Presidential Profile: Justin Onwenu, Rice University

In December 2017, Rice University's Student Body President Justin Onwenu led a national campaign against scholarship displacement, a practice in which institutions reduce financial aid awards by the amount of a student’s scholarship so they may redistribute the funds to other students. Maryland was the first state to outlaw this practice, preventing the state’s public colleges from cutting students’ financial aid package. We spoke to Justin on how this issue was brought to his attention, and why now is the time to be engaged in higher education policy.


NCLC: You led a national campaign against scholarship displacement. Why is this topic so important to you?

Justin Onwenu: This was something that I was made aware of when coming to college. I had family members, parents, and grandparents, telling me to look into private scholarships. I got Pell Grants, but there were still a lot of gaps that needed to be filled from a funding perspective. I was talking to students who were already in college and something they brought up was that there was no point in searching for scholarships. They said, “if you received a private scholarship from a company, your school is just going to be notified of that and they're going to deduct the funding that they were going to give you.” So no matter how much support you got from outside organizations, your school would not make pay the same amount of funding that they would have otherwise.


NCLC: How did you become involved with advocating for this movement?

JO: When I realized this wasn’t just a problem at my school or something students anecdotally have heard of. This is actually a policy problem. That's when I ended up writing an article about this issue, which was later published by the New York Times. It was really exciting!

I had students reaching out to me saying they didn't know this was something every student knew about, but they also expressed not having an opportunity to address it.


NCLC: How were you able to get the story published?

JO: I think people got the impression that I called the New York Times asking for a favor, but it really was just grunt work, emailing and calling day after day. I sent the article that summer and because there was something new coming out of the government every week, it kept getting pushed back. The New York Times has a higher ed section, so I reached out to the editor every week. She would say "call me next week,” so I would call next week.


NCLC: What are some of the challenges that you’ve faced when getting your message across?

JO: The challenge has been higher education as a whole. There are a lot of issues regarding DACA, plus there's a lot of talk about tuition-free college, loan restructuring and discharging, and sexual assault policy. It's very good that people are talking about higher education policy right now but that makes it a lot more difficult when touching on very specific policies. The big challenge is trying to make sure people know about this policy and ensuring people know this is something we should advocate for in the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

For my campus, the largest challenge has been to make sure people are thinking outside of themselves and advocating for people outside of the community.


NCLC: You were on Capitol Hill recently talking about this issue with members of Congress. How was your experience?  

JO: That was my first visit on the Hill. It was informative, in terms of learning how slow everything moves.There are so many congressmen and senators, and each person has a different agenda. My biggest takeaway is that showing up is half the battle. Going to the office and speaking to a staffer brings new levels of engagement that says to lawmakers "this is something that is important and needs support."


NCLC: Did you experience any challenges during your visit to the Hill?

JO: As a novice, it was hard to tell which staffers were just nodding along and which ones really believed in our efforts. Overall, making a change in any form is a lot harder than people think it will be, but also a lot easier. I think it was it was a lot easier to get involved, but it's the first step on a very long road.

I think another main take away is that lawmakers work for us. Most times, we view lawmakers as inaccessible but they are paid by taxpayers. That person you are going to talk to represents you and your district. That alone made me more comfortable in challenging the status quo and also being able to say there's a policy that is unfair and undermines public-private cooperation.


NCLC: What do you hope to see in the future for scholarship affordability?

JO: I think there is an opportunity to make substantial improvements through policy. I'm hoping that students become less cynical and become more involved in higher education policy. The main focus right now is trying to find that go-to member of Congress or Senator that will push hard for scholarship reform and an amendment on the reauthorization for a scholarship displacement ban.


NCLC: What tips do you have for other student leaders interested in doing this work?

JO: I don't think there's been a better time to be a student leader who is engaged on a policy level. Things are picking up and we're gaining momentum in terms of how strong of a force students can be for creating change.

Check out Justin’s op-ed in the New York Times, "The Catch-22 of Applying for Private Scholarships" here.

Photos provided courtesy of Justin Onwenu.

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