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President Joan Hinde Stewart
President Joan Hinde Stewart

Note: Following this meeting, President Stewart discussed her observations on Albany public radio station WAMC-FM  and Utica station WIBX-AM.

Hamilton College President Joan Hinde Stewart is attending an all-day summit on Thursday, Jan. 16, hosted by President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama in Washington.

The meeting is focused on expanding college opportunities for students from low-income and disadvantaged backgrounds. Participants include college and university presidents and leaders from nonprofits, foundations, businesses and government.

“I’m pleased to be learning from my peers while sharing what we have done to increase college access and success at Hamilton,” Stewart said. “Personally and professionally, I’ve seen how a college education changes lives, so I am glad to be a part of this conversation.”

Since 2003, Hamilton has increased its financial aid budget by 85 percent and reallocated all merit aid to need-based aid. In the admission process, the college does not consider an applicant's ability to pay (also known as need-blind admission) and meets the full demonstrated need of every accepted student.

Nevertheless, Hamilton does not believe it is enough to simply enroll students from families of limited means; the college believes more must be done to address the hidden needs of those students once they are on campus.

Two programs Hamilton has developed to help ensure an equivalent educational experience for all its students are being announced at the summit: First-Year Forward and the Student Emergency Aid Society (SEAS).

First-Year Forward is a pilot program that has served between 30 and 35 first-year students, many of them first-generation-to-college, in each of its first two years of operation. Students with exceptional potential and financial need are nominated for the program, which includes small-group meetings, individual career counseling sessions and targeted homework assignments – all designed to help students assess their interests and strengths, enhance their communication skills, develop a resume and explore career paths. Those who commit to and meet the expectations of the program and obtain an approved career-related experience the summer between their first and second years receive a $2,000 stipend to compensate for the lost income they might have received from a paid summer job.

In conjunction with its participation in the White House Summit, Hamilton is committing to raising $1.5 million to endow and make permanent First-Year Forward.

The SEAS Fund is intended to support emergency or exceptional needs (e.g., a flight home to be with a sick parent, medical expenses, clothes appropriate for job interviews or travel to a career-related activity) for students whose financial barriers are significant. If the request is approved and the need cannot be met through financial aid or some other means, a grant or loan from the SEAS Fund will be issued to cover the expense.

At present, SEAS can accommodate annual requests totaling $25,000, but as part of its participation in the summit, Hamilton pledges to expand the program as necessary to sustain its promise to provide all students with an equivalent educational experience.

Joan Hinde Stewart assumed the Hamilton presidency on July 1, 2003. She was formerly dean of the College of Liberal Arts and professor of French at the University of South Carolina. The daughter of a ship fitter who never went beyond two years of high school and homemaker whose secondary education was what used to be called "commercial," Stewart was the first in her family to attend college. Six of the eight members of her senior staff at Hamilton were the first in their families to attend college.

Stewart received her bachelor’s degree summa cum laude from St. Joseph’s College, commuting to classes from her Brooklyn home by subway. She subsequently earned her Ph.D. in French from Yale University.

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