Applying for financial aid as a first-gen student can be more frightening than you know

Even before we entered our senior year, we were told hundreds of things we’re going to encounter and have to accomplish to gain acceptance to our dream school.

One of the most important things I was told was to complete FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, as soon as it was available. I had heard from countless adults and peers that it was the first step to getting any kind of financial aid for college. Knowing that my family alone would not be able to pay for my college education, I made it a priority to apply for everything that I could to relieve the weight on my parents’ shoulders.

Unfortunately, there was one major thing no one ever told me that I and many other children of undocumented immigrants would have to face.

I didn’t realize until my senior year that all the paperwork I would be required to fill out would ask for not only my social security number, but my parents’ nonexistent social security numbers as well.

After reality set in, a wave of anxiety flushed over me as I tried to figure out how I was going to pay for college. I was afraid of filing things in wrong that could get my parents in trouble. It was a whole new level of stress on top of everything I already had to worry about in my last year of high school.

As a participant in the College Track program, I was privileged enough to have a scheduled time where I could go in with my family and get help finishing the FAFSA application. When I arrived I was nervous to have to explain my situation to yet another person.

And then I was embarrassed that my family and I struggled to make sense of what each question was asking. Seeing others finish the application before us as I continued raising my hand each time my parents couldn’t understand the English words on the computer screen brought out all of my frustrations.

Eventually, after what seemed like hours, we were able to finish the lengthy application. But, a panic still raided my thoughts as I wondered if I was putting my whole family in danger by sending off my FAFSA.

As I started to receive my college acceptance letters, I felt more and more like maybe I had a chance at getting a higher education. I was taking in all my glory and felt like I was getting somewhere until all of that hope and ambition was quickly torn down once again. From almost every school I applied to I continued receiving emails telling me there was still another verification process I would have to go through to make sure my FAFSA was valid. This entailed having to send forms such as a CSS Profile, W-2 reports, tax return transcripts, and too many other school forms to remember.

That anxiety I had pushed down was creeping back into my body, and a flood of questions crammed into my brain. After already working so hard throughout the course of the year I felt defeated, reading once again that I had to prove my worth to schools to receive financial aid. It was exhausting having to get all the documents together that my family has never even heard of before.

Not only does this affect thousands of children with undocumented parents, it also affects students from low-income backgrounds and first-generation college students.

Based on my own experience I now understand why the rate at which many first generation students end up going to college is so low. So many of us just give up the idea of going to college knowing we won’t be able to receive financial aid without certain documents. It is time our government changes the way it provides financial aid for college students. We have to talk more openly about the gritty roadblocks that come up for so many students in their senior year. And we have to do it well before students’ last year of high school begins.

Navigating these challenges is the reality for thousands of students and it shouldn’t be taboo to talk about it often and early. I don’t want to have to feel embarrassed anymore for not being the typical upper-class American family that lives and breathes higher education.

I know that coming from a first-generation, undocumented family, everything I do after this point is going to be ten times harder and I will have to persevere more than those around me to be able to compete and survive. My struggle has proved to me that there are millions of students across the country going through the same thing worries I did and I’m here to let them know they aren’t alone.

Don’t let the system break you. There will always be a way to achieve your aspirations no matter where you come from.

Jessica Rangel is a student a Rangeview High School in Aurora. She is a reporter for the Rangeview Raider Review where a longer version of this post first appeared.


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