Story Behind the Story
From January to May 2013, I worked as a staff reporter for The Tartan, Gordon College's bi-monthly newspaper, where I covered everything from breaking news and features to opinions and obituaries. See one of my major projects on students sacrificing to pay for school.
After a semester studing abroad, I returned to a buzzing campus in January 2014. In the wake of national mass shootings, the administration had re-instated guns for campus police for the first time in 30 years. I took on the contentious story and interviewed administrators, police, professors, and students with diverse opinions. Scroll to read the final project below.
Working Students Sacrifice to Pay for School
April 22nd, 2013
The dinner rush doesn’t start for an hour and Amanda Wolfe is already running late. In one swift motion, she ties back her dark hair, pulls on a tan cap, and gets to work.
Wolfe, a biblical studies major and student manager of the four-hour dinner shift, moves like a small but focused tornado across the linoleum floors of Lane Dining Services.
She checks all the food stations before heading onto the elevator, balancing two empty metal trays while pushing a floor cleaner twice her size. Downstairs, she disappears into the huge freezer and comes back with a mound of packaged buns piled in her arms.
Three years ago, Wolfe began working in Lane, clearing and cleaning dishes in the back room.
“Freshmen year I went crazy,” she said. “There were no rules stopping how much you could work. I would work up to 26 hours a week, because I had to. Out of worry.”
What’s her worry? That she won’t be able to graduate from college.
Majority of Students Struggle to Pay
Wolfe is just one of many students at Gordon working almost fulltime on top of a complete course load to pay the yearly $42,660 that mark the current price tag of a Gordon diploma.
Students struggling to cover the costs fill their free hours clocking in at jobs on and off campus and shouldering student loans that will take years to repay. Some are here because of parents working overtime, others due to miraculous gifts. Most are busy and stressed and some wonder if it’s really worth it.
The reality is that a majority of students work at Gordon. According to Student Employment, almost 500 students during the fiscal year from July 2011 to June 2012 were awarded some amount of federal work-study.
During this same year, 1,180 students – 75 percent of the student body – worked on campus and earned an average of $1,462.62. An estimated 862 students found work off-campus through the Gordon job board, earning an average of $1,427.11. An additional uncounted number of students also worked off-campus, generally receiving a higher wage than work on-campus, according to Student Employment.
Working while in full-time school has become a norm, not only at Gordon, but at colleges across the country, in particular for those who are struggling to cover increasing tuition costs.
Surviving by Hard Work and Miracles
Take Jesse Harris, tall with a bounce in his confident stride. The oldest of nine children, he knew before college that his parents couldn’t make a significant contribution to his education. Although he was offered a full financial package at another school, Gordon was his first choice.
“I went in knowing I couldn’t afford it, but believing if God wants me to be here, he’ll provide,” Harris said.
The week before his scheduled departure from California to Gordon, Harris still owed $4,500 dollars, and didn’t have the money to pay it. Then his family received an anonymous gift from someone in their church for exactly that amount. Call it irony or a miracle, but the same thing happened the next year – for an even greater amount.
Every semester since he’s been a student, Harris has had an outstanding balance on his account, forcing him to work as much as possible in order to keep up with the costs. During his sophomore year, Harris worked an average of 15 to 20 – and up to 35 – hours a week in admissions.
“It was affecting my ability to keep up in classes, but I had to do it,” Harris said.
His junior year Harris owed $7,000 and was told by Student Financial Services that he couldn’t come back if he didn’t pay off his debt. This time, however, “there wasn’t any miraculous gift,” Harris said.
Harris withdrew from classes and moved off campus, but was able to secure a job as a back-up admissions counselor. That semester, he worked 39 hours a week making $9 an hour, which only covered bills, groceries, and rent.
He returned to part-time school this semester and now works 30-40 hours a week at Bertucci’s as a waiter. His hope is to take a full course load in the fall and graduate in December.
Ellex Medina is another student working almost fulltime to graduate. Her father puts in overtime every week to support her mom on disability and pay for his four daughters to attend private colleges. Although Medina says she’s fortunate to have help with tuition, everything else – food, gas, insurance, and rent – is on her.
Medina's worked at least seven different jobs at Gordon, everything from an admissions tele-counselor as a freshman to a café in South Hamilton in the present. On a recent weekend she clocked 20 hours.
“I was on the track team and had a third job but had to let go of it because I wasn’t getting enough sleep,” she said. “I have to sacrifice time and hanging out with people.”
Because of the stress, Medina has considered transferring every year.
“I am angry a lot, tired a lot; I’m beat right now," she said. “I really had to question whether it was worth it to dig me and my family into a financial hole."
Jessica Allen shared a similar story. She’s taken on three simultaneous jobs during her time at Gordon, holding a total of 10 different positions.
“It’s been a lot of stress. There are never enough hours in the day. I do everything mediocre,” Allen said. With the exception of a small scholarship, she is entirely dependent on loans. When she thinks about the future, she sees long-term debt.
“My debt situation is ridiculous. It’s overwhelming, I don’t like to think about it,” she said. “I’m always fearful I’ll let my loan situation get me stuck doing a job I don’t want to do.”
That’s exactly what Heidi Lavigne wants to avoid. As a senior in high school, Lavigne’s guidance counselor and youth pastor convinced her that the cost of Gordon would be worth it if she really wanted to go.
For the past four years, she’s been paying for everything herself. She estimates that when she graduates in May, it will take her 10 years to pay off her loans.
“I live off the job site,” Lavigne said. “I’ve worked anything and everything, anywhere from 10-25, up to 30 hours a week.”
So is all the stress worth it?
Apparently not to the 47 students out of 108 who cited “finances” as the reason they withdrew from Gordon last semester, the highest percentage of any rationale for withdrawal.
“Students tend to leave for academic and financial reasons combined," Dan O’Connell, director of Student Financial Services, said. "Finances are an easy answer to give, and it could be a cover-up for another reason. But what it comes down to is whether you want to pay for the experience you’re having.”
O’Connell, who has seen students struggle and succeed financially for six years, acknowledges the difficulty of paying for college.
“I encourage people to invest in Gordon,” he said. “It’s a great investment but not one everyone can make. It’s a life-changing experience, but it may hurt a little.”
But students were skeptical whether the cost was justified.
“I know they’re doing their best to keep the price low,” Harris said, "but they’ve continued to increase tuition.”
“For the love of God, tuition is so much money!" Lavigne said. "It’s got to stop, people can’t afford it. It’s not an issue just with Gordon, though.”
Of those interviewed, half believe their Gordon diploma is worth the stress of paying for it. Half couldn’t decide.
“I ask ‘why am I here’ all the time because it’s so difficult,” Allen said. “But it’s been invaluable to make relationships, especially with the staff.”
For others, the professional experience gained makes their investment worthwhile.
“I’m glad I had to learn to balance,” Lavigne said. “It gives me strength and has taught me life skills. I’ve got a leg up getting out of school with work experience. It’s worth it to get a good education and the job I like.”
Harris has entertained the idea that it might be easier somewhere else, but said he feels at home here.
“This is really the place I want to graduate from,” he said. “I can get discouraged because I don’t have the money to finish, but I know in the end it’ll be worth it.”
Wolfe, on the other hand, said she has never considered transferring, although it has been difficult.
For two years now, she's been a student manager at Lane, which means an increased paycheck. She currently works 18 hours a week on top of taking a full course load in order to stay at Gordon.
“My mom has a terminal illness and can’t work,” Wolfe said. “I worry every week if I can work enough.”
Back in Lane before dinnertime, Wolfe greets the staff and students with a grin crowding her eyes, a joke, or a wide-armed hug for those she knows best.
Although working to pay for school is a constant stress, when she’s asked what she doesn’t like about her job, she can’t think of anything. After three plus years in the blue shirt, Wolfe says: “It’s become my family.
The recent epidemic of mass shootings nationwide has prompted Gordon to arm its police officers with guns for the first time in 30 years, a decision that’s provoked mixed reactions on a campus where serious crime is extremely rare.
The Board of Trustees unanimously approved the recommendation in September and President D. Michael Lindsay announced the decision in December. Last month, Gordon’s eight police officers began carrying Glock 23 and 27 pistols, models favored by law enforcement agencies nationwide.
“I’m convinced it’s the right move for the world we live in,” said Rick Sweeney, Gordon’s Vice President for Marketing and Strategic Communications, who was speaking for the President’s Cabinet. “I hope it’s a preventative measure we never have to use. But I would feel better knowing we took steps in advance to make our campus as safe as possible than explaining to parents after the fact why we didn’t.”
But Judith Oleson, Associate Professor of Sociology and Social Work and coordinator of the Peace and Conflict Studies minor, said it’s unclear whether arming Gordon’s police officers will actually make the campus safer.
“I understand Gordon’s police department’s rationale for firearms as both a form of protection of the entire community and self-protection,” she said. “But there is a question in the public safety field whether the presence of guns do contribute to or detract from safety.”
Arms A Preventive Action
Gordon Police Chief Glenn Deckert first proposed arming Gordon police officers, and the plan was endorsed by Wenham Police Chief Thomas Perkins. Gordon’s police carried weapons until the mid-1980’s, and college is not hte only one re-arming its officers today.
A 2013 survey reported by Campus Safety Magazine indicated there’s been a spike in campus police arming after mass shooting events in the past decade. Gordon has seen little serious crime in recent years, with one forcible sex offense and three burglaries being the only major crimes reported between 2010-2012, according to Gordon College Public Safety’s most recent annual report.
According to Deckert and Sweeney, the possibility of confronting an active shooter was a major reason for re-arming officers, but it wasn’t the only one. Gordon’s is an open campus off a major highway, making it accessible to nearby cities such as Gloucester, which is known for cocaine activity, Deckert said. He added that three community members have active restraining orders against domestic violence offenders who could enter the campus intending harm.
Deckert said when Gordon officers are unarmed, by protocol they can’t enter a situation where there’s an active weapon, but must wait outside for armed assistance. “Because of Wenham's geography, it could take up to 10 minutes for the Wenham Police to reach campus,” he said. “In an active shooter situation, that's an eternity, and the loss of life could be catastrophic.”
Kerstin Pallo ’14, who is co-founder of the Dialogue Club and who said she has “strong pacifist leanings,” said she was saddened by the decision, but added she understood the reasons behind it. “If there was a shooter who came with the intent to kill people, I would want them to be stopped, and in a lot of cases it has been the presence of others with physical power that has stopped a shooter,” she said.
Critics Fear Secrecy, Lack of Accountability
But Oleson said arming the officers raises the possibility of gun accidents and human error, even though Gordon’s officers have been well trained.One example is the still unresolved November 2013 altercation at Liberty University, in which an officer killed a student who allegedly attacked him with a hammer.
Trey Walsh ’14, sociology major and Dialogue Club facilitator, added that the people who are capable of protecting others are often the ones who end up initiating violence. “When you have firearms, it insinuates violence,” he said. “When I think of guns, I think of death. There’s always that potential for a lethal shot.”
Walsh said he believed the way the decision was announced – six paragraphs into a lengthy email sent out on the last day of exams – was intentionally evasive. But officials said the school didn’t want to trumpet the change because it didn’t want to attract potentially dangerous attention to campus.
Some also said students weren’t given sufficient input in the decision. Gordon College Student Association President Branden Figueroa and Vice-President Sarah Goss were the only two students involved in the process before the email announcement – not as decision-makers, but as consultants on how best to inform the student body of it.
“If public safety is funded by student tuition, on that principle, there should be more communication,” Walsh said.
Oleson said a community conversation would have been valuable so that everyone could understand the rationale behind the decision.
“I don’t claim that we’d be part of the decision makers, but it’s a missed opportunity for a dialogue around a very important social condition,” she said. “There are bigger questions that should be discussed: how we respond to a violent society, how we balance the need for self-protection versus a call to non-violence and peace-making.”
Sweeney said the issue of arming officers is one “where you never have uniform opinion. We felt the best decision was to make the recommendation rather than open it up to the larger forum."
Deckert said, “People expect us to protect them, and we believe they’re safer now.”
Gordon Police Re-Armed After 30 Years
February 14th, 2014