Margaret G Benedict of The Matthew Gaffney Foundation: 5 Things That Should Be Done To Improve The…

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Margaret G Benedict of The Matthew Gaffney Foundation: 5 Things That Should Be Done To Improve The US Educational System

The five areas of US education that should be prioritized are the five areas that need to be improved. I believe I answered and addressed these questions with my responses to your earlier question — “Identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement,” through the perspective that first -generation students have value and need to be given the opportunity to go to college and complete their degree.

As a part of our interview series about the things that should be done to improve the US educational system I had the pleasure to interview Margaret G. Benedict, Ph.D.

Margaret G. Benedict, Ph.D, is celebrating 15 years as the founder, and executive director of The Matthew Gaffney Foundation. She and her team have assisted 200 high achieving, economically disadvantaged students with securing scholarships and educational tools toward attending the most prestigious colleges and universities, boasting a 99% graduation rate from institutions that include Harvard, Dartmouth and Princeton. Margaret G. Benedict, Ph.D., is a professional educator who has spent over twenty years working with students at the secondary school and university levels. Holding a Ph.D. in 16th century English literature from Lehigh University, Dr. Benedict has taught college level English at several universities.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory” behind what brought you to this particular career path?

The story behind the Matthew Gaffney Foundation begins when I completed my graduate work and began teaching at a leading University outside Philadelphia. The students were intelligent and engaging. However, most students came from middle income families and were often distracted from their academics by their battle with the financial aid office. Many students had to leave because they could not pay the interest on their loans from the previous year and therefore could not continue. The university did not support these students, but they gave large scholarships to their athletes who they encouraged me to “go easy on.”

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

During this time, I was focused on giving academic papers and publishing my dissertation. I was fortunate to be asked to present at conferences in Glasgow, Copenhagen as well as literary societies in the U.S. I enjoyed my work, loved teaching, and looked forward to being published in academic journals. Eventually my research led me to discover a poem written by James 1st, the homosexual son of Mary Queen of Scots. My enthusiasm was kinetic because I had not only discovered James’ poem. Ane Metaphorical Invention of a Tragedy called Phoenix but in the same volume I found Shakespeare’s The Phoenix and the Turtle.

The similarities were extraordinarily clearly a scholar’s bonanza. For centuries scholars have struggled to identify Shakespeare’s poem. It wasn’t included in a play or his sonnet collection, so where did it belong? I proposed another paper that identified Shakespeare’s poem as a homosexual love poem and was accepted to speak at the Sixteenth Century conference in September2001.

A week before the conference, the world trade center was attacked and our lives on the East coast changed forever. We lost friends, husbands, and children, but the conference in Kansas wasn’t canceled. When I arrived, no one mentioned the terrorist attack. There wasn’t a moment of silence or prayer throughout the conference. However, we did have a lengthy debate about the use of a pronoun in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure for the new Riverside edition of Shakespeare’s compete works.

When I left the conference, I was numb; it wasn’t until my plane left the ground in Kansas City that I was able to reflect on the conference and my great expectations to be one of them, that intellectual orb known as 16th Century Scholars, faded into nothing. I realized instead that my life had been a grand and licentious experience. I needed to do more. I knew that I could not change the way universities distributed their money, but I could help students who were truly qualified go to college find the money to do so. So, I gathered a group of my friends for lunch one afternoon and asked them to sit on my Board of Directors so we could start a nonprofit now known as The Matthew Gaffney Foundation.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

The Gaffney Foundation is fortunate enough to have students who want to help us grow. Their ideas are exciting. For example, Daniela Corona, a junior at Williams College, has put together an Alumni page for our website. She is also organizing a LinkedIn for the Gaffney albums. Our plan is to have our Alumni help our college students find summer internships and even employment opportunities.

Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority in the education field?

I am an authority in education because I care about giving students the opportunity to be their best. I don’t have an advanced degree in Ed, but I have taught in elementary, secondary and college levels. I have worked with inner city schools and suburban private schools. I know how students are taught and how the school they go to can set expectations for their future.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?

My concern about the “US education system” is that 86 % of first-generation students do not graduate from college. The Gaffney Foundation has a 99% graduation rate. We need to do more to ensure the success of first-generation students.

Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?

Not really sure what part of the system is going well. I can say that the colleges who care about these first-generation students have a better graduation rate than others and that is a very good thing.

Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?

The process must begin in elementary school. A student who is now in law school at Harvard, wrote her common application essay on her elementary school teacher who said, “You are really smart, you can go to Harvard.” So, she did. The fact that this student is undocumented never stood between herself and her dreams because a teacher believed in her.

At Norwalk High School, Dr Dan Sullivan initiated a program for first-generation students to learn about the significance of taking challenging courses that will qualify them to go to college. His initiative is implemented by Gaffney and other first-generation students, because the younger students will learn from their example.

Likewise, we need to educate college counselors about the significance of college debt. They need to tell students about the schools who will cover “designated need” with grants and scholarships. An example of how good counseling can affect college outcomes begins with Veronica’s story. Veronica’s counselor told her she could not go to medical school because she was too poor. Gaffney encouraged her to apply to Franklin and Marshall College where she received a full scholarship based on her “designated need.” She graduated without any debt and was accepted to Johns Hopkins for a master’s degree program in public health. When she graduated and began working at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, her co-workers encouraged her to apply to medical school. She is now a Pediatrician at Weil Cornell. Others, particularly undocumented students, have been given the same advice. Gaffney has placed several undocumented students in colleges where they graduate with little or no debt. In fact, schools like Swarthmore College advertise that they have money for undocumented students.

The schools that offer to cover “designated need” with grants and scholarship instead of loans, have graduation rates of over 80% for 6 years, while other public and private schools have 40% and 50% graduation rates over 6 years. What isn’t in the statistics is what percentage of the students who left college have enormous debts and no degree.

When I visited Dartmouth in the fall, I had lunch with the Gaffney students who are currently enrolled. I was particularly struck by Izzie’s changed demeanor. She was smiling, had a laugh in her voice and engaged openly in conversation. When I said, “I’ve never seen you so happy,” she said, “Dr. B. every day I get up and I don’t have to worry about money.” Then I asked about the” imposter syndrome,” a common experience for first generation students who find themselves surrounded by kids who are at ease with the college experience. Izzy said that she came to campus during the summer and took courses that helped her understand what was expected from a college level course. She was also introduced to the college resources like the math and writing centers and met her mental health counselor, who is available to her 24 hours a day.

When I arrived at Williams in February, I asked the administration, “how do you retain first-generation students?” Like Dartmouth, Williams has a summer program, but they also believe in a collaborative college community where students are encouraged to tell their story and speak freely in the classroom. As a former college teacher, I did not have a formal protocol to reach out to struggling students, nor did I know which students were first-generation students. At Williams, each student is identified in the class roster and if they begin to struggle, the faculty is notified so they can work together to help the student.

The institutions who receive government money need to be more accountable for student graduation rates. The only way to address this issue is for colleges and universities to have programs that will help students assimilate in the first year and teach them how to manage debt. To that point, government should restrict funding to schools who use government money for their own gain and do not provide resources that will ensure a student’s success.

How is the US doing with regard to engaging young people in STEM? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?

For several years before Covid restrictions, Gaffney students ran an after-school program, “Science with James” at the Boys and Girls Club in Stamford. One rainy day the students were throwing things over the balcony on the staircase and James decided to change the chaos into a positive experience. He told the boys to find something to toss over the edge that they thought would get to the bottom first. So, they chose their objects. When the objects hit the floor at the same time, James told them about Galileo and his discovery that objects fall with the same acceleration. James was a huge success, and every Wednesday science came to life at the Boys and Girls Club.

Brisa took her young siblings to the park on a sunny day in early spring. When they arrived, she was surprised by the trash that had accumulated during the winter and devised a family challenge to see who could pick up the most trash. Her five-year-old sister, Maria, observed, “too many people just throw their plastic bottles on the ground instead of putting them in the trash.” Brises asked, “How can we change that?” and Maria answered, “We need to make bottles that melt away.” Maria’s idea became the subject of Brisa’s college essay. She discussed how plastic can be changed to dissolve instead of breaking down into tiny pieces.

Fortunately, for Maria, Brisa helped her with her science fair project, where Maria was credited with the idea of change and together, they resolved the issue. Science and awareness of the world around us needs to be actualized in elementary school through discussion, class trips and science fairs.

Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?

Working with these bright young women, I encourage them to think about how they want to change the world. Sounds crazy and I get strange looks from girls who are struggling to balance their roles as babysitter for siblings, while managing advance courses and community service projects. But once they realize that they will have a future, they begin to believe they can live their dreams.

Emily, who had asthma, was a long-distance swimmer. She calculated her speed while swimming by implementing the formula: distance equals rate times time. I was a swimmer in high school but can’t remember thinking about anything other than taking my next breath. Emily was intuitive, got perfect grades in all her sciences. When we talked about college, she said she wanted to study Bio medical engineering at Carnegie Mellon. We connected before and during Covid. Emily said that she was inspired by her own battle with asthma to research the possibility that cilia in the lungs could regenerate. She is now taking a year off doing research for NASA while she applies to medical school.

How is the US doing with regard to engaging girls and women in STEM subjects? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?

I think that girls have many opportunities to engage in STEM. I have listed many in my response in question 8.

If you had the power to influence or change the entire US educational infrastructure, what five things would you implement to improve and reform our education system? Can you please share a story or example for each?

The five areas of US education that should be prioritized are the five areas that need to be improved. I believe I answered and addressed these questions with my responses to your earlier question — “Identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement,” through the perspective that first -generation students have value and need to be given the opportunity to go to college and complete their degree.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My life quote, if I had one, would be from Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken”:

Two roads diverge in a wood, and I

I took the one less traveled by

And that has made all the difference.

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

No one person comes to mind, but I’d love to have a breakfast or lunch meeting with someone interested in helping us secure the longevity of our efforts and resources per The Gaffney Foundation.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Our website is!

Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

Thank you as well for the interview and the opportunity to discuss such important matters !

Margaret G Benedict of The Matthew Gaffney Foundation: 5 Things That Should Be Done To Improve The… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.