Six years before she climbed the steps of Jones Hall during the fall semester of her senior year at the University of Puget Sound — a bullhorn in hand and a list of a dozen demands for how the university should change — Rachel Askew didn’t even know the university existed.
“I had never heard of it,” Rachel says, recalling what she knew of the university during her junior year in high school.
The first time Rachel heard about the University of Puget Sound was when her father, Michael Askew — a former Boeing Co. worker who had been displaced from his job in the Puget Sound region of Washington State during the Great Recession — took a job as a custodian at the college.
Askew had been struggling to keep up the middle class lifestyle that he had secured for his family during better days.
It was a lifestyle that enabled Askew and his wife, along with Rachel and her younger brother, Michael, Jr., to live in a spacious $400,000 home. But after he lost his job — which he believes was outsourced to India — Askew had begun to dip into his children’s college funds to save the home and avoid having to move back into the family’s much smaller rental property that had served as the family’s first home. But his efforts were to no avail.
“I took all their college money and spent it trying to keep the other place, and it wasn’t working,” Askew recalls.
Rachel remembers the toll it took on her father once he exhausted their college savings.
“My dad’s only wish was to send me to college,” Rachel says. “When he had to give up all those funds for us to be able to survive, I know that really broke his heart.”
As the recession and its aftermath wore on, Askew grew less selective in his job search. That was when he came across an ad for the custodian job at the university.
“I said, ‘I’ll give it a shot,’” Askew says. “I didn’t care what it was. I just needed to do something to collect my self-worth. I just knew I needed to get busy.”
Even though the campus custodian job wasn’t the type of work he had hoped for, it ended up being a huge blessing in disguise.
Shortly after he was hired, Askew learned that as a university employee, his children could attend the university for free after he put in two years of service.
“Before I took the job, I had been praying: What am I gonna do to get my kids through school?’” Askew says. Now, that prayer had been answered.
As it turns out, Askew was hired just in time for Rachel — who was a high school junior at the time — to take advantage of the free tuition benefit for her freshman year in college in 2012. Not long after he took the job, the free tuition policy changed and required five years of service instead of two.
“It just lined up with where we were at,” Rachel says. “He had to work there two years, and I had two years left of school.”
Whereas previously the University of Puget Sound hadn’t even been on Rachel’s radar, now it was the only school that had her attention.
“I did early decision,” Rachel says. “I didn’t apply anywhere else.”
Tuition at the small liberal arts college, which currently serves about 2,600 undergraduates, now stands at $47,840 annually. Without some form of financial assistance, the school would have been out of Rachel’s reach.
But while Askew’s job smoothed the path for Rachel to get into the university, actually attending the college was an entirely different thing.
Being a Black student on a campus where just 1 percent of the student body was Black, meant that her experience was “no doubt a roller coaster,” Rachel says.
People seemed to harbor different assumptions about how she had been admitted to the school.
“My experience there as someone who had the tuition benefit was interesting,” Rachel says. “A lot of people — when I tell them I had free tuition — they think it’s because I play sports because I’m Black. Then they think I must have gotten a scholarship or something, which I’m OK with them thinking I’m a genius.
“But really it’s because my father took a job that other people would see as undesirable.”
Rachel says the university was a predominantly White institution “in the greatest sense.”
“Because it’s a small school, I knew all 50 of the Black people who went there when I went to school there,” Rachel says.
On campus, Rachel rarely ran into her father, who is now a pool technician at the college.
“If I needed money I would go find him,” Rachel says. “People didn’t know we were related. I had a pretty independent experience.”
Rachel got involved in various facets of campus life — from Greek Life to student activism. As a testament to her tenacity and her ability to navigate different worlds, she served as president of the Black Student Union and at the same time held a work-study job as an office assistant in the Office of the President under then-President Ronald R. Thomas.
Even though Rachel had a job in the president’s office, when the wave of campus protests that were sparked by the protests at the University of Missouri in 2015 began to hit, Rachel decided to stage a protest herself. It was her senior year, and she had built up a substantial amount of social capital due to her position in the president’s office.
Staging a walkout, she says, was not an easy decision.
“No doubt, there’s things you have to give up when you become a voice for the voiceless,” Rachel says. “I was like totally worried about losing my job and losing my networks.”
But at the end of the day, Rachel was more concerned with the cause of marginalized students.
“I just wanted everybody to have equal access to a great experience,” Rachel says. “You shouldn’t have to have my personality or somebody else’s skin color to be seen or have your voice heard.
“I saw a lot of broken people. When I see broken people I can’t look away from it and do nothing.”
Rachel consulted with her father the night before the planned walkout in November 2015 and told him about her plans.
“I just said, ‘Am I doing the right thing?’” Rachel recalls.
Askew could have easily advised his daughter to keep a low profile, focus on getting her education, and not get the campus all riled up and risk making him lose the very job that enabled Rachel to attend the school for free. But Askew is not that kind of man.
“When you’re doing the right thing, nothing else matters,” Askew says. “People can say what they want to say. She knew she was right. I knew she was right. I had her back.
“I just asked her to do one thing: Don’t let her passion outweigh her purpose.”
Askew admits there were moments, though, when he thought he might lose his job over his daughter’s activism.
He became particularly uneasy when he thought some of the student protesters’ remarks “began to get out of hand” and his daughter had to “reel them in.” Rachel says the only thing she did was help put their profanity-laden angst into perspective.
“For a moment I thought: Is this gonna cost me my job?” Askew says. “I said, you know what? It doesn’t matter. She’s doing the right thing.”
At that point, Askew says a campus administrator who oversees the campus custodians came up to him and commended him on his daughter’s tactfulness.
“He comes up to me and says, ‘Wow, good job, Mike,’” Askew recalls of his supervisor, whom the university did not make available for comment for this story. “I felt pretty good about it at that point.”
Whereas Askew now felt more secure about his job, Rachel had concerns about her own campus job.
The multifaceted group she had formed — Advocates for Institutional Change — had a list of 12 demands and wanted to get President Thomas on the phone, even though he was in Washington, D.C. at the time. Among other things, the demands included more diversity programming and for the office of admissions to “seek out students from underrepresented populations by visiting their communities and schools.”
Rachel said she felt ambivalent about exerting pressure on the president when she worked for him and his administration.
“I really respected them and that job a lot,” Rachel says. “I didn’t want to use it or abuse it.”
At the same time, being on the inside enabled Rachel to better understand how the university works, which she used to inform her activism.
“That’s why I requested a meeting with the cabinet, because I know they have teams that will execute our demands,” Rachel says. “There’s a lot of strategy that went into the process.”
President Thomas ultimately called.
“Our conversation was very calm and professional because I already had a relationship with President Thomas, but there was obvious tension because he was away in Washington, D.C., lobbying for more financial aid funds, and we were protesting mistreatment of marginalized students,” Rachel recalls. “I stood my ground and continued to call for a specific time and date for our cabinet meeting as he tried to dissolve the tension by ensuring me of all the good work he was doing in D.C.
“Ultimately, we found a time and date and met the following week.”
Rachel says she was “100 percent surprised” with the outcomes.
Among other things, the protest bolstered existing efforts to offer African-American studies as a major — which finally occurred in fall 2016.
The activism also precipitated the opening of a new Social Justice Center.
University officials say they welcome student activism.
“The president, cabinet and administration have all been supportive and understanding of students’ efforts to illuminate issues of concern,” says Shirley Skeel, a university spokeswoman. “Students are why we are here, and they have a significant role in governance of the college.”
Rachel says the protest was “probably one of the greatest projects I worked on in college.”
“It was a huge learning experience,” Rachel says. “I should have gotten college credit.”
At the same time, Rachel says her activism affected her relationship with the administration.
“A lot of the administration became cold toward me and no longer interacted with me in the same warm manner,” Rachel says. “For example, they stopped saying ‘hi’ to me in the hallway or entering into conversation with me unless they had to.”
Not everyone, however, gave her the cold shoulder.
“Some of my professors and administrators I was close with respected me for organizing with my peers and exposing deficits for people of color at the university,” Rachel says. “But some acted like they no longer knew me, which was painful as a first-generation student of color who climbed a pretty tall social ladder at the university in four years.”
President Thomas has since retired. The University of Puget Sound hired Isiaah Crawford — the institution’s first African-American and also its first gay president — in 2016.
Rachel graduated with a bachelor’s degree in communications in 2016 after Crawford was named president but before he assumed the presidency that summer.
Her father says her name still “echoes” throughout the campus.
Rachel currently works part-time as a coordinator for Youth for Christ USA Inc. and is set to start full-time at the organization this January.
Asked if she needed her college degree to get her forthcoming full-time position, Rachel says, “Definitely, especially since I’m creating a peer mentoring program for a county that has 100,000 teenagers, it requires a little bit more strategy. I definitely needed my education to be able to do that.”
Her younger brother, Michael, has also attended Puget Sound but is currently considering other educational options.
At the same time, Rachel says she didn’t go to college merely to get a job.
“I went to college to become a whole person,” Rachel says. “If there’s any reason for a person to go to college, it’s to find themselves and become a whole person.”
Cindy Matern, associate vice president for human resources and career & employment services at the University of Puget Sound, says the free tuition benefit is meant to do just that.
“Our mission is to liberate each student’s fullest potential to live a creative and useful life,” Matern says. “And by offering attractive benefits, we ensure the people and resources are in place to do this.”
Jamaal Abdul-Alim can be reached at email@example.com
This is the second in a series of stories about tuition remission benefits. This article appeared in the November 2, 2017 issue of Diverse magazine.