President Alison Byerly climbs to the top of the platform at Weinstein Natatorium. Moments earlier, in answer to her challenge to a dive off, a member of Lafayette’s Division I swim team had executed a clean forward pike. Byerly takes a breath and jumps fully clothed into the water. The resulting splash drenches student spectators and earns her 10s all around.
“Will you take the President’s Challenge?” she says from the edge of the pool.
The video stunt is fun, but there’s a serious reason for it. It’s designed to raise awareness of the President’s Challenge, the kickoff to a fundraising effort that, along with increasing the size of the student body and reallocating merit-based aid to need-based aid, will help Lafayette to admit students of the highest caliber without regard to their families’ financial means (see “The Question of Affordability,” Fall 2016).
Considering the popularity of a YouTube video featuring Byerly getting drenched with cold water for the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, creating humorous videos to promote the President’s Challenge made sense.
“People seem to find something inherently funny about college presidents doing unexpected things,” says Byerly, whose other exploits for the President’s Challenge include flipping pancakes against Cubs Manager Joe Maddon ’76, dueling with a student on the flute, and taking on David Nice, associate professor of physics, in solving a math problem. “If we can use that to mobilize people’s attention and focus them on this important goal, then I’m happy to do that.”
Financial need is a wall built in front of every class that the admission staff assembles, meaning some students are turned away simply because they cannot afford a Lafayette education. Even though the College has increased its allocations of need-based aid by 13 percent since 2010, it’s seen a 77 percent spike in financial aid applications.
The Board of Trustees has pledged nearly $20 million to the challenge so more students like Chanel Mowatt ’17, a double major in English and anthropology and sociology, and Matthew Barrett ’17, who is conducting cutting-edge research with one of his neuroscience professors, can attend Lafayette.
Mowatt, who hails from Queens, N.Y., performed in several plays during her first year at Lafayette and fell in love with the experience.
“I think my role in Clybourne Park—a play about gentrification—was an ‘a-ha!’ moment for me because it really tied together my English and anthropology disciplines, and also incorporated theater so that we were not only acting the show, we were learning about gentrification from those in Easton as well as in the classroom,” she says.
The experience was so profound for Mowatt that she added a theater minor to her already weighty academic course load and is now strongly considering becoming a screenwriter.
Mowatt is extremely thankful for her scholarship—provided by benefactor Ala Hamilton-Day ’74—that allows her to attend Lafayette.
“I never in my wildest dreams thought I would get to go to college, let alone go to my dream school,” she says.
Barrett, another scholarship recipient, has been conducting research with Luis Schettino, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience, and other students since the first semester of his sophomore year. They’re exploring the extent to which wrist joint extension and deviation affect hand preshaping during a grasping task.
The information could eventually be used in therapy applications, for example, to help individuals who suffered a stroke regain mobility. The Lafayette group presented its findings at the Society for Neuroscience’s Annual Meeting in Chicago and at a regional neuroscience conference.
Barrett notes that without financial assistance, his opportunities at Lafayette would have been beyond his reach.
“I was very interested in Lafayette because of its neuroscience program, but I had to look at colleges that were affordable for me and my family,” he says. “When I found out that I was getting an endowed scholarship from Lafayette, my decision was made. I am incredibly thankful to Mr. [Boyer] Veitch [’53] and to Lafayette for opening this door for me.”
The President’s Challenge gives students “who have worked tirelessly” and “pushed beyond the limitations of their schools and communities” a chance to be considered for enrollment at Lafayette without regard to their parents’ income, says Ethan Robles, assistant director of admissions.
“I’ve been recruiting for Lafayette for three years, and every year I see students who have done everything right,” says Robles. “They’re involved, they’re beyond motivated in the classroom, and they are good people. Everyone on the admissions team can see a spot for these kids in this community, but then we talk about financial need. As soon as the financial piece enters, these amazing kids start to fall off the ‘accept’ list.”
It’s an inequity that Chuck Bachman, senior associate director of admissions, finds hard to accept.
“I’ve often said that the minute I stop getting ticked off by this, that’s when I have to leave this profession,” he says.
Bachman, an 18-year veteran of Lafayette admissions, scouts smart students who would bring active engagement and different perspectives to campus.
“I look for who’s done well academically and taken a rigorous curriculum, and who’s been involved in their high school community in a way that would translate to the Lafayette community,” says Bachman, whose territory encompasses over a dozen states. “We don’t want a diversity statistic, someone spending four years here without making an impact. I work with counselors to find kids whom they feel have family support as well as a pioneering spirit to go away from home to a place where most of their fellow students come from within a few hours away.”
Up to 30 high school seniors might apply from just one school in Chicago, but limited financial aid means only one or two can be offered admission. Ideally, says Bachman, Lafayette would accept four or five of these top students.
According to Bachman, some Chicago students commute an hour by train or bus to attend a highly selective school, navigating around drug deals and gang-infested areas.
“These are students who have lost friends to drive-by shootings, great kids who are dedicated and see education as an opportunity for a better life,” he says. “That’s one thing that inspires my colleagues and me—when we see kids who day and night put in so much effort. Lafayette owes it to them to reward that effort.”
But admitting more students from Chicago limits what the College can do for deserving students in other areas of the country. “Being need blind would allow us to increase geographic diversity, first-generation diversity, diversity of ethnicity, and different perspectives that add to the overall richness of all students’ college experience,” he says.
That’s part of what makes the President’s Challenge so important. And worth taking a leap of faith into a pool.