The Bottom Line
A healthy financial aid program answers this challenge. Obviously, the more financial aid there is to award, the larger the population who can benefit, and that fits Deerfield’s mission. “Deerfield goes to bat for a student that we think will be a good fit for the school,” Gimbel says. But the second, more subtle answer to the challenge lies in the fabric of the student body. Rob Hale is correct: Deerfield offers an education second to none, with dedicated, impressive faculty and top-notch facilities. But Pat Gimbel is also right: You can, in many middle-class communities, get an excellent education down the street at your local public school. What you will not find at those schools is a student body that hails from literally around the globe, from backgrounds as disparate as the crown prince of a Middle Eastern country to the youngest child of six from a family in the Bronx.
Or maybe an African-American child of a single mom from a small town in northern Vermont, like Ashley Laporte. Ironically, at Deerfield Ashley was exposed to more, not fewer, people who looked like her. “I had a unique experience as one of the only black students in my community in Vermont,” she says. There was an ever-present feeling of being . . . “just different.” Lily-white prep school stereotypes notwithstanding, Deerfield was an oasis of inclusion for Ashley. “I got to experience diversity at Deerfield. Of course I noticed there were students who shared my race, but it was also about being exposed to people who weren’t from the same kinds of places,” she says. Pat Gimbel underscores Ashley’s impressions. “We attract students from all over the world: inner-city kids, rural kids, suburban kids, kids from places that don’t know what a private school or independent school even really is.”
In a list of priorities that includes traits like intelligence, personality, and athletic grace, money falls right down to the bottom.
Let’s go back to that question we posed at the start: Who here is paying full freight, and who receives aid? Very few people on campus know the answer to that question for sure. Subsidized students do not participate in a special work program; they are not expected to compensate for their aid awards. Expectations of students do not change based on the level of their tuition payments. In fact, “The year after students graduate, we destroy their financial aid records,” says Bonanno. This is not to say, however, that students don’t make their own educated guesses. Even when they’re subtle, after all, social cues are strong. “I’d be lying if I said there was no sense of the haves and have-nots,” Ashley admits. “When you’re living with people, some things are hard to hide. You’re buying things for your dorm room, all your clothes, all your athletic gear.”
That being said, in some ways, even asking this question misses a crucial point. Having and not having? These questions may matter in the larger world. But one of the luckiest things about spending four years at Deerfield is that here, no one really cares who has what. “We’re in the middle of corn fields!” points out Ashley. “I learned during my first weekends at the school that social events did not revolve around money. In fact, most of them relied on being savvy in the Salvation Army so that you could find a sequined shirt to wear at the famous DeNunzio Disco!” In a list of priorities that includes traits like intelligence, personality, and athletic grace, money falls right down to the bottom. “Everyone appreciated the diversity of the student body. I think if you ask most people at Deerfield why they loved it, they might say classes were great or the sports were great, but most would say the people.”
And that’s the heart of it: When money is not an obstacle, Deerfield can pull together the most interesting and diverse group of students possible, which affects everyone on campus. If, as Pat Gimbel said, every student is subsidized, then the flip side of that coin is that each student benefits from every financial aid award. Some benefit directly, and indeed, some wouldn’t be at the school otherwise. But those students who have never had to fill out a financial aid application are benefiting just as surely as the direct recipients.
When money is not an obstacle, Deerfield can pull together the most interesting and diverse group of students possible, which affects everyone on campus. If every student is subsidized, then the flip side of that coin is that each student benefits from every financial aid award.
How does someone from northern Vermont develop a meaningful friendship with someone from southern California, at age 15 or 16? Unless they come to a place like Deerfield, it’s probably not going to happen. But it is during these formative years, before specific interests and, let’s face it, specific biases have had a chance to develop, when one is most open to new experiences and gaining empathy for other people’s challenges. There’s the spirited classroom discourse at ten o’clock in the morning, yes, but it goes beyond that. It’s also the spontaneous interactions that happen while putting on athletic gear at 3:30 in the afternoon. It’s the eye-opening discussions during dinner with nine other adolescents at a sit-down meal. It’s the impromptu, pajama-clad debates in the common room late at night. These are the times when kids talk freely about issues from their own countries, from their own backgrounds. And these conversations just can’t happen without a financial aid program that brings together a wide and varied group of people at such a young age.
Ashley Laporte puts it in more personal terms. “All of us, privileged or not, were learning to grow up. For every student from the inner city learning to live in the country and in an entirely different social scene, there was another student learning from their peers about what life outside of the bubble of privilege was like. We were all constantly forced out of our comfort zones on a daily basis.” A shared common purpose has a way of transcending all that. Rob Hale puts it this way: “The school has a way of making everyone equal, because people are saluted for their accomplishments—athletic, academic, whatever the case may be.” Even people with wildly different backgrounds—ethnically, geographically, racially, and yes, economically—can prove to be of like mind.••
Naomi Shulman’s work has appeared in a number of publications, including Wondertime, Whole Living, and FamilyFun. She lives in Northampton, MA, with her husband and two daughters.