability to attend The New School hinged on receiving this scholarship.
Her total financial aid package, comprised of two merit awards from The New School, two federal loans, and a Federal Pell Grant, totaled $34,775 for the 2016-2017 academic year.
Receiving the $3,000 in Federal Work Study award money was so crucial because, she said, she only had $30,000 in her college fund to cover four years of education, and “that was literally [the cost of] my whole first semester, so every penny was counting. $3,000 may not be a big deal but it was another $3,000 that we would have had to come up with, and that was just not doable for my family.”
“I’m very concerned,” Rivera wrote to the Federal Work Study contact address on Oct. 10, according to emails obtained by The New School Free Press. “The deadline to have a job is Friday and no one has gotten back to me. Please let me know if there are any further steps I can take to speed up the process.”
What followed was a discombobulated stream of communication lasting several days, as evidenced by seven email threads obtained by The New School Free Press, in which almost every administrator Rivera contacted told her they did not have the information she needed and suggested she contact someone else.
“Unfortunately we do not know of any further steps outside of following up with the different offices that you have applied to,” Errold Jones, a financial aid counselor, replied on Oct. 10.
The Free Press conducted a brief interview with Jones in March 2017, but the conversation was interrupted and ended three minutes in. Multiple requests for additional comment from the Financial Aid Office and The New School’s senior director of communications have been denied or unanswered, citing the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and further privacy concerns.
“While I can’t discuss individual students, your description of events do not coincide with our work study procedures, policies and practices,” Lisa Shaheen, the director of Financial Aid, wrote to the Free Press. “The financial aid office awards the work study fund as part of the student’s package. Students apply for jobs and follow up with the individual university offices to which they’ve applied, not the financial aid office.”
Because no contact information was listed for the supervisors of the jobs she had applied for on the The New School Job Site webpages, Rivera said, she did not know who to contact or how to follow up on the status of the positions.
Rivera then emailed her academic advisor, Kelsey Kozak, who replied on Oct. 11 and offered her help with resumes and cover letters. Kozak suggested she contact Nadege Joseph, the assistant director of Financial Aid. Neither Jones, Kozak, nor Joseph gave her concrete instructions on how to move forward in her financial aid process.
“I was very fed up by this point and just needed someone with authority to take charge of this situation,” Rivera said. Her mother called the Financial Aid Office on Oct. 11. She was told, Rivera said, “that there are more students than jobs and there might not be any more available.”
Rivera explained the difficulties she was facing in securing a Work Study job in a lengthy email to Dean Stephanie Browner on Oct. 11.
“I am contacting you because I am very concerned that I will not be able to obtain a job due to the lack of communication within the school,” she wrote.
“I am sorry you’ve tried so hard and still don’t have an answer,” Browner quickly replied on Oct. 11. She arranged for Rivera to meet with Verna de LaMothe, the assistant director of administration and budgeting at Lang.
Just before the deadline to secure a job, Rivera met with LaMothe, whom she described as “very welcoming,” in her office on Oct. 13. LaMothe offered Rivera a Work Study position as her assistant, and gave Rivera a tour of the office and introduced her to her colleagues. They discussed the hours in which Rivera would be able to work. LaMothe said in an interview that she “was making an exception” by hiring Rivera to be her assistant.
The apparent limited supply of Work Study jobs available did not go unnoticed by LaMothe, who told the Free Press that she knew prior to meeting Rivera that some students did not have jobs.
“We can always help. If I did say to Samantha I didn’t have any positions, a faculty or somebody would come in the next day saying they need somebody,” LaMothe told the Free Press. She also said she doesn’t extensively involve herself in students’ financial aid processes.
During their meeting, “she asked me if I had my birth certificate,” Rivera said. “And I told her, ‘No,’ because I didn’t even think about bringing my birth certificate with me to New York.”
There is no mention on The New School’s Student Financial Services webpage of any requirement to submit a birth certificate to secure a Federal Work Study job.
Explaining that her mother was in possession of the document in Denver, Rivera said she asked LaMothe if her mother could scan the certificate and and send an electronic copy. “The deadline was the following day, so it would never come [by mail] in time,” Rivera said, but was still instructed to obtain the original physical document.
Rivera was told by Human Resources and the Financial Aid Office in an email on Oct. 13 that a temporary hold would be placed on her account to ensure the Work Study award would not be cancelled while they waited for her birth certificate to arrive in the mail. LaMothe filled out the corresponding New Hire forms. “You are all set,” a Human Resources employee wrote to Rivera, LaMothe, and three other administrators in the thread.
When her birth certificate arrived on Oct. 18. Rivera said she immediately went to the Human Resources office, where she filled out paperwork and her birth certificate was photocopied and returned back to her. (Administrators from the Human Resources department did not respond to multiple requests for comment on these exchanges.) However, while sitting in class on Oct. 20, Rivera read a revised financial aid award letter, sent the previous night by Student Financial Services via email, that made her feel “shocked and sad.”
“As stated in your Federal Work Study eligibility letter, your award has been cancelled because you did not secure a position by October 14, 2016,” the letter stated.
Rivera emailed LaMothe to inform her of the new development. “Find out if you have the award or if it was taken away,” LaMothe replied on Oct. 18. “If it was taken away, you were already approved before the deadline.”
Rivera went to the Financial Aid Office immediately after her classes ended, and was told by a student working at the office that the administrator Rivera would need to speak with to handle her situation was out of the office. “I didn’t even know who I was supposed to be speaking to, but I felt robbed,” Rivera said. She came back the next day, on Oct. 21, but the administrator was again not present. She called the office later, and said she was put on hold for an extensive time, and was still not able to reach the administrator in question. “It was apparent no one wanted to speak with me or even cared to.”
“After that, I kind of just gave up on it,” Rivera said. Her award was not reinstated, and she said her emails and phone calls to the Financial Aid Office were unanswered.
“I took for granted that she [Rivera] was not able to get her Work Study funds, and that’s something I can’t help her with,” LaMothe said in an interview. “I never heard, or have not heard, of a student that was not able to stay in school because they didn’t have a Work Study job.”
Instead of registering for classes for the upcoming spring semester, Rivera submitted a leave of absence form, because she could not afford to continue pursuing her degree at The New School. “I never received a follow-up email insisting that this was a mistake,” she said. “No extension was ever offered to me.”
Approximately two weeks after she had received the revised financial aid award letter, her name disappeared from her teachers’ enrollment lists. Rivera said she was forced to switch her focus from figuring out her financial aid to coordinating means to continue being enrolled at The New School for the remainder of the semester.
LaMothe believes Rivera acted too quickly in deciding to leave Eugene Lang. “We [in the office are] really are taken back by that, and it really bothers us when we lose a student, especially over something so trivial,” LaMothe told the Free Press. She said that she and her colleagues in her office were “disappointed” and “surprised” to hear of Rivera’s decision. “I would say to her, ‘Re-apply to other schools. If you’re eligible for one financial aid at one school, you’ll be eligible at another.’”
In regards to involving herself in helping reverse Rivera’s cancelled award, LaMothe said, “It’s not my priority.”
Browner said she was “disheartened” to hear the outcome of Rivera’s circumstance.
“I don’t know a lot about how students find the [Work Study] jobs, and I can’t confirm that there’s been a cut,” Browner told the Free Press in an interview. “I do know that at the university level, at the macro level, the percentage of dollars of the total budget going back out as financial aid has increased more than tuition has increased.”
None of the administrators that Rivera had communicated with during her financial aid process, including LaMothe, reached out to Rivera to follow up or check on her status after Oct. 20.
Prior to publication, the Free Press reached out to the Financial Aid Office and The New School’s senior director of communications for an additional opportunity to comment. “I think you misunderstand the part my office plays in applying for work study jobs and collecting paperwork,” Shaheen wrote to the Free Press. “My office awards the funds and sends an award letter with a link instructing students on where to apply for jobs. We do not arrange meetings or collect paperwork or documentation required for working. The HR department does that.”
Rivera, who is busying herself by applying for freelance writing jobs in Denver, said the experience taught her how “resilient” she can be.
“All of these incidents made me feel that even if I continued to push to fix this mistake no one [at The New School] would be there to help,” she said. “Or if there was someone, they would just send you to someone else who sends you to someone else. It was exhausting and at the end of the day, not really worth it.”
Graphic by Hazel Ng