Erica Swallow NYU in China

The First-generation Struggle: A Letter From My 22-year-old Self

In 2008, I wrote a letter about my financial aid experience in college, at the request of my college’s content department. I re-discovered it today and am reminded we still have a long way to go until everyone, regardless of their personal backgrounds, has equitable access to education. But I am hopeful, and I hope this letter spreads that optimism.

As a first-generation college student (first in my family to attend college) and Pell Grant recipient (which is awarded to students from low-income families), I had always dreamed that education would change my path, but reflecting upon my life so far, it is almost surreal how much education has made a difference in my life.

The below email was sent on September 18, 2008 to Dana Rasso, who was a content writer for NYU at the time and in charge of the newsletter to parents of prospective students (among other publications) in which my story eventually appeared. I was 22 years old and had made it through the toughest times in college, including a semester when I nearly dropped out due to financial constraints. I am forever grateful for programs like the Pell Grant and the many scholarships and loans that got me through college. I hope the following words can provide hope for students — like 22-year-old me — who scrape by every day, encouraged by a vision of a better life.

Hey Dana,

I’d love to help out with [sharing my financial aid story], since financial aid was my biggest concern in coming to NYU. I only applied to NYU, because I felt in some way that it was the place for me… but my mother makes less that $14,000 a year, and I didn’t think we’d be able to afford it. I only had a few hundred dollars saved for college, since I worked in a pizza shop, but had to pay for my car insurance and gasoline to get to school. It was hard, but I managed. I’m going to be very blunt, though, it’s difficult. Here’s my commentary (it’s a little long, but I just got really passionate about it! If you want to cut it down, feel free.):

NYU was my dream school, but there was only one problem in my way after I decided to only apply to NYU: Financial aid. My mother is a single parent, earning an annual wage well under the poverty line. Most recently, she has undergone multiple surgeries, making it impossible for her to work. She now has no income and has lost a lot of our belongings as a result. In fact, I just found out a few weeks ago that all of my personal belongings were sold in an auction for $15, due to a foreclosure on our storage unit. Life at NYU has been heartbreaking, as I’ve watched my family fall apart from a distance. Financial aid is crucial for my enrollment at NYU.

Luckily, I am within the small percentage of students who get a large amount of scholarships. Above and beyond that, I have multiple loans, including subsidized and unsubsidized Stafford loans, Federal Perkins loans, and an NYU Weiss Memorial Loan. I also use my credit cards to pay for my remaining bill balances on most semester bills. Lastly, I receive Federal Work Study, which enables me to work 20 hours a week at an NYU job, earning money, which usually goes to food, my credit card bills, or the occasional splurge. It’s difficult going to a school where everyone seems to have a bank accounting that’s exploding at the seams, especially when my bank account is usually on the verge of hitting $0 most of the time. (Example: This week my bank account is at $4. It has been one big spaghetti marathon!) But every now and then, I treat myself to a night out, a fancy dinner, or some great shoes. I figure that everyone has to live a little bit.

I’m not going to sugar-coat it for you — if your family is in the situation that my family is in, it’s going to be tough throughout the next four years. Each year, after applying for the FAFSA you will be tearing out your hair wondering what the damage to your credit will be this time. The Financial Aid Office has a great staff, though, that will try their best to work with you. The biggest piece of advice that I have for you — perseverance. Keep calling, keep asking, keep applying. There are a ton of scholarships out there. Within a few years, you’re going to be tired of applying for scholarships, but keep doing it. Education is the most important asset a person can have. Do not miss the opportunity to have a great education at NYU, just because your family is not financially stable. Education is an investment in the future. I had a dream and I was not going to let it go. Hopefully when I graduate and get my first job, I will be making enough money to get my loans and credit card bills paid off within the first few years. Then, I hope to give back to NYU and the institutions that made my education possible. I hope that you, your student, and your family will have the spirit to challenge the system and dream your wildest dreams. This is a very sensitive subject for me, but I am more than happy to share my insight with anyone who is worried about financial aid at NYU. Please feel free to contact me with any further questions at [email].

Erica Swallow
NYU Stern Class of 2009

This is just one snapshot in my college experience, but it hit a nerve for me. Reading it, I can see myself back in my dorm room, typing away at my desk, loving the mind-expanding experience of rigorous, thought-provoking, life-changing academic discourse — an experience I had rarely had growing up in Arkansas. While meanwhile, I’m getting calls from home that my family is in utter disarray. That things are going wrong left and right. That people I love very dearly are falling into the tragic situations that statistics said they would, and that I should. Unemployment, addiction, homelessness, violence, abandonment, illness.

This week has been a time of reflection, and I just happened upon this letter, because I had forgotten what I knew about the Pell Grant back in my days at NYU. I knew I had received it, but that was about it. This week, I attended SXSWedu, an Austin-based education conference, for the first time. Education equity was a topic that came up many times, even in talks in which it was not the focus. It is, of course, a highly important topic. Not everyone in America receives the same education and has the same access to opportunity. College graduation rates for Pell Grant recipients was a topic that hit my radar randomly as I was scanning the conference schedule. There is, on average, a 5.7% graduation rate gap within institutions between Pell recipients and all students, and a 14% gap nationally, I learned. The increased national average is due to larger gaps at institutions where graduation rates are low overall for all students (regardless of Pell status) — these are the institutions, sadly, where Pell Grant recipients are more likely to attend. At NYU, the gap is smaller than average, but still present, at a 4.5 percentage point difference. That is, 83.3% of all student graduate after 6 years, and 78.8% of Pell grant recipients graduate in the same time frame.

It’s been nearly 7 years since I graduated from NYU, but it wasn’t until today that I realized how important it is for students like me — graduated or not — to bond together. I wish I knew more Pell Grant recipients, more people who shared a difficult financial path through school. It turns out that nearly 20% of undergraduate students at NYU in 2013 were Pell Grant recipients. I wish I had known that when I was in college. Maybe I wouldn’t have felt so alone.

I felt that same isolation in graduate school, which I completed last year. I finally had the courage, though, to share my story in a public, student-led storytelling forum. I spoke about how those labels — low-income and at-risk — can weigh on a person, and how they had for me since I was a child.

Nationally, I wasn’t alone either. About 1/3 of students are first-generation college students and just over 1/3 of students receive Pell Grants. But who wants to fly the “hey, everyone! I’m poor!” flag when they’re trying to make friends and fit in? There is a social stigma that keeps people from sharing these parts of their lives.

Today, more than just sharing my story, I feel it’s necessary that I wear my past proudly, that I embrace that part of my journey. Hopefully my story will resonate with students who may be feeling like college is a struggle that wasn’t meant for them. Today, 7 years later, I haven’t paid off my loans yet, as 22-year-old me thought might have happened by now. Instead, I have taken jobs that appeal to my passions and contribute positively to the world, and I have been able to give back along the way. I still hope, though, that one day my work will scale well beyond my reach and my life.

The education I’ve received, that so many have sacrificed their time and resources for, is the most pivotal achievement I will ever provide to my family and the world. Without it, nothing I have achieved would be possible. I am completely changed because I had the opportunity to learn. I hope that one day we will live in a world in which everyone who wishes to study will have the opportunity to do so. Through education, we can change the world.

Header image courtesy of New York University, circa 2008

T-Shirt Quilts: Staying Warm With Memories

Over the years, I’ve accumulated hundreds of t-shirts. Last year, I had the bright idea of turning them into t-shirt quilts. There are many quilters that focus on making t-shirt quilts — it turns out that it’s a big market, especially around graduation and winter holiday times.

After gathering all of my shirts together and separating them into categories, I researched about 10-15 t-shirt quilters online. I settled on, which is owned by Blue Ribbon Quilt Co.

Co-owner Linda Lawson worked with me to choose quilt sizes, t-shirt order and material colors for the quilts. In the end, I settled on having four quilts made for distinct parts of my life: social media, travel, New York University and Paragould High School. Take a look at the quilts below and let me know what you think!

I put my social media swag to great use with this t-shirt quilt.

The largest quilt I ordered fits on a queen-sized bed and contains 36 t-shirts from my NYU days.

I used 30 of my high school t-shirts for this full-sized quilt.

While I’ve been to many more places than the ones represented on this quilt, I wanted to have a travel quilt made that focused on orange. Ta da!

Shecky’s Beauty Night Out in NYC

Above: Maria Kucinski, Erica Swallow, Jamall Oluokun and Kriti Bhandari
I recently attended my first Shecky’s Beauty Night Out with three lovely friends (pictured above). Shecky’s is most known for their Girls Night Out, an event that pulls together the best of fashion, cocktails, food and fun! They also have Holiday Night Out and Getaways! Beauty Night Out is all about beauty… makeup, face, hygiene and dietary products. Even more exciting, all of the events include a HUGE Goodie Bag! The giftbag is so well-known that they call it “Shecky’s Famous Goodie Bag”. haha. The goodie bag was simply wonderful, to say the least. It’s definitely the biggest goodie bag I’ve ever received at an event. Of course, there is a price to enter, but still!
If you’re curious about Shecky’s, I say go! It was definitely worth it! (Tip: Sign up for the Shecky’s Insiders program for discounts before purchasing tickets.)
For more information, check out the Shecky’s photo gallery!

Make a Dent in the World Water Crisis!

Dear Friends,

I’m trying to help put a dent in the world water crisis and I need your help. I’ve created three projects via charity:water, each with a goal of raising $5,000, enough funds to build a water well in a community in need of clean water. I’m asking that all of my friends and family find it in their hearts to donate, as there are millions of people without the basic need of water.

I’ve made three funds to match my friends’ interests:

1.) NYU Fund: For all of my NYU friends that want to make a difference. This fund goes towards helping bring water to schools in need of it. Have some school pride and donate today at

2.) NYC Fund: For the city known for its water towers, atop every building. This fund is for all the New Yorkers who care about delivering clean water to people in need. Donate now at

3.) Erica & Weikai’s 2nd Anniversary: Today is the 2nd anniversary of dating for Weikai and me! In celebration, we’re asking all of our friends and family to find it in their hearts to donate to the millions without water. We’re lucky enough to have been born in societies with an overabundance of water. Let’s give back. Donate now at

With all of my love and best wishes for you and yours!

Why do we still wear academic regalia?

According to my favorite unofficial source, academic dress or academical dress is a traditional form of clothing for academic settings, primarily tertiary and sometimes secondary education, worn mainly by those that have been admitted to a university degree (or similar) or hold a status that entitles them to assume them (e.g. undergraduate students at certain old universities). It is also known as academicals and, in the United States, as academic regalia. I’d like to go with regalia, as I love sounding pretentious!

Above: The pickup area for NYU academic regalia.

I picked up my academic regalia a few days ago, and the matter left me wondering about how this whole tradition came about. Why are U.S. graduates still sporting gowns, caps and tassels at their commencement ceremonies? I had to get to the bottom of this.

First, let’s start with an overview of the main ingredients, compliments of I also found a great diagram. Click it to enlarge!

Robe or Gown: The three types of degrees each have a different style gown. Bachelor’s gowns have pointed sleeves, and are worn closed. Master’s gowns have oblong sleeve, open at the wrist, with the base hanging down, and rear part of the oblong cut square while the front arc cuts away. These robes have fasteners so they can be worn open or closed. Doctoral gowns have bell-shaped sleeves, also designed with fasteners so it is worn closed or opened. For the doctor’s robes also have trimmings including velvet panels down the front and three bars of velvet on the sleeves. All three gowns are usually black, though some colleges and universities use the color of the school.

Hood: Academic Hoods are black, made from the same fabric as the gown. They vary in length depending on the degree from three feet to four feet, and the doctoral hood is wider. Lined with college or university colors, they typically have one field color and one chevron color, though sometimes there are school specific variations. The edge of hoods are velvet in the color of the degree subject.

Cowl: Cowls are typically made from velveteen rather than velvet, and are used for Associate Degrees. They do not display a degree or discipline color, just the institutional colors on the lining. The outside is generally black.

Tam: Tams are typically used for Doctoral degrees, though some Master’s programs do use them. Tams are made from velvet, and usually have a ribbon over the fabric, and in black. Color variations do occur with some colleges. The number of sides vary, and can be four, six, or eight sided. eight, six, or four sides. Four sided is usually only used for Master’s degrees, while six and eight sided are used for Doctor’s degrees depending on which the University prefers. Tams are “poofed” at the top instead of flat, and come with a tassel usually in gold, with one or two buttons and sometimes in a gold bullion color.

Mortarboard or Cap: Mortarboards are flat rather than “poofy” at the top, are not made from velvet, and are also usually black but come in a variety of colors and variations are more frequent than with tams. Mortarboards have only four sides, and typically have a tassel with a single button at the top, usually in the color of the degree-granting institution.


Ok, so let’s get down to the good stuff! Why are we still wearing these garbs? Where did it all begin?

Think of the two schools in the world where you might expect such habits to have originated… If you’re thinking Oxford and Cambridge, you got it! This crazy practice all begin during the formation of Medieval universities in the late 11th and 12th centuries. These very traditional universities even have prescriptions for what students wear under the gowns. Uptight, right?

Let’s dig a little further now. How did this all come to the United States? I mean, do we always have to copy Europe?

Apparently, its history in the U.S. all begins in Colonial American days, when the first colleges were formed. The time period is coined the Colonial Colleges period and refers to the time before the American Revolution in which nine college institutions were formed. They include the present day Harvard University, The College of William and Mary, Yale University, University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University, Columbia University, Brown University, Rutgers, and Dartmouth College. Students of most colonial colleges were required to wear the “college habit” at most times – a practice that lasted until the eve of the American Civil War in many institutions of higher learning. The academic attire was highly influenced by European practices and styles.

After the civil war, academic regalia was generally worn at ceremonies or when representing the institution. There was not, however, any standardization among the meanings behind the various costumes. In 1893, an Intercollegiate Commission made up of representatives from leading institutions was created, to establish an acceptable system of academic dress. The Commission met at Columbia University in 1895 and adopted a code of academic regalia, which prescribed the cut and style and materials of the gowns, as well as determined the colors which were to represent the different fields of learning.

Random Fact: The color of purple, as seen in the NYU gowns, is actually the color code for the Law discipline. Interesting…

Now, of course, academic attire is rarely worn outside of commencement ceremonies, and that’s what makes us so balla on that special day! Happy graduation to all my NYU Class of 2009 peeps!!! Can’t wait to look awesome in academic regalia with you on May 13th at Yankee Stadium! WHAT?!!??!! Oh, yeah! That’s how we roll. CHEERS!

No Snow Day at NYU

Today is March 2, 2009. New York City is in the midst of a winter snow storm. Let’s take a look out of my dorm windows. I’m located at NYU Palladium, on East 14th Street, between 3rd and 4th Avenues. It’s definitely a winter wonderland…

NYU, my university of choice, has issued a Winter Storm Alert, saying that we could experience up to 8-12 inches of snowfall, yet all classes are scheduled to open today.

Meanwhile, there are 480 school closings in New York City on NBC New York’s website. Among some of the other closed universities in NYC today are FIT, The New School, and Pace University. Wow. And what’s the National Weather Service saying? Let’s hear a quote:


Sounds like a promising day! A bit chilly, though, so go find your honey bunny and cuddle!