Even though her mother worked the night shift cleaning crew at Linfield College, Giselle Naranjo-Nelson never considered going to the college herself because she always thought the school was financially out of her family’s reach.
All that changed when the director of a now-defunct Upward Bound program at Linfield asked Giselle if she had planned to apply to the college where her mother worked.
Giselle Naranjo-Nelson with her mother Reina.
“I’m like, ‘No, why?’” Giselle recounted. “He’s like, ‘Your mom works there.’ I’m like, ‘Yes?’, as if to say: What’s the point?
“‘Well, you get free tuition if you decide to come to Linfield,’” the Upward Bound director told her.
Giselle could hardly believe her ears. “I’m like, ‘Wait, what?’” Giselle said.
The idea that Giselle could attend Linfield for free came as a welcome surprise to her and her family. It was 2012 — her senior year in high school — and Giselle had been asking her parents for their financial information so that she could fill out her federal financial aid forms. One thing became painfully clear through the process: There was no way her parents could contribute anything financially toward her college education.
“My parents were both upset,” Giselle recalled of the sit-down discussion that she and her parents had on the couch in the family home in Dundee, Ore. “They had come to this country for one goal and that was to provide higher education to all of their children,” Giselle said. “My parents said: ‘We will support you but we cannot financially provide anything for you to go to college.’”
On the one hand, the conversation devastated Giselle.
“I started crying because I was like, ‘What am I gonna do?’” Giselle said. “I had always been very ambitious. I had amazing grades in high school. But now my only options were going to community college or just start working.”
On the other hand, the news wasn’t exactly a major revelation to Giselle, whose parents — immigrants from Vega del Sol, a small town in Oaxaca, Mexico — had never gone to high school, much less college, and could only get low-paying jobs after they arrived here in the U.S. in the 1990s
“We always had financial problems,” Giselle said. “But I thought maybe they had hidden money somewhere but that wasn’t the case.”
Actually, there was some hidden money. It was hidden so well that not even Giselle’s parents knew that they had it. That’s because the “money” didn’t come in the form of physical currency or even a bank account.
Rather, as it turns out, Giselle’s mother — Reina Naranjo — would soon qualify for a tuition waiver for her daughter through her night shift cleaning job at the college. That benefit essentially meant Giselle could go to the small, liberal arts college in McMinnville, Oregon, for free. Annual tuition at the school currently stands at $41,100.
At the time, Giselle had been planning to attend the United States Naval Academy after someone had nominated her for the school.
“I hadn’t really thought of Linfield as an opportunity just because I knew it was expensive,” Giselle said.
But once she found out she might have a way into the college where her mother worked, she decided to go for it.
“When we found out about tuition remission, I told my mom,” Giselle said. “My mom was like, ‘OK, let’s go see what they have.’”
The two went to inquire about the matter and learned that Reina had three more months to go on her night shift cleaning job until she qualified for tuition remission for her children. Besides Giselle, there are three younger brothers: two twins who are currently sophomores in high school, and a 5th grader.
“They said wait those three months and sign the papers,” Giselle said. “So that’s exactly what we did. We waited until then and we signed it.”
Giselle said the tuition remission benefit came as a “surprise” and a “blessing in disguise.”
Dan Preston, vice president of enrollment management at Linfield College, said it’s hard to say exactly why Giselle’s mother was unaware of the school’s tuition waiver policy.
“It may have had something to do with Giselle’s mom not worrying about that benefit when she was hired. It could have had something to do with language barriers,” Preston said. “Just really hard to pinpoint, but we all are thankful that it was clarified by the Upward Bound program in time for us to enroll Giselle.”
Preston said the number of children of employees who take advantage of the tuition waiver program varies from year to year but that — on average — there are seven to 10 children of faculty, four to six children of administrators, and 10 to 12 children of hourly employees who use the tuition waiver to attend Linfield. An additional 16 to 18 children — mostly children of faculty — attend other colleges through a tuition exchange program.
The college spends about $1.5 million per year — or approximately two percent of its annual operating budget — on both the tuition waiver and the tuition exchange programs, Preston said.
“The benefit is important to us to make sure that Linfield College provides access to quality higher education opportunities for the families who work here,” Preston said.
Once she enrolled at Linfield, Giselle would occasionally run into her mother as Giselle studied late hours while her mother — wearing a Linfield College work uniform (a dark blue or gray t-shirt and a Black jacket with the Linfield logo) — cleaned up the campus buildings.
Giselle says her mother would often chastise her about being up so late.
“Most of the conversations started like, ‘Why are you still awake? You should be sleeping,’ and me explaining that I have this test or that assignment due, I really need to get it done,” Giselle said. “My mom didn’t go to college. She didn’t understand the intense studying that needed to be done.”
But the mother and daughter also used their campus encounters to eat together during Reina’s “lunch” break at 3 a.m. Reina would always bring caldo de pollo and tamales and other traditional food because she “knew the school food wasn’t something I adapted to,” Giselle said.
“It was hard for me to get fed well, so she would make sure that I got some food and would bring some extra for me and my friends,” Giselle said. “And then my cousin also goes to Linfield so she would always make sure that I shared with her.”
Giselle says seeing her mother clean up the buildings on campus taught her the value of hard work.
“I knew if a building was cleaned by my mother because it was spotless,” Giselle said. “My mom wanted to do the job 110 percent.”
Giselle studied political science and business management at Linfield. The summer before last, she landed what she described as an “incredible” paid internship in the office of U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon).
“It was a completely mind blowing experience that really does push me to want to be involved in politics in a more direct way,” Giselle said. “It definitely wouldn’t have been possible without getting my Linfield education.”
Giselle also credits her Linfield education with enabling her to get her current job as a community health navigator at Portland, Ore.-based Kaiser Permanente.
“This is a dream job. I love my job so much because every day I get to help people,” Giselle said. “It’s a job that makes my parents incredibly proud,” she said, explaining that she helps families — many of whom are Spanish-speaking — identify and meet their various social and healthcare needs.
“It’s incredible,” Giselle said. “And I make really good money doing something that I really love and I’m now able to help my parents a lot more than I was able to before.”
Asked how much she earns per year, the 22-year-old revealed, “I actually make as much as both of my parents combined.”
An added bonus is that she has no student loans to pay off. That’s partially because she used a Ford Family Foundation scholarship that she won to cover the cost of food and housing in college.
Giselle considers her mom the real hero in helping her secure the college education she used to get where she is now.
“My mom really did work really hard and she continues to work really hard and she really does want to provide us with the American dream and, to me, she already has accomplished that for me,” Giselle said. “I have three more siblings that every day I go there [to see them] I’m like, ‘We’re gonna go to Linfield! We’re gonna go to Linfield!’ Just because it was a positive experience for myself but also because they know it won’t be a financial burden on my parents.”
This is the first in a series of stories about how economically underrepresented students have been able to take advantage of tuition benefits at colleges and universities across the nation. The next story will appear in the November 2, 2017 issue of Diverse magazine.
Jamaal Abdul-Alim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter @dcwriter360.