By Guest Writer Emily Kyte '17
It’s 11:46 PM, I’m a senior in high school and I have 14 minutes to decide if I am, in fact, about to do this. I stare at the Common App screen until everything blurs around the blank white rectangles under “parent/guardian.”
This anxiety isn’t unfamiliar. There’s just more at stake now.
This is a fear that I cannot unlearn and do not have the privilege of unlearning, so you will not be reading a juicy article with intimate details about my life experiences.
I type in my choice of “parent/guardian” for the evening, because my identity and circumstances aren’t considered valid by the standards of most paperwork that determine and control critical aspects of my life. I pause. Double check that my plea for Independent Student status is attached, and submit my application to Mount Holyoke College.
I was once again about to force and misconstrue my reality for the purpose of an application. It was another formality that would always feel degradingly wrong.
I am grounded in and proud of my identity and life experiences now. However, before I was 18 it was scary to do what I thought was lying on these sort of applications. Even though I only had to add false parental information and pair it with an explanation for the lie, I could not kick the learned and lived fear of being stopped or reaching a structural hurdle that did not have an “other” bubble or one with consequence for doing what I thought was “lying.” What if the information was leaked?
If you are a dependent college student, your tuition and financial aid is determined by your parent or legal guardian income and financial information. An Independent Student is a student who sits in a grey area outside of this and, like me, doesn’t fit into the blanks and lines of college admission and financial paperwork. Students can only use the financial information of their parent/legal guardians to determine their financial aid. If you do not have access to traditional family structures and information, you must prove your “different” family circumstance to justify omitting family information. I had to make a compelling argument to not include this information on my application.
Federal Student Aid (the government entity that determines these labels and qualifications) requires students to meet one or more of the following attributes to gain Independent Student status:
You are working on a degree beyond a bachelor’s, such as a master’s or doctorate
You have a child or children, or other legal dependents, who receive more than half their financial support from you
You are married (or separated but not divorced)
You are at least 24 years old
You are a veteran of the United States Armed Forces
You are currently serving on active duty in the Armed Forces for other than training purposes
If, at any time since you turned 13, both your parents were deceased, your were in foster care, or were a ward of the court
You are an emancipated child as determined by a court judge
You are homeless or at risk of homelessness as determined by the director of a HUD approved homeless shelter, transitional program, or high school liaison
I don’t even fit into these attributes. I am a dependent student with an override, thus becoming an independent student through “special” circumstances. I am even more “untraditional” in this sense and had to fight harder to receive an independent student status.
If I had not been granted Independent Student status I would not have gone to Mount Holyoke or any college, because I would not have been able to receive any financial aid. Reliving life events and terrifying my family by putting deeply personal family information into the hands of others would be for nothing.
For me, my plea for independent student status was part of my general application. My situation was immediately evident. My guidance counselor encouraged me to pitch these challenges as the assets they were to me and set myself apart from other applicants. This was empowering in some ways and it perhaps helped me get into Mount Holyoke, right? So, why does any of this matter if I was accepted?
Independent students do not receive additional support from their colleges. We are accepted and integrated into the general student body and left to navigate systems not made for us.
Why is it that there is so much weight on getting this status, but once we are admitted we are not provided with any additional resources? We sit inside of Mount Holyoke’s packaged bundle of diversity, but don’t matter once we’ve been accepted and checked off. The fact is, our experiences here socially, in the classroom, in the dorms, at work, in sports, I could go on and on and on, are challenging and unsupported by the college and invisible to the student body.
Being of a “traditional” family background and having the support of a “traditional” family structure is a privilege. I say this not to suggest that all or any independent students lack support systems. I say this to suggest that when your support systems are “untraditional” there are additional and often substantial barriers to accessing and feeling part of the Mount Holyoke (or any college) community as well as being successful and happy here. Higher education is built on a nuclear, white, heterosexual and middle class ideology of the family.
I struggle to provide individual experiences for this article, both because of safety reasons and the reality that it impacts so much of my experience here. Even the seemingly simple structure of the year calendar, requiring students to be able to return to a home base of some sort throughout the year is challenging.
My first year, I felt an enormous amount of anxiety from fearing the conclusions and questions that would arise from living in close quarters with other people and not being able to sculpt a “normal” enough family life. I experienced a painful learning curve, learning how to navigate friendships and this dance of revealing family information. Us independent students are already or quickly forced to become financially, emotionally and physically “independent” in ways that many of our peers who are dependent students are not.
The times I’ve engaged in a conversation about independent student status, I generally get blank looks and a slippery slope of intrusive questions.
“Yeah, independent students are people who want to get out of paying what they should...”
“Wait, how are you paying for college?
“Oh... I’m so sorry, that’s so sad!”
We do not have it easier and the status is not a scapegoat to our families taking financial responsibility. In fact, Independent Students like myself often still have a family contribution section in their financial aid packages!
We navigate a whole layer of challenges that aren’t visible here, there aren’t any guidebooks or trendy “upworthy” videos and our challenges and experiences are so broad that we can’t fit into a marketable box.
Thus, I don’t start this conversation to suggest that I or any other independent students want or need an awareness of our specific experiences or conditions that place us within the bounds of Independent Student status. I just want our experiences and differences as members of the community to be recognised without being required to “prove” our differences. By definition, we have already had to explain and justify and argue and fax and notarize why we deserve a place here.
We have an entire Frances Perkins program for students older than 25, thus qualifying them as Independent Students! However, students of traditional age and who are Independent Students are given no additional support. I don’t make this point to suggest that my struggles are comparable to Frances Perkins students, but to suggest that the college is capable of supporting Independent Students and those coming onto campus from untraditional life backgrounds and circumstances.
It’s complicated because while being labeled as an Independent Student is stifling and contradictory, I do have support systems in my life and am not alone. It is the reason I am here and it clouds my experiences in many ways. I don’t write about this experience to conclude that this status explains or alters my identity or those of others in any way, given it being an arbitrary label for financial and application purposes. Rather it is to say “hey” we exist, our experiences are different and hard and we need support. Also, to other independent students out there, I exist! We exist! Your challenges are real and valid. You belong here.