"Coming in, I Was More Prepared Than a Lot of the Other Students."

October 26, 2017

By Kim Szarmach, Communications Intern

For students underrepresented in higher educationevery 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-StudyAmeriCorps, and Public Service Loan Forgiveness. 

Math has always been a piece of cake for Gilberto Ramirez, a freshman at Appalachian State University studying actuarial science. He took demanding classes like Statistics and AP Calculus during high school, but nothing challenged him as much as filling out the FAFSA. 

“It was quite stressful for me because of the lack of my parents’ understanding of English," Gilberto, whose family is of Guatemalan descent, said. "They didn’t understand it so in the end I had to go and do it all."

Gilberto will stop at nothing to achieve his dream of earning a degree. He got the financial information he needed from his parents, and slowly learned how to fill out the FAFSA all by himself. He ended up receiving a federal Pell Grant and some scholarship money from his state, North Carolina, and is so far able to attend college debt-free.  

Without the aid he is receiving, it would be a lot harder for Gilberto to go to Appalachian State.

"I would have had to take out loans and I probably would have had to apply for a lot more scholarships," he said. "The chances would have gone down a lot because my parents wouldn’t have been able to pay the $19,000 a year.” 

Now that he's received the aid he needs to finance his higher education, freshman year has been smooth sailing for Gilberto. 

He had participated in the Upward Bound program at Appalachian State throughout high school. For two summers, he took courses that would prepare him for college on the university's campus. He also got to tour colleges and universities all over the country. 

“With the help of Upward Bound it hasn’t been hard for me to transition because I’ve already been away from home," Gilberto said. "I felt like coming in, I was more prepared than a lot of the other students.”

Aside from taking a full course load, Gilberto is a member of Appalachian State's soccer team and has a part-time Federal Work-Study job as an administrative assistant for the director of the Student Learning Center at his school. 

Gilberto is currently studying for the exams he must take to put his math skills to use as an actuary. He says there are six exams available and he wants to pass two of them before he graduates. You can typically get an actuarial position after passing the first two or three exams, but Gilberto wants to do them all.

"My goal would be to get a job with an insurance company or work for the government as an actuary and keep going with my exams until I have no more to pass,” he said.

The determination Gilberto has applied to becoming an actuary matches his approach to most everything in life. 

“I’ve grown very independent," he said. "I never had my parents to help me with my homework, growing up. I took it on by myself and I did it. It’s not their fault, it’s just the way that it is.”

But Gilberto acknowledges that ambition alone is not enough to help other students like him achieve similar outcomes. He thinks that more resources should be available for parents who do not speak English as a first language, so their children can have an easier time applying to college and for financial aid.

“I feel like there’s not enough Spanish-speaking people to explain the college application process to parents of first-generation students," Gilberto said. "Because I think if they knew more about that kind of stuff, they would be more willing to help.”

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