Meet Galen Muskat!

By: Chris Loney | Friday, July 18, 2014

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I’ve spent two years navigating the waters of higher education. If I told you it was smooth sailing, well, I’d be doing every college-hopeful a disservice by lying through my teeth. I began at Cornell University where, despite an excellent freshman year academically – I made the Dean’s List both semesters, was chosen as a President’s Scholar, and received several offers to be a teacher’s assistant in both math and science courses I completed – I felt unfulfilled in my grasp of college’s hidden offerings. I dug deep, though, and tried to view campus life through several lenses: I was the college mascot; I wrote for the student paper; I worked in the Campus Life offices.

Admittedly, my perspective was jaded from the start. I was following a long line of successful college graduates in my family, and I was not proud that I seemed to be the only one who felt dissatisfied with my first year of school. I decided to set myself apart and reach for what I knew might be a more fitting environment at Amherst College, where I ended up transferring before the start of my sophomore year. The smaller classes, more intimate community and the school’s trademark Open Curriculum (no distribution – core course – requirements) all appealed to me. It seemed as though the differences between Amherst and Cornell might help me sort through some of my initial difficulties – namely, that I believed I was the only one who arrived at college ostensibly informed but finished one year feeling misled.

I, though, had misled myself. After I transferred, I realized my mistake: college was not out to deceive me nor trying to shatter the high hopes I’d established at an early age after hearing my parents repeat  time and again the importance of higher education. I was ignorant of the privilege of being a college student. It took a change of schools for me to realize that because I’d been raised assuming I would go to college – that it was a part of my future regardless of any outside circumstances related to family, finances, or career aspirations – I let myself ignore the essential: it was a privilege, not a right, to attend college.

My epiphany (if I may be so bold) jettisoned me into my studies with an even greater zeal than before. I began to read the “Education” section of the New York Times every morning at breakfast in the dining hall; absorb more of what some of my peers were saying about having to work not just one but two campus jobs to assist a parent in paying tuition; and realize how fortunate I was to have the financial and emotional support of my family in attending and graduating from college. The expectation, I now see, had not been that I was going to attend college because the rest of my family had. No: it was that my family would help me to — and through – said path in any way possible.

Enter uAspire.

When it came time to look for and apply to internships for this summer, I knew I wanted to take my newfound appreciation for my own privilege and turn it on itself: I resolved to take the energy I’d put into every minute of college and channel it into helping the many high school students of low-income, minimal-support situations who are no less deserving of the opportunities afforded by higher education than those in circumstances similar to my own. I jumped at the chance to intern at uAspire and assist its employees in any ways possible in fulfilling the organization’s mission and core values. In turn, I’ve learned even more about the importance of assisting underprivileged college-aspiring students through advising and outreach in order to minimize the financial and family burdens typically associated with college expenses, and as a result afford them the best possible opportunities regardless of socioeconomic status.

My work thus far has focused on the entry and organization of data – grants, loans, FAFSA details, and more – gathered from the financial aid award letters of students from around the country. The compilation and analysis of these metrics will inform a larger project funded by a grant through the Harvard Graduate School of Education that looks to compile a datamart of unprecedented size and detail illustrating the financial aid patterns and tendencies of various colleges and universities across the country. In addition, I have worked with the review and administration of uAspire’s Last Dollar and Partner scholarships, which has been some of my favorite work to date. It was informative and enlightening to read essays from students who were not necessarily from the United States, do not speak English as a primary language, or even have formal training in writing, and learn to look beyond the surface of the essays themselves. It was a challenging process, too, because in some cases it was not about the student’s academic merit or how compelling an essay was; rather, it was the details obtained from a FAFSA or a student’s choice of financial aid package that best informed who would benefit most from the scholarship.

It has been a rewarding six weeks at the organization thus far, and I consider myself very fortunate to have had the opportunity to work among and learn from uAspire’s dedicated and driven employees. I look forward to the rest of my time here, and I am grateful for all uAspire has done to deepen my perspectives, knowledge and understanding of the meaning, value and importance of an affordable college education.