News: College Access & Success

"We Weren't Really Informed About College."

Friday, January 5, 2018  
Posted by: Kim Szarmach, Communications Intern
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For students underrepresented in higher education, every dollar counts when piecing together a financial aid package. And their ability to obtain those dollars and succeed in college depends on policymakers establishing a Streamlined FAFSA and approving increased, sustainable funding for need-based aid like Pell Grants and Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, as well as programs like Federal Work-Study, AmeriCorps, and Public Service Loan Forgiveness.

For Jazmin Hernandez, a senior at the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC), college was always an expectation. Her parents have encouraged her to strive for a degree since she was young.

"They've always told me 'take my example,' because my dad's a landscaper and my mom is a factory worker," she said. "They want me to have a better future and work in better conditions."

Academically, Jazmin was completely prepared to get a higher education. But the cost of college was not something she could handle on her own. She filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), but hesitated because of her parents’ legal status at the time.

"I was really stressed out because my parents didn't have social security numbers,” she said. “So I thought I wouldn't be able to fill out the FAFSA.”

Jazmin’s guidance counselor told her that wasn't a problem, but she still worried about the consequences of putting her undocumented parents' information on a federal form.

"The whole time I was thinking, 'I don't want to get my parents in trouble; I don't want anything bad to happen to them’,” she said. 

Her parents have since gained legal residency in the U.S., but other barriers remain. Each time Jazmin submits the FAFSA – every year – she is selected for verification and asked for additional information to confirm her financial situation. When it happened her sophomore year she had to request her parents' tax transcripts, which took weeks to receive and stalled the aid award process in a potentially disastrous way.

"It wasn't until I went to the financial aid office and turned in all my materials that I was able to get my award letter," she said. "But, it was so late that I wasn't able to receive grants from UIC.”

Jazmin still received her Pell Grant and a few private scholarships, but without the additional money, she was forced to take out loans.

Thankfully, she’s had support along the way. Throughout college, Jazmin has been part of Bottom Line's college success program that aims to improve retention rates for first-generation students. The staff helped Jazmin with the FAFSA and verification process each year, as well as understanding award letters. 

"I thought it would be a good idea to have that support throughout college,” she said, “because I'm the first in my family to graduate high school and go to college.”

But Jazmin also could have used help from a college access program in high school, she said, because there was only one college advisor and she never got a clear idea of all her options or how much she would have to pay out of pocket.

"I chose UIC because I thought it would be the most affordable option, even though I did want to go and live in a dorm,” she said. “I don't think I was reading my awards letters right."

Nevertheless, Jazmin has enjoyed her time at UIC and appreciates the diversity and resources on campus. After graduating, she wants to give back by helping students like her who didn't have all the resources they needed in high school.

"I want to start working at a nonprofit like Bottom Line that helps out low-income, first-generation students like myself," she said. "Coming from Little Village, Chicago, I've seen the struggle and the lack of motivation because we weren't really informed about college."