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Becoming a first generation college student: Before one mentor, I never thought about college. Here’s how I learned how to pay for it.

This article is a series of articles by Edward Quiñones, where he shares his personal stories and educational information in English and in Spanish. This is an article about the importance of FAFSA and federal aid for college students. 

I never knew that college was an option for me. It always seemed so farfetched, and even if i was able to attend, I knew my family could never afford it. 

My tales about college began by way of a gentleman named Greg Johnson. Greg was an affluent white man who lived in Colorado Springs, but spent much of his time near Northwest Denver for work. Greg would volunteer a few hours every Tuesday evening to help me with homework and academics. We would eat dinner together. We sang and prayed together. He would share his stories, take my friends, siblings and I on trips to the zoo or out to dinner. He inspired me to be the best version of myself. Greg worked with Wiz Kidz, a faith-based organization that strived to mentor youth in metro Denver and keep us away from trouble. I owe a lot to Wiz Kidz. I owe a lot to Greg. 

Greg was also the first person to ever talk to me about college. I was in elementary school, and he knew I loved sports. I was really interested in one popular basketball pro at the time, Grant Hill and the Detroit Pistons. I remember wearing out the turquoise Grant Hill jersey my uncle bought me at the Westminster Mall. Grant Hill attended Duke University, so one day, Greg and I were on a couch waiting for my turn to play Oregon Trail on the computer. He asked me “where do you want to go to college?” I said. “College? Um, I don’t know? Duke? That’s where Grant Hill played. Greg’s response was “Wow! Duke University huh. That’s a great school. If you want to go to Duke, you can do it!” 

We didn’t talk about college again. In fact I didn’t see Greg or anyone at WIz Kidz much after as I stopped being part of the program after elementary school. However, the summer of seventh grade, my mom purchased a home for us in Northglenn, and Greg somehow tracked us down. I remember he came to my house and visited and I tried to show off the 4 bedroom, 2 bath ranch style home as if it were a mansion. A far cry from the 2 bedroom 1 bath duplex he would pick me up from. Greg decided to take me on a trip to Boulder and watch my first ever CU Buffs football game. I was so excited. I experienced college that Saturday and I started to believe that this could actually be for me. 

In high school I was on my own. Thornton High School however had a program for kids like myself who could earn college credit being part of a pilot program where we are compensated for attending college courses at Front Range Community College. So my friends and I did. Here I started to hear the term FAFSA alot. 

Later on, I met Jessica. Jessica and I worked at Target together. She attended Metro State College of Denver and while I was in high school, she was the first person ever to place a college application in my hands. I filled it out and she dropped it off for me. I was accepted.

Then came the question of how will I pay for college? Jessica said I would need my mom’s tax forms to apply for FAFSA. So I asked my mom for that and began the tedious and long process of going through the FAFSA website obtaining a pin for myself and for my mom and so on.

Nobody in my family had ever gone to college so this process was completely unknown to me. I’m sure that if my parents had gone to college, I would have received more support and guidance, but instead I felt like I had to take initiative and figure it out on my own, and even guide my own mother through the process. I never had any assistance from a guidance counselor at my high school. I never had a staff member from my high school approach me and offer to help me with my FAFSA form. In college, it was the same story. The only counseling I received was an initial session to select classes first semester freshman year. Then I was on my own.  

After providing my own income, employment, and tax information, I provided my mom’s tax information as well. I was awarded the Governor’s Opportunity Scholarship and Pell Grant. 

According to the Colorado Commision on Higher Education: 

“Governor’s Opportunity Scholarships are provided to “first-time freshmen with significant financial need.” This is determined by using the Free Application for Student Aid (FAFSA), and most of these students come from families with incomes of less than $27,800. Recipients of GOS can attend community colleges, vocational schools, and various public and private four-year Colorado institutions.

Students are often the first in their families to attend higher education. Recipients receive both academic and financial assistance for 2 or 4 years depending on the type of degree or certificate program in which the student enrolls. Institutions also provided academic support systems, which include tutoring, study groups, academic counseling, and peer mentoring to ensure student retention and academic performance.

Financial assistance is renewed as long as the student maintains academic eligibility at the institution, enrolls full-time, and continues to meet the institution’s policy regarding satisfactory academic progress for hours completed. Each institution offers a self-help component of work-study and excludes loans from the student’s financial aid package. The students are tracked throughout their postsecondary career to determine the effect of the GOS and to measure the academic performance and retention rates.”

Unlike the Governor’s Opportunity Scholarship which is provided by the State of Colorado, a Pell Grant is a “ federally funded  program that  provides need-based grants to low-income undergraduate and certain postbaccalaureate students to promote access to postsecondary education.”

According to Federal Student Aid, an Office of The US Department of Education,

“Students may use their grants at any one of approximately 5,400 participating postsecondary institutions. Grant amounts are dependent on: the student’s expected family contribution (EFC) (see below); the cost of attendance (as determined by the institution); the student’s enrollment status (full-time or part-time); and whether the student attends for a full academic year or less.

Students may not receive Federal Pell Grant funds from more than one school at a time. 

Financial need is determined by the U.S. Department of Education using a standard formula, established by Congress, to evaluate the financial information reported on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and to determine the family EFC. The fundamental elements in this standard formula are the student’s income (and assets if the student is independent), the parents’ income and assets (if the student is dependent), the family’s household size, and the number of family members (excluding parents) attending postsecondary institutions. The EFC is the sum of: (1) a percentage of net income (remaining income after subtracting allowances for basic living expenses and taxes) and (2) a percentage of net assets (assets remaining after subtracting an asset protection allowance). Different assessment rates and allowances are used for dependent students, independent students without dependents, and independent students with dependents. After filing a FAFSA, the student receives a Student Aid Report (SAR), or the institution receives an Institutional Student Information Record (ISIR), which notifies the student if he or she is eligible for a Federal Pell Grant and provides the student’s EFC.” 

Learning everything about the financial aid process was a tedious and huge undertaking. Like my uncles always told me “ If it was easy, everybody would do it.” Thankfully, I took the initiative to find a way and figure things out, even if it meant doing it on my own, and when I finally did,  it opened a huge window of possibilities. For one, if it wasn’t for me diving into the financial aid process, I wouldnt of earned my bachelor’s degree from Metro, which led me to obtain not a job, but a career in education. I am proud to be the first person in my entire family (cousins, uncles, etc. included) to earn a college degree. If it wasn’t for my tenacity and perseverance, I wouldn’t stand before you having purchased two properties before the age of 28, having enough financial stability to provide for my 5 year-old son. Lastly, filling out FAFSA has led me to live a fulfilling life working in a field where I know I am making a difference. 

Here are some additional resources about filling out the FAFSA, in English and Spanish: