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Open letter to the UBC Development Office and Donors

2016 February 10

Originally posted at UBC Insiders on August 17, 2015.

Dear UBC Development Office and Donors,

I want to express my gratitude to the UBC Development Office. Recently, you sent me an unusually thought-provoking survey. It mentioned a scholarship I had been awarded as a second-year undergraduate student, way back in 2003.

You explained that you were hoping to encourage donors to keep donating, so you wanted to know a little bit about me. Why did I study what I studied? What had I been up to since then? And, most interestingly: what difference has this award made to me? I’m glad you asked. I never thought much about it before.

I looked up the award, to jog my memory. It was one of a number of scholarships I received as an undergraduate, which I mostly did not apply for and which more than covered my tuition. This one was awarded on the recommendation of my department, but had no further published selection criteria. I got good grades and was not in financial need, so I assume it was a merit-based scholarship.

I remember being pleased, briefly, to receive some money and recognition. It also contributed a line to my CV, but I can’t say whether that one line made any difference. I’m sure my parents also felt proud when they found out, but then they were already proud. And as for the money itself, well, my family has enough wealth that my tuition and living expenses would have been easily paid for regardless.

So what difference did that award really make? None whatsoever. It was totally unnecessary, now that I think about it.

I may have also thought about it in 2003, but I accepted the award anyway. It didn’t occur to me to do otherwise. Surely there was nothing wrong with me receiving an award. This, of course, was meritocracy in action. This was the world was working as it should. So I thought.

Incidentally, I recall that the students around me were protesting tuition hikes at about that time. This seemed somewhat selfish. Tuition is an investment in your future, I thought. You’ll get a better job with this degree and make the money back, I thought. And anyway, we can’t afford to just pay for everyone to stay in school as long as they want, as they would surely do if tuition was free, I thought.

Actually, I take it back. The award did make a difference. It reinforced my sense of entitlement.

Now it’s 2015. I’m 32, I’m still a student, and I’m still being given more money than I know what to do with. But I’ve learned a little more about the world. I’ve heard the stories of students who struggle to make ends meet, to eat and pay rent, to take care of their families, and to navigate a myriad of endemic hostilities against particular bodies, backgrounds, beliefs, or ways of being. The good grades that got me my scholarships were never simply the result of merit, or of good fortune. They were also the result of the unearned special treatment that had been lavished on me from birth, generally at someone else’s expense.

This new awareness didn’t much come from my classes, by the way. I’ve mostly studied technical subjects at university. So it’s taken me a while to learn to really listen to the voices of people with different life experiences from me. But I think I would have learned to listen a little earlier if many of these voices hadn’t also been unnecessarily excluded from the university by challenges that I didn’t face. As a result, I think the development of my own sense of empathy was delayed. So my concern is not just about fairness. These patterns of exclusion also impair the social and emotional education of all UBC students. We are not the “global citizens” we could be.

So, dear UBC Development Office, dear donors, thank you for asking me to think about the impact of your award. You couldn’t have picked a better time to ask. In return, I would like to ask you to think about this too.

I trust you want your scholarship money help promising students overcome challenges and succeed at university. If so, I hope my story will be illustrative. While many of my fellow students struggled, out beyond my awareness, you gave me award after award that did not motivate me, gave me no new opportunities, and eliminated no barriers. I always dutifully sent the enclosed thank-you letter to the donor, as UBC asked me to, but now that I’m being honest with myself and with you, those awards were drops in the bucket that I took for granted and barely noticed. And I was surely not the only one.

That may be disappointing to hear. I doubt this was what you set out to do. But, of course, you have an opportunity to improve this situation. If you want my opinion, as a UBC graduate and scholarship recipient, I suggest you stop giving out scholarships based simply on so-called “merit”, which I think usually means performance. Too much of that money is wasted on people like me. I could give the money away (and I have), but I would rather see the rules change.

The University’s Vision and Values would be much better served by transferring all merit-based scholarship money to the needs-based bursaries and support services that students really need. Affordable child care, food security initiatives, anti-violence initiatives, and the creation of safer and more accessible spaces come to mind, but I’m sure there are many capable student advocates at UBC today who have already articulated their collective needs far better than I can. I hope that you, too, will listen to their voices.

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