Speeches & Writings

Increasing access to a WashU education

Here at Washington University, we are committed to increasing educational access as we strive to make our distinctive WashU education possible and affordable for any admitted student who wishes to attend.  In recent years, we’ve doubled down on our efforts to admit higher percentages of Pell-eligible students and students from varying socioeconomic backgrounds.  As a result, that percentage has risen from 6% to 15% over the last six years. 

While this is terrific news, it’s time to do even more.  It’s time for us to build on that momentum as we continue to become a place that opens our doors more widely and freely — for individuals who are Pell-eligible and also those who come from families of moderate income.  In fact, this is what our founders intended as they imagined and built a university that would provide educational access specifically to those living in the region at a time when world-class educational options weren’t currently available here in the Midwest. 

Channeling that legacy, as WashU’s 15th Chancellor, I believe we must prioritize these efforts and find even more financial solutions that will help us bring the very best and most talented students to this campus — especially students who hail right here in St. Louis and our surrounding communities.

Students like first year student Sofia Robayo-Camargo. 

I had the pleasure of meeting Sofia recently, and hers is the kind of story that inspires me to strengthen our resolve to increase our educational access even more.  

Sofia emigrated from Colombia to the United States when she was 9 years old.  Her mother had been in Elgin, Illinois, a year prior to bringing Sofia with her.  Both Sofia and her mother spoke no English before arriving stateside.

“I was always a really good student who got good grades,” she said. “But when I started school in Elgin, there were immediate barriers.  I didn’t speak the language, and so I couldn’t keep up in any subject. I fell behind quickly.”

Sofia talked a lot about barriers — the language barrier, the cultural barrier, and the barriers to upward mobility in both profession and education for Latino immigrants.  

As years passed, Sofia began to thrive in school again.  She learned English quickly and was earning good grades once more.  Her family eventually moved to St. Louis for her stepfather’s career and to be closer to his family.  Here in St. Louis, she attended McCluer High School where she truly flourished — top of her class, a three-sport athlete, leader of the school’s LatinX affinity group, and more. 

Even then, she mentioned there were still barriers. 

“My mom and step-dad didn’t know anything about the college and university systems in the United States,” she said.  “And so, I didn’t have the background or resources to know where to begin.”

That’s where WashU’s College Prep program stepped in. 

College Prep is a multi-year initiative for select local high schoolers who have limited financial resources for college, and Sofia was admitted into the program as a rising sophomore.  That meant she spent nearly a month on campus every summer taking courses, learning to navigate college life, and preparing for the — at times daunting — application process. 

Sofia credits the College Prep Program, led by Associate Vice Chancellor for Community Engagement and St. Louis Readiness Initiatives Leah Merrifield, with giving her some of the tools and confidence she needed to succeed and apply for top-tier universities.  When she decided to apply for school, Washington University was at the top of her list. 

“I didn’t think I was going to get in,” she said.  When asked why, she elaborated. “Because of all the barriers, many immigrants lack confidence in themselves.  I have that same tendency at times.” 

But Sofia did get into WashU.  And to share the news, our Admissions team showed up in-person to surprise her with her letter of admittance along with the offer of a full scholarship. 

Flash forward six months, and we are now extremely proud and honored to claim Sofia as one of our first year students.  Though she’s still settling in, she’s excited about majoring in biology and pre-med. 

“I want to give others who look like me and come from a similar background a chance to see themselves in the medical profession,” she said.  “I didn’t grow up with much of that representation, and I want to inspire others.”

It’s clear, Sofia embodies the values we hold dearly here at Washington University and the values we hope to cultivate in all our students — resilience, a strong sense of purpose, a commitment to leadership and service, and the determination to improve the lives of others through life and career. 

But Sofia — and many students with similar backgrounds — may not have come to Washington University had it not been for the programs we have in place as well as our strong commitment to increasing access to those who cannot afford a WashU education.  In fact, there are hundreds more stories about talented students like Sofia we could tell. And these are the stories that make me extremely passionate about doing even more.  

We must do this, not only because it’s our moral responsibility — but also because, when we increase our access, our entire community serves to benefit.  We increase our applicant pool, enhance our quality, and move further along the path toward distinction. 

Over the coming months and years, I plan to continue championing these efforts.  It’s going to take time. It’s going to take financial resources.  It’s going to take careful attention to everything we do inside and outside of the classroom.  And it’s going to take a commitment from all of us.  But over time, I hope this institution will become a place that has completely removed the financial barriers that too often prevent individuals from considering WashU — a place where anyone can make their dreams of a WashU education a reality.  What’s more — I look forward to meeting even more students like Sofia, hearing their stories, and helping them achieve their goals and aspirations. This is mission-critical as we continue our work to improve lives in service of the greater good.