Last Friday, Provost Michael Quick announced the reorganization of the Norman Topping Student Aid Fund in an effort to increase the number of students who can benefit from its resources.
The Topping Fund, which was established in 1970, aims to bridge a gap between low-income, first-generation students and their peers at USC. The Fund is the only student initiated, funded and administered scholarship in the country, according to the NTSAF website. Nearly 150 students at USC currently benefit from the program — and Quick says he wants to make it available to more students. While his efforts are a productive step toward increasing access for underrepresented students at the University, the decision by the Provost’s office exemplifies a blatant disregard for the historical significance and student-led nature of the program.
In this attempt to expand the program, though not mentioned in Quick’s initial memo, administration has eliminated the fund’s program director position — a position that has provided a support system for Topping scholars, many of whom have had to overcome considerable hardships and trauma in pursuit of their education.
NTSAF is more than just a scholarship for the students involved in the program. While it aids students financially, NTSAF also becomes a support mechanism for scholars as they strive to succeed at an institution like USC. Among the scholars are students from various underrepresented groups, including undocumented students, former foster youth, survivors of sexual abuse and LGBT students — and while all of their backgrounds are different, NTSAF provides scholars with what they call a “Topping family,” which very much includes the program director.
In eliminating the position, which was held by Christina Yokoyama for 11 years, USC is depriving future generations of Topping Scholars the same support system that has been provided for hundreds of scholars in the past. In addition, removing the position may hinder the program’s ability to work as a fully functioning help center for new scholars.
Andrea Hodge, the vice provost for undergraduate programs, explained in a letter to Topping scholars that administration officials “have the opportunity to grow the program while maintaining all of the important benefits that it provides.” Expanding the resources of NTSAF to more students is necessary to address the growing population of underrepresented students on campus. But this expansion cannot be completed effectively with limited staff at the Topping office.
Expanding the program without any additional space would eliminate the one-on-one attention that these scholars currently receive through Yokoyama and associate director Trista Beard. In an article published in the Daily Trojan last semester titled “Bridging USC’s first-generation gap,” Beard described how the Topping directors gave a “warm hand-off” to students when relaying them to resources, mentors and other programs on campus. Removing the position would eliminate that transition and instead change the essence of NTSAF into a solely monetary-based scholarship.
Part of what makes the Topping Fund remarkable is not just the financial burden it alleviates in order to give students from diverse backgrounds the opportunity to attend a university like USC, but it’s the community that it fosters and the support it provides. The majority of Topping scholars are first-generation college students, and at a university that does not have a first-generation student resource center, the staff — led by the program director — at the Topping Fund plays a vital role in helping students navigate unfamiliar terrain.
Following the elimination of the program director, the Daily Trojan was flooded with letters to the editor opposing the changes to NTSAF, including some from faculty, current Topping Scholars, past NTSAF Governing Board Chairs and even former Undergraduate Student President and Topping Scholar Edwin Saucedo. All of them discussed the significance of the Topping community and how they were impacted by it. When reading these letters, it is difficult to think of the Topping scholarship as just a monetary award — it is an ear to listen, an empty chair to sit and share stories, a space to shed insecurities in a shared sense of belonging.
The University’s intent to expand the Topping family is important, but the way in which it was approached is flawed. If the University aims to expand the reach of the Topping Fund, then it should have engaged in a collaborative effort with the scholars and staff. Yet neither the scholars nor the board say they were consulted in the process.
If USC truly wants the Topping Fund and family to grow and flourish, the Topping community must be included in the conversation. Integral to the fabric of USC, NTSAF has brought us a USG president, USG senators, a Rhodes Scholar and even Daily Trojan writers and editors. Bringing more of these students to campus is a positive thing, but it must be done in the right way. Topping scholars deserve to be heard, and USC must learn to listen.
Daily Trojan Spring 2018 Editorial Board