Each spring, a select group of Wellesley students receive emails from the Donor Relations Office, a subsidiary of the Wellesley College Development Office (which controls fundraising for the college) requesting written thank you letters for certain alumnae donors for their contributions to financial aid. The emails specify that the letters should contain information about the author’s life and time at Wellesley and should include a photo of the author. According to the Donor Relations Office, in 2018, 73 percent of students who were asked to write a thank you letter wrote one. But several students expressed to the Wellesley News that the repeated email requests for these letters have become a source of consternation and anxiety for them. These students have come forward to describe the requests as “insistent” and “uncomfortable,” with little indication that they are in fact not mandatory.
“I do not believe that there is an option other than to write the letters, said Reyah Spikener ’21, who received her first email asking her to write a letter the spring of her first year. “They do not say whether or not the letter is optional or if there is even a punishment for choosing not to do it. The wording of the email implies that it is not optional and they ask that you include a picture of yourself with the letter as well,” she explained.
An anonymous student from the Class of 2019 was initially under the impression that writing these letters was a required component of their financial aid. “After reading things carefully, I’ve realized that they don’t actually say ‘required’, but the tone is so insistent that I was under the impression they were,” the student recalled.
The email from the Donor Relations Office includes directions on formatting and content, as well as addressees. However, it does not indicate whether or not the letters are mandatory. Many of the students interviewed by the Wellesley News were unsure whether or not submitting the letter would affect their financial aid. Emily Carey ’19, for example, worried at first that if she failed to write the letter, she would no longer receive financial aid. “Was there something contingent on writing these letters to get the funds?” she wondered. “That wasn’t communicated, and what if I don’t feel comfortable doing it? Am I still going to get the money?”
Jocelyn Ramirez ’20 received her first email in spring 2017, but forgot to write and submit it before the deadline. “I was a bit scared that if I didn’t write it I wouldn’t receive aid in the future, but that didn’t happen. And I haven’t been asked to write them since,” she said. Emily Carey ’19 likewise shared that she receives substantial aid and has been asked to write these letters since her first year, but finds the office’s lack of clear communication to be troubling: “Was there something contingent on writing these letters to get the funds? That wasn’t communicated, and what if I don’t feel comfortable doing it? Am I still going to get the money?” she asked.
The office, however, maintains that the letters are “always optional.” Bridget O’Connor Garsh ’04, senior director of advancement services, stated that “It is the student’s choice to participate and decide if they would like to engage with a donor. If a student chooses not to write a letter, they are not penalized in any way.”
Only some students with financial aid are asked to consider writing a thank-you letter. These students are generally funded through endowments from individual alumni, as opposed to the general grant funding pool. Garsh explains that these selected students are “a subset of those receiving Wellesley’s financial aid funds.” In the Alumnae page of the Wellesley College website, a subpage titled “The Wellesley Fund” describes the high rate of alumnae support — the page cites a 46 percent rate of alumnae participation in fiscal year 2018, with gifts of $100 or less combining to a total of approximately $538,070. But further in the page, a widget leads users to a page titled “Wellesley Fund Scholars,” which features in bolded text: “1 student + 1 donor = 1 extraordinary opportunity to make a meaningful difference.”
The page describes the Wellesley Fund Scholars program as a “current-use, designated gift program that provides you [the alumna] with a rare opportunity to personally support and get to know a Wellesley student.” To qualify for the program, a donor must donate a gift of $10,000 or $25,000, with the larger amount designated to providing “financial aid to a student pursuing a specific area of study and/or from a particular region of your choice.” The page indicates that, “Your financial aid recipient will be notified of your generous gift and will be encouraged to communicate directly with you.”
In addition, according to Assistant Director of Financial Aid Daniel Perriello, students may end up with specific, named grant aid as opposed to general Wellesley Fund grant funding if they meet “specific qualifiers.”
“Your financial aid package, the components of it, comes from a couple of different factors. For most students, we award using the Wellesley College Grant, which is just a general fund,” Petriello said, though he was unable to answer exactly how much was in that general fund. He explained that any student receiving a named, endowed fund is getting that money in place of, not on top of, the Wellesley Grant money they already would have gotten, personal connection to a named donor or not.
“When we process them, if we’re processing endowed funds, it means they were swapped with Wellesley Fund money,” he said. “It’s easier, on our end, for the initial step, to just give you a set of funds called Wellesley Funds, and then replace them with a more specific fund later.” Therefore, two students could be on the exact same level of financial aid and one will be asked to write a letter while another will not. “Because Wellesley meets 100% of demonstrated need, your grant is determined. The components of your aid package might change, but the overall amount will not, we’re still meeting 100% of demonstrated need.”
Joy St. John, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid, clarified that named grant money is separate from the Wellesley Grant aid, and that once endowed grant aid is assigned based on donor preferences, any remaining endowed grant money is “assigned randomly….not assigned based on urgency of need.”
Many students at Wellesley are simply unaware that some people’s financial aid comes with a request for a thank-you letter and a picture. For those that are, some students see it as a good thing they can do for the college.
Maggie Roberts, ‘20, has been writing thank-you letters for two years. “I wouldn’t be able to go to this college if it weren’t for financial aid, and I have no problem saying “thank you” to alumnae who care enough about current Wellesley students that they’re willing to donate tens (hundreds?) of thousands of dollars for the sake of making our lives easier (or maybe they don’t care about Wellesley students – maybe they’re just trying to bribe Wellesley so that their less-bright granddaughters can get in. Either way, I really appreciate it),” she said in an email to the News.
Other students, however, see these letters as something that telling them they do not belong at an elite institution like Wellesley An anonymous member of the Class of 2019 expressed discomfort with the idea that thank-you letters should be expected at all. “Frankly, this practice makes me uncomfortable,” the student said. “It’s as if we’re constantly reminded of ‘our place’ and how grateful we should be for the ability to set foot on campus. Also, while I’m sure most individual donors at Wellesley] mean well and I’ve nothing at all against them personally, on a broader level I dislike people receiving charity being required to thank philanthropists. Most of the rich got their money through a combination of outrageous luck and the hard labor of other, much less lucky, people. Giving away their wealth should hence be a minimum expectation, not some noble thing to be applauded.”
Another anonymous student who contacted the Wellesley News said that she chose not to write a letter this year due to discomfort with the fact that the Donor Relations Office asks students to include a photo. “I fully support writing thank you letters for donors in general and I am not ungrateful for the support they have given me, but I object to the fact that Wellesley expects us to include a photo with our letter. As far as I know, no other school expects students to include photos with their thank-you letters. This enters into the realm of “poverty porn.” It reminds me of Red Cross campaigns that are like: ‘Donate $10 to the American Red Cross and we’ll send you a photo of the starving child in Africa you saved.’ What Wellesley seems to be forgetting (is that poor people have the right to privacy, and many of us are not comfortable with sending a stranger our photograph.” She also saw the letters as a way of singling out less privileged students. “We worked just as hard (if not harder) to get admitted to Wellesley as our wealthy peers, so we deserve to be treated the same as our wealthy peers, who are not asked to prostrate themselves before donors.”
Garsh said that she was dismayed to learn that the school’s donor thank-you letter practices have upset some students. “We are saddened to hear that students are stressed and confused by this process. We encourage any student who has a question or a concern to reach out to us at any time. Our requests for letters are intended to celebrate the generosity of Wellesley’s donors and we try to be respectful of students’ privacy and their time.”