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It’s College Application and FAFSA Time

Practical advice couched in a personal story of resilience and determination.

  • Some students, especially in underrepresented areas might not know they qualify to get into a community college or state university, or they do but don’t know how to afford it.
  • The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is essential to fill out regardless of income because various awards may be offered.
  • Various awards may consist of money that doesn’t need to be paid back like grants, work-study, and scholarships, or repayment loans.

“Mr. Oatsvall, I need help.” I rapped on my school counselor’s door. His freshly shaven face peeked out. 

“I don’t have time,” he replied. I was 15 and pregnant with an unbalanced drug-addled mother and no father. I had no one to tell and nowhere to go. In two months, I would be living on the streets, homeless and shattered.

“Can I make an appointment, please? I need to talk.”

“No, I won’t have time for you.” He shut the door two inches from my face. It was college application time; streams of seniors with college on their minds regularly winded in and out of his office.

I crumbled into tears, my heart beating faster. Flooded with desperation, I shot down the bright orange hall, out the front doors, ditching yet another class. 

My grades suffered because I had little guidance in a predominantly wealthy school, on par with Beverly Hills High. My single mother was a hairdresser, and I was a free-lunch kid who never really fit in. 

I wanted to do something in life, be different from my mother. So, in 1990, I figured out how to get into Grossmont Community College and fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

After four years, working two and often three jobs, I transferred through the Transfer Agreement Guarantee (TAG) program to San Diego State University as an English Composition major. TAG allows community college students guaranteed acceptance as transfer students to several Universities of California and all California State Universities after completing two years of a specific list of courses. I took a little longer.

Financial aid awarded me a federal work-study job as a college peer advisor in a high school. Federal work-study is a flexible part-time job on or off-campus for undergraduate, graduate, and professional students that doesn’t have to be paid back. I was positioned to work in SDSU’s Educational Opportunity Programs and Ethnic Affairs (EOP), and they placed me with California Student Opportunity and Access Program (CAL-SOAP). Because of my adverse experience in high school, I requested a San Diego school with the most underrepresented students. 

My placement was Crawford High School, primarily (over 90%) African American and Somali refugee students. Helicopters regularly buzzed the building while students at lunch doing nothing wrong were shoved to the curb by aggressive police.

I pulled every junior and senior out of class to discuss college options. If they had no plan or their grades weren’t the best, they filled out a FAFSA and a free application to community college like I had.

In a crisp white t-shirt, a senior named Anthony slumped in his chair in front of me, worried at first that he was called from class to be harassed.

“Hi, I’m Vanessa. I asked you here to tell me what your plans are after high school?”

He straightened up and shrugged, chewing on the end of a pencil.

“No plans? So, is the plan to hang out and eat Fruit Loops and watch TV?”

Anthony giggled. “Why not! Sounds good to me.”

“Me too. But really, did you know you can be accepted to any community college if you have a high-school diploma or are age 18? Did you know it’s free to apply? All you need to do is fill out this scantron application with me right now. It just takes a few minutes.”

“Yeah, well, we don’t have a lot of money, so I can’t go to school,” He spoke humbly, a little embarrassed.

“Guess what? We can work on a FAFSA, another free application that once processed could cover all or most of your school expenses and give you a job as I have now, and some extra money for living expenses.” 

“Whaaaa?” He asked, leaning in, puzzled, mouth open.

“Yeah, here’s the thing. I can’t tell you how much you’ll get or if you’ll get anything, but you won’t know that until this gets filled out and submitted by the deadline.”

The struggle with having students fill out the paper version of the FAFSA was parents’ understandable resistance to providing required tax information. Parents often distrusted the government, sharing social security numbers, and didn’t want their kids to know their income. Now, parents can submit their information online separately without sharing information with their children. 

Back in the 90s, though, we had FAFSA night. We’d fill a single classroom with parents, standing room only, to educate them on the importance of filling out the FAFSA by the deadline and how to do it. They were all asked to bring tax and income information to fill it out with us on that evening.

As I did with every student, I told Anthony about TAG.

“I’ll fill out whatever you have. Can’t hurt, right?” Anthony was excited. He had no idea he had an opportunity to go to college. 

If students had a university or state school in mind, we worked on admissions essays, applications, and community college applications as a fallback—no matter what, every student was guaranteed a spot at a community college or university.

Some students didn’t even know they qualified to get into SDSU, or they knew they did but didn’t know about the FAFSA.

“Hey! Look what I got!” A Crawford student ran up to me on the SDSU campus, holding brimming bags of bookstore goodies. “This? Books! I would never have these if you hadn’t helped me with my essay and my family with the FAFSA. Thank you!” Elated, he hugged me.

I had helped him reach the stars.

After four years at SDSU, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was mature in many ways but emotionally immature. I struggled to process what she had gone through and ultimately dropped out with two classes left. It would be ten years and the birth of two sons before completing those courses and a subsequent master’s degree in Educational Psychology. 

My goals were clear. I wanted to be there for students and my sons who would someday need the kind of college guidance I didn’t have. No student should go into the academic world unarmed with the knowledge I could provide to keep them from slipping through the cracks. 

As a psychology professor with first-year students, I set aside class time to discuss goals and navigate school and questions about transferring. When two students privately voiced concern about losing jobs, I took the whole class on a field trip to the career center. After class, I helped them with transfer admission essays and FAFSAs. I tied it into motivation, goal setting, and self-actualization units.

Simultaneously, I was a peer advisor in the Educational Studies doctoral program at Eastern Michigan University. I counseled colleagues on how to stay motivated and engaged with the program. I edited doctoral manuscripts and worked as an associate editor for the Journal Educational Studies.

Now that my son has been accepted to UCSD’s neuroscience program and my 16-year-old has completed 30 college credits while attending high school (for free!), I’m committed to assisting more students to reach their potential.

As the college application season is upon us, parents and students feel the pressure of writing essays and filling out FAFSAs. For those who believe it’s impossible, it’s not. Not all states offer TAG, but all states have an affordable community college system that prepares students to transfer to a four-year university (students complete two years at community college and two years at university). This can save families tens of thousands of dollars.

If it’s still not affordable, that’s why the FAFSA exists. It’s the only way to be offered Grants (free money that doesn’t have to be paid back), loans (both parent and student loans, which do not have to be accepted although they are frequently offered and repayment begins six months after graduation), certain scholarships (free money), and federal work-study (defined in paragraph 8). It’s impossible to know what the award may be unless the FAFSA is submitted. The worst-case scenario is that there is no free money award, but loans are often offered. 

It might not be too late to apply for awards for the current school year. To find individual state FAFSA deadlines for the 2021/2022 school year, click here.

Regardless of income, no matter how high or how low, fill out the FAFSA every year!

If I can guide potential college students and parents by writing this post, then that’s all I can ask to help reach my stars and goals.

Image by: MabelAmber/Pixabay