For college students Dulce Segura and Nancy Zuniga, access to financial aid is nothing short of life-changing. Both grew up in Immokalee, Florida, and aspired to be the first in their families to pursue college degrees. Participation in Guadalupe Center’s Tutor Corps, a program that pairs high schoolers with younger students for paid tutoring, and in turn supports college preparation and access, connected Dulce and Nancy with a support system that would reinforce the value of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, better known as FAFSA. Each has eagerly, purposefully created their own pathways for success, starting with a belief in the importance of financial aid.
Dulce, who arrived in the United States as an infant with her parents, embodies persistence and wisdom. As the eldest of 6 siblings, in a household that moves frequently throughout the year for her parents’ agricultural work, Dulce was determined, and empowered by her supportive parents, to set a standard of achievement. She says, “As a first generation, and oldest sibling, you have to set an example you can reach your dreams no matter what comes. If you try your best you can make it through.”
While COVID-19 disrupted her plans to an extent, eliminating the senior year milestones she was looking forward to, and requiring remote participation in her first year of college, Dulce is set to graduate from Florida SouthWestern State College in the spring of 2022 with an associate’s degree in nursing. She is currently applying to area universities to complete her bachelor’s in nursing. Dulce plans to first nurse in a hospital setting before transitioning to a clinic or office practice. In addition to her passion for healthcare, Dulce wishes to open a cosmetology business, both serving clients and educating her own students.
Nancy is in her sophomore year at Arcadia University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where she is studying special and early education, and plans to earn her minor in Spanish. With a big smile, she credits Guadalupe Center with encouraging her, and her fellow Tutor Corps students, to fill out the FAFSA as early as possible, emphasizing that the sooner you do it in the school year after the October 1 opening date, the better chance you have to receive the maximum amount of scholarship and financial aid.
In fact, Nancy is grateful that the FAFSA and access to Pell Grants and other scholarship are paying fully for her education at Arcadia. While Nancy always had an interest in education, and always wished to be a teacher, it was having the opportunity to apply for financial aid that made a difference in becoming the first in her family to go to college to follow her career goals. In thinking about the FAFSA, Nancy comments, “I love FAFSA! I’m glad it exists.” While saying that at first she found it stressful or somewhat overwhelming, she was confident in the help she had to finish her submission, and strongly believes, “The reward after filling it out – getting the grant – is worth the application process. You have nothing to lose in filling out an application. The process can be time-consuming, but if you have the documents you need it doesn’t take that long.”
Financial Aid Helps
Both Dulce and Nancy comment that financial aid can help with more than tuition. Dulce mentions transportation as a particular cost she has confronted in getting to and from campus. Nancy points out that college comes with fees you may not always be aware of at the start. Both young women encourage other students to do whatever they can to apply for financial aid. Resources like those offered through the Guadalupe Center, completion events hosted by Collier County Public Schools and through organizations like Champions For Learning, are free and available to students regardless of where they are in the application process. Dulce reinforces the value of getting the right support, saying, “When it comes to not understanding, you should always look for help.”
Jorge Perez is the Director of College Tutor Corps at Guadalupe Center. Many of the students he works with come to the FAFSA feeling intimidated, unsure they will qualify, unsure about the information they need to fill it out, and unsure about their futures or plans. He says they talk with students about how important it is, saying FAFSA is about, “setting yourself up for the option, for the opportunity.” They ask students and their families to come in, and help first with setting up FSA IDs before turning to the FAFSA itself. Jorge says of the students he works with, “In their minds, it will take days, weeks. With help, it’s not that hard, really.”
In Florida, there are initiatives to help more students finish FAFSA and attend school beyond high school to receive a certificate, credential, or degree, in order to reach career goals. The Florida College Access Network collaborates with Future Ready Collier and other local and regional groups to incentivize students to finish their FAFSA through their Cash for College program, and overall support them practically and emotionally through what can be a challenging transition, especially over the last couple years with the impact of the pandemic. College and career training is closely correlated with better lifetime earnings, and pursuing financial aid is the clearest path for most students to get the education they dream of.
Nancy says, now that she’s done the FAFSA a couple times, she thinks she would be able to do it on her own, but is also glad to know she can always ask a teacher or someone at Guadalupe Center for help. In Dulce’s opinion, having to fill out the application can feel hard, but the opportunities she has gotten from having financial aid are worth it. She says, “It takes off a lot of stress. College is expensive, but when you have the FAFSA it helps a lot. Anything is possible.”
Written by Caroline Ridgway of C1B1 Communications