Top of the Class: ‘I was fortunate to qualify for need-based aid’

  • Concord High School Class of 2009 valedictorian Jennie Sadler went to Smith College and lives in Vermont. Courtesy

For the Monitor
Published: 9/2/2019 10:00:16 PM

Jennie Sadler remembers her parents selling their home to help pay for her older sister’s college tuition.

That, along with a costly surgery to remove her gallbladder and watching her parents struggle with money at times during her childhood made an impression on Sadler that shaped some of the biggest decisions of her life – including giving up a dream of becoming a singer/songwriter.

“Dad was working two jobs to support the both of us,” she said. “He’s told me that he had to borrow money from friends to prevent us from being homeless, at one point. He tried to make sure I wasn’t aware of that.

“He definitely encouraged financial security as a goal as well over that time,” she continued, “and actively discouraged the singer/songwriter approach. He more encouraged the go-to-college and get a good-paying-job kind of approach.”

Sadler’s father also took on most of the debt associated with her room and board from her schooling at Smith College. Sadler said that support – more than her ease at academics – was the key factor in her success. It’s something she sometimes struggles with.

“I know so many people who were not so fortunate – people who were badgered to pursue higher education, but held entirely accountable to foot the bill,” Salder said. “It’s a blessing to have someone who believes in you, who invests in you, but so then you have a dollar amount placed on your life, and with that comes such a responsibility, and so many chances to squander it and disappoint.”

Like most valedictorians the Monitor interviewed for “Top of the Class,” Sadler said money was a critical factor in where she went to school and the career she chose.

Students have been facing college costs that are rising far above the rate of inflation, as competition and pressure to get a four-year degree rising. Since the late 1990s, total costs have tripled at many schools.

At home, the trend has been even more extreme as New Hampshire spends the least amount per student for higher education among all states and its students graduate with the highest average debt.

Costs at UNH, the state’s flagship public university nearly doubled in a single decade, going from $10,413 in 1998 to $19,238 in 2008. In-state costs increased another $10,000 in the decade since then.

While some valedictorians said they had outside factors helping them to pay for school, like parents or trust funds, almost all of them said they sought colleges that would give them the most financial aid possible.

Of the 19 valedictorians interviewed, the majority said the amount of aid they received allowed them to graduate with what they perceived as significantly less debt than other classmates.

Sadler said her relationship to college and money was complicated growing up.

Originally from Weare, Sadler said she moved to Concord in eighth grade. She welcomed the change and the chance to compete on a bigger playing field.

“As a successful student, Weare was kind of a small town for me,” she said. “It got to the point where if I answered a question incorrectly, people would call me out.”

As a student, Sadler said she struggled to commit to anything she wasn’t passionate about. She didn’t pursue accolades like the National Honor Society, something she said she easily would have qualified for.

Her parents worked a variety of jobs, and money was tight in high school when her parents had split and Sadler was living with her father in Concord. Despite that, her father gave her the space to explore and grow up.

“He really cared about my autonomy. He didn’t pressure me to contribute,” Sadler said. “He wanted me to have my time. He was very selfless. He took a lot onto himself and gave me a lot of space to just be a kid, and I’m grateful for that.”

She applied to as few colleges as possible, knowing she only wanted to go to Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, because of its beautiful campus and a math program she appreciated.

The school also covered her tuition completely. Sadler said she felt self-conscious about the amount of aid she received.

“If I didn’t get the financial aid, and I got into Smith, it would have been a much harder decision to commit and go,” she said.

While it was hard to watch her sister study acting at New York University and follow her passions, Sadler said she wasn’t comfortable taking on a large amount of debt.

“It’s weird to say it like this, but I think I was fortunate to qualify for need-based aid,” she said. “Like it was a moderate financial struggle growing up with my dad but at the same time I was able to come out college without a lot of student loans because I qualified for need-based aid,” she said.

Things got more complicated when Sadler was diagnosed with liver disease when she was 18. That instilled a strong desire to have access to good healthcare.

That drive to feel secure also steered Sadler away from becoming a math teacher, a career she had become attracted to during high school that she said is “hugely underpaid.”

Instead, she decided to double major in computer science and math after taking a course her freshman year. That eventually led to Sadler taking an internship and eventually a job with Amazon after college – a choice she said felt like “straying from my spiritual compass.”

She lived in Seattle with her husband, then her boyfriend at the time, for two years until they moved to Boston to be closer to his family.

Eventually, she found her way to another job as a systems engineer for Bandcamp, a music company that offers streaming and digital distribution to artists.

It’s not being a singer, but Bandcamp’s model of supporting artists spoke to Sadler. They also let her work remotely, which she said was important to her – she and her husband now live in Newfane, Vermont, after she said they got burned out on cities.

They like the woods, Sadler said, and the space allows her husband to do woodworking.

They’re happy – but Sadler said she feels like she strove to play it safe with her post-high-school decisions. Sometimes she’s disappointed with herself for that choice.

“But I think that’s a normal thing that a lot of people can relate to because, you know, growing up in our generation there was a lot of shooting for the stars encouragement and like maximizing your potential,” she said. “Which was especially intimidating to me, because I felt like I had a large potential landscape.”

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