In a recent ceremony commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Pell Grant, members of the NASFAA Board of Directors helped to develop and carry out a program highlighting how federal aid has served as a lifeline to generations of students seeking to pursue higher education.
Brad Barnett, NASFAA’s 2022-23 national chair, shared his own story about how receiving a Pell Grant changed the course of his life by opening up the opportunity to attend college.
“Over the years I’ve met with a countless number of low-income students and families who were all trying to figure out the same thing I did —how to pay for college when resources are limited or non-existent,” Barnett said. “While the Pell Grant may not have the same purchasing power it did when I attended school, it’s still the foundation. It’s the foundation that we build upon, leveraging Pell Grant dollars and other funds to try and be a course corrector in the life of a low income student.”
Looking back on his life and the transformational role the Pell Grant has played in it, Barnett said he “can’t help but to be grateful.”
“Grateful for what it did for me personally, and grateful that it provides an opportunity for those of us in this profession to help other students on their journey,” he said.
The event, which was initially planned to be an intimate gathering, quickly grew to include federal partners once organizers utilized Rhode Island’s connection to the origins of the Pell Grant program and engaged a wide range of stakeholders that also included Education Secretary Miguel Cardona.
“We felt we really wanted to have some local activities because of Sen. Claiborne Pell’s connection to Rhode Island,” said Kelly Morrissey, dean of financial assistance and scholarships at Community College of Rhode Island and a NASFAA board member. “We felt it appropriate to have something very local, especially on the Salve Regina University campus, because there's [the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy]. There's still an office of Sen. Pell’s in that building.”
NASFAA board observer Anne McDermott, director of financial aid at Salve Regina University and EASFAA president, said the original plan was to have a simple toast to students whose lives have been changed by the Pell Grant program. But once it was known that Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) was going to be in town, the group decided to invite him, and the event “sort of took on a life of its own from there,” she said.
Reed then reached out to additional federal officials, which ultimately led to Cardona’s attendance along with the family of the late Sen. Pell.
“We never lost the spirit of the event,” McDermott said. “We were really focusing on honoring the legacy of Sen. Pell and the Pell Grant program, and the students' lives that have been changed. But the number of people and having the Rhode Island delegate here really did change the type of event we were hosting.”
The six-term senator from Rhode Island, Pell served from 1961-97 and was an integral player in developing the program that would go on to carry his name. The Pell Grant program has since been spearheaded by the state's current delegation.
“We've been really fortunate because the Rhode Island senators have been very interested in the work that financial aid officers are doing,” McDermott said. “We see them more often than I think some other states get to visit with their senators. Sen. Reed runs a financial aid night every year.”
Also in attendance were current and former Pell Grant recipients who shared personal stories as to how the program has allowed them to pursue their higher education goals.
“It felt like we were speaking with one voice,” McDermott said. “Whether you might be a financial aid counselor working at the college level, or you are Secretary Cardona … everyone was speaking with the same voice, which was to truly celebrate this program, and the lives that it has changed, but then to also focus on the future of the program, and really speak about how important it would be to restore the original buying power of the Pell Grant and to double Pell.”
All participants ended up using their remarks to urge for a doubling of the Pell Grant and promote the program’s continued growth for the next generation of students.
For Morrissey, the event formally kicked off the advocacy effort to urge Congress to tackle this issue.
“Our Rhode Island senators are really supportive of this initiative. We have an upcoming RIASFAA meeting where we will talk about our advocacy efforts, working directly with our two senators, in really figuring out what we need to do to just amplify these voices,” Morrissey said.
Going forward, RIASFAA will look to continue to celebrate the legacy of their former senator through continued advocacy efforts.
“We were so honored to be able to honor the legacy of the late Sen. Pell. His ties to Rhode Island are strong. So we were so thrilled to have his family there,” McDermott said. “It was a great opportunity to really honor his legacy and then to talk about moving forward with the Pell program, so that more students can be so positively impacted by having access to higher education.”
Publication Date: 9/15/2022