When Ngone Seck graduated as Riverview Gardens’ valedictorian in May — the first in her family bound for college — it seemed nothing could slow her down.
A few weeks later, the Italian immigrant with West African roots began her classes at Washington University on a full scholarship.
But long-simmering and costly dental problems threaten the trajectory of the musically talented engineering major from Florissant. She lives with pain while working full time to pay for her dental care, and her grades are suffering.
Seck’s dilemma illustrates the unique personal responsibilities facing many first-generation, low-income students. Sometimes, she’s afraid she won’t be able to outrun it.
“I’m already running my fastest, so I’m not sure how long I can keep this up,” Seck said. “But I hope that I can keep it up until this storm that I’m going through is over with.”
‘I save up as much as I can’
Just before Seck’s family left Italy for St. Louis when she was 12, a dentist found a single cavity. It was never filled.
As her family began their new life in the United States, her parents had no money for dental care, she said. Seck doesn’t qualify for government-funded dental care because she’s an Italian citizen. Years of inattention — no checkups, no cleanings — took their toll. Through middle and high school, the pain increased until she could only eat soft foods. Last spring, Seck finally found a dentist herself and paid for the visit.
“He said that ever since he started as a dentist, my teeth were in the worst condition he’s ever seen,” Seck said. “And I was losing bone mass because of infections caused by my cavities.”
Almost every tooth was decayed. The dentist pulled two and sent her home with a handful of antibiotics and painkillers.
Seck hasn’t kept a running total but figures she’s spent as much as $5,000 on dental treatments including extractions and a root canal. To foot the bill, she ramped up her hours this past fall at her job at Panda Express in St. Ann, sometimes working 60 hours a week while taking a full load of four courses, including calculus and Korean.
Seck still needs two root canals, two implants and more than a dozen fillings — which could cost as much as $13,000 more.
“What I always do is, I save up as much as I can, and whenever I have it, then I get the procedure done — just to avoid accumulating any debt,” she said.
‘A domino effect’
Seck’s path from a modest upbringing to an elite institution of learning reads like an American success story. As the top student at Riverview Gardens, she played three instruments including the flute and formed a study club for the ACT college-admissions test while also winning the title of prom queen.
Even before enrolling in college, Seck already spoke three languages: Italian, the native Wolof of her Senegalese parents, and English, and had begun teaching herself Korean through YouTube videos.
Near the start of fall semester at Wash U, she said things were going well.
“It’s been great. It’s been really rewarding,” Seck said. “It makes me feel like all the hard work I’ve been putting myself through for the past four years in high school is really paying off.”
But as the semester progressed, she began missing classes and falling behind in assignments. She spends up to three hours a day riding several buses and the MetroLink to and from her job in St. Ann.
When Seck received her final grades, she was disappointed. She declined to be specific but said her scholarship isn’t at risk as long as she maintains a 2.0 average, which she said she easily exceeds.
The stress she faces worries Sierra Cody, Seck’s best friend since middle school. But Cody says her determined friend is rarely discouraged.
“It’s like you can’t tell her ‘no.’ She’s like, ‘I don’t care if it’s too hard, I’m going to do it anyway,’ to prove the world wrong,” Cody said. “And that’s what makes her have more on her plate, so it’s like, ‘Girl, calm down just a little bit.’”
Seck is afraid to slow down too much, because the longer she puts off the dental work, the worse it will get.
“It’s kind of like a domino effect,” Seck said. ‘You can’t afford it at the time so you have to wait, but the more you wait, the more you can’t afford it.”
‘Colleges have not done the work’
At Wash U, Seck is part of a growing population of low-income students. In 2014, just six percent of Wash U students were eligible for a Pell Grant, the number colleges use to measure efforts to achieve socioeconomic diversity. In 2015, the school set a goal of increasing that to 13 percent, or about 1,800 of its 14,300 students. The 2016-2017 freshman class was at that mark.
Other elite institutions also are working to enroll a more socioeconomically diverse student body, according to Anthony Jack, an assistant professor in the Harvard graduate school of education. But admitting such students is only the first step, according to Jack, whose dissertation focused on the experiences of low-income students at elite schools.
“Your job is just beginning,” Jack said. “You have invited students, you have extended these coveted invitations, but you have not done the work — colleges have not done the work to prepare for their arrival.”
That work includes understanding that students like Seck often shoulder great personal responsibilities, Jack said. A decade ago, he entered Amherst College as a first-generation scholarship student from a low-income black family living in Miami.
“There were just things I had to grapple with that my middle-class and upper-class peers did not have to worry about,” Jack said.
With her own earnings, Seck pays several thousand dollars a year for Wash U dental and medical insurance, and books. She sometimes helps out with expenses for her family, which includes three little sisters, her mother, who braids hair, and her father, who drives for the ride-share companies Uber and Lyft.
“My parents have to send money back to their families in Senegal,” Seck said. “So it really gets overwhelming, financially for them.”
For most Wash U students, money flows the other way: toward them from their families. The median family income is $272,000, the wealthiest student body in the United States, according to a study from The Equality of Opportunity Project.
But Seck sees her obligations as a personal matter and hesitates to ask Wash U for more help.
“I didn't really want to seem as if I'm taking advantage of it, or as if … I’m begging for help or something,” Seck said. “They just have helped me so much, and I just I don't want to be greedy.”
‘No way of knowing’
Toward the end of fall semester, Seck did confide in an advisor who connected her with a campus group called WashU Cares which helps at-risk students. But then Seck learned that because she’s not a U.S. citizen, she needed to contact the International Student Association.
Wash U is working to streamline the system, according to assistant provost Anthony Tillman, who said many if not all first-generation, low-income students have expenses beyond tuition, room, board and fees that can interfere with their education.
In 2016, Tillman oversaw the launch of the Office for Student Success, currently serving 358 students. The program provides academic support, professional development and a path toward financial resources. The university has some funds available for students with medical issues, and an application process for that money, Tillman said. But it’s up to the students to alert the school, especially when the need isn’t apparent.
“If a student is walking around with crutches or a cast, well, yes,” Tillman said. “But if it’s something that’s ... invisible, how else would we know? I mean we have no way of knowing.”
Helping socioeconomically disadvantaged students is an evolving process, according to Harvey Fields, Washington University’s dean for student success, who was a first-generation college student.
“Are we doing everything that we can? Absolutely I would say ‘no,’ because we don’t know everything yet,” Fields said. “We continue to learn.”
Institutions across the country are trying to address these students’ needs. Last week, the University of Missouri-St. Louis announced a new program matching first-generation students who are freshmen with faculty who were once first-generation college students themselves. The program, funded by a donor, will start out small by choosing one student per class with the hope of expanding it to include all such students at this public institution whose student body is made up of many more lower-income entrants than Wash U.
Seck also has a goal of helping others like herself. If she were to be relieved of her current financial responsibilities, she said she would use her time to create a team of Wash U students to mentor high schoolers like those in her own struggling Riverview Gardens district.
“I want to create something that will give attention to students who deserve it so much and are so full of potential,” Seck said.
This semester, Seck does have a little more spare time. She made a hard decision to cut her work week back to 30 hours, to help her focus more on classwork and maybe give her a chance to live more like a typical college student, hanging out with friends and going to movies.
Giving up is not an option, Seck said.
“I could have simply just said, ‘I can't do school; I have to pay for my medical expenses; I have to help my family,’” Seck said. “But I know this is only temporary. At the end of the day, all of our obstacles are temporary, no matter how big, no matter how small.”
Follow Nancy on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL
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