For students underrepresented in higher education like Omida, whose story appears below, every dollar counts when piecing together a financial aid package. NCAN calls on policymakers to simplify the FAFSA and strengthen Pell Grants and the Federal Work-Study program. For more information, check out our complete federal policy recommendations.
As the child of immigrants, Omida Shahab never questioned whether college was a part of her future. She knew the sacrifices her parents were making for her and wanted to take advantage of opportunities that they were never afforded.
“I often thought about how my parents came here with a purpose, and that was for me to continue on to do greater things,” the first-generation student said. “So going into high school I was very determined that college was definitely my next step. I made sure that not only did I get good grades, but I also did everything that would be best for a college applicant.”
Omida is currently in her senior year at St. Louis University (SLU) and looks forward to graduating with her degree in magnetic resonance imaging. But it’s been a long road. While Omida succeeded in high school, she was unaware of the “very difficult” process to come. When she began applying for college, she realized there was much to learn.
“I didn’t have anyone in my family who I could reach out to about the process. I had questions like ‘what do I look for when I apply to a college?’ and ‘which college is best suitable for me?’” Omida recalled. “I’m very grateful because we had a great college counselor at my high school. [Desiree] was very crucial to me navigating the whole process, even me doing something like the FAFSA. I had no idea how to fill it out or what information I needed to provide.”
Desiree helped Omida apply for many scholarships – “I had to make sure that there was little to no cost coming out of my pocket while I was attending school,” she says – and introduced her to The Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis. There, an adviser helped Omida decipher her financial aid award letter from the school she had chosen to attend.
“She helped me understand the financial aid package even more,” Omida said. “When I first saw the SLU financial aid package I was panicked by things like the price of books, and she said, ‘No, this is just an estimated cost’.”
Despite Omida’s tremendous efforts to pay for higher education without borrowing loans, she encountered some hurdles.
“The first mistake I made being a first-generation student was not realizing that a lot of my scholarships were non-renewable,” she said.
After a year of her college costs being fully covered, Omida lost a lot of her scholarships in her second year. The result was a gap between her financial aid and the cost of attendance, so she had to take out a loan – an interest-free one from The Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis.
“I highly doubt I would be where I am now without them,” she said. “And SLU was also very generous and extended an extra grant.”
Still, Omida struggled in the transition to college and getting used to the rigor of the coursework. Her first semester proved to be a significant challenge and left Omida feeling defeated, like college – which she thought would be easy – was not the place for her. So she looked to the foundation, which always made her feel comfortable and supported, for help. “I can’t do this,” she told her adviser Teresa Steinkamp and others at the foundation.
“I was at a point where I was ready to drop out,” Omida said. “But they supported me and mentally prepared me, saying, ‘No, you can do this, and you of course have our support.’”
Another adviser at the foundation, Robert Elam, provided Omida the logistical help she needed to get back on her feet after that difficult first semester.
“He sat down with me and helped me make an academic plan in order for me to graduate,” Omida said. “But he also directed me to the [advising and tutors] SLU had for me that I didn’t know about because no one in my family had gone to college.”
Before and throughout her time at college, Omida has found judgement-free help and support whenever she turned to the foundation.
“Emotionally, they are there for me,” Omida said. “I can’t count how many times I’ve been able to go to the Scholarship Foundation and say I need help, and never feeling embarrassed or ashamed.”