Inquiry Magazine Northwestern School of Education and Social Policy

FAll 2014

“Having students advocate for themselves is very important. It teaches us that, despite our background, we can fight for our needs.”

- Peter Podlipni

Peter Podlipni: Self-Advocacy Is Key to Increasing College Access


By Rebekah Snyder
Peter Podlipni

As a high school senior, Peter Podlipni had his sights set on another Chicago university, but a letter from Questbridge led him down a path he never could have imagined. Questbridge helps outstanding low-income students apply to the nation’s most selective colleges and secure full or significant financial aid. “Being in my financial situation,” recalls the Chicago native and son of Polish immigrants, “my biggest concern was, how am I going to pay for this?” With siblings in college, he knew that federal aid doesn’t fund everything. Tuition at a private university seemed far out of reach.

Podlipni applied for the highly competitive Questbridge National College Match Program and was accepted for early decision into Northwestern’s School of Education and Social Policy. As a Quest Scholar, his tuition is fully covered. “I am so grateful,” says the junior, who is majoring in secondary teaching.

Quest Scholars receive more than financial support. The campus chapter of Quest Scholars Network (QSN) actively supports Northwestern’s low-income students socially, academically and emotionally. “Being lowincome is somewhat stigmatized here,” observes Podlipni. “I’ve heard people say things like ‘I can’t believe people are on financial aid—why didn’t their parents save up?’” These careless comments, he believes, come from a lack of exposure to low-income students.

QSN brings awareness about low-income students and the issues they face to the Northwestern community. This spring, two SESP students in QSN organized Money Matters Week, a series of programs about class and socioeconomic diversity. “There was a lot of discussion about ‘the 14 percent,’” says Podlipni. “Many Northwestern undergraduates don’t realize that 14 percent of Northwestern students are low-income.” As part of this programming, QSN created an anonymous blog, where any student could post his or her experiences or reflections regarding class. “Uncomfortable comments came from across the spectrum, but the important thing was that students were talking.”

The Quest Scholars Network also advocates for services to meet the individual needs of low-income students. For example, recognizing that low-income individuals are less likely to engage psychological services, QSN successfully lobbied for a dedicated counselor in the university’s Counseling and Psychological Services department. Podlipni notes that improvements like these are due to low-income Quest students advocating for themselves and students like them. “Having students advocate for themselves is very important. It teaches us that, despite our background, we can fight for our needs.”

As a Polish American and Chicagoan, Podlipni found his other support network early on in the Polish American Students Alliance (PASA) at Northwestern. As president this year, he focused on engaging PASA students in the city through a volunteer program with Community- Health Chicago—a free health clinic that works with low-income, often undocumented individuals. Podlipni developed a corps of PASA volunteers to serve as medical interpreters at the clinic.

This past quarter, Podlipni partnered with Alianza, Northwestern’s Hispanic/Latino organization, to expand this effort. PASA trained five Alianza students to serve as Spanish medical interpreters. “As college students,” he says, “we have the capacity and the privilege to serve others and to bring what we learn back to our community.” It was for his work with PASA that Podlipni recently received a Campus Life Award, in recognition of his contribution to improving the quality of student life at Northwestern.

Volunteerism is just one way that Podlipni has remained connected with his hometown. Podlipni admits to having difficulty adjusting to campus life early on. “To feel so close to Chicago, to my world, but to also feel distant was hard,” he shares. Podlipni credits Northwestern for its various efforts to break down barriers between Northwestern and Chicago.

Heading into his senior year, Podlipni knows his future teaching career will take him back to the city he loves— Chicago. “I plan to be a lifelong teacher,” Podlipni says. “Growing up as a low-income student, a child of immigrants who didn’t know English language, teachers filled in the gaps. Teachers taught me what college can be, how to apply, how to seek aid, how to advocate for myself.” Podlipni plans to teach his students—as he learned through personal experience—that if lowincome students are empowered to advocate for themselves, they can go anywhere.