Our Students

The following stories from students served by NCAN members demonstrate that for those who are 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.

Are you an NCAN member with a student whose story needs sharing? Contact Karen Lopez.

"My parents came here with a purpose, and that was for me to continue on to do greater things."
Student: Omida Shahab
Member: The Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis (St. Louis)

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.”

"College was my end goal, but I did not anticipate the many obstacles I would face getting there."
Student: Dorothy Nolan
Member: College Possible (St. Paul, MN)

While in high school, Dorothy Nolan participated in College Possible’s program to support college-bound high schoolers. The organization provided her with coaching on all aspects of the processes to apply for college and financial aid. She attended after-school sessions on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA; the steps of the FAFSA verification process; and scholarship and college applications.

This past school year, as Dorothy was filling out her FAFSA and college applications, a coach gave her individual support with the verification process after she was flagged. FAFSA verification is an audit-like review process in which the office of Federal Student Aid requires some financial aid applicants to submit additional materials to prove that the information contained in their FAFSA is accurate. This process can be difficult for students to navigate – as outlined in NCAN's recent white paper on verification – even if they have help, like Dorothy did.

Colleges requested that Dorothy provide a Verification of Non-filing Letter to prove she does not file taxes as well as W-2s and tax transcripts from her parents. However, Dorothy lives with her mother who is on disability and does not file taxes. They participate in the SNAP program, through which the government verifies all of their income information.

"Changes need to be made, and it starts here."
Student: Nikki Tylosky
Member: College Now Greater Cleveland (Cleveland)

Nikki Tylosky faced no shortage of obstacles in obtaining financial aid to attend the University of Akron, where she was accepted and hoped to enroll. However, the university’s on-campus housing requirement coupled with additional expenses, such as textbooks, made her school of choice financially unattainable.

Instead, Nikki began her higher education journey at Cuyahoga Community College.

Despite receiving no financial support from her family, Nikki was still required to report familial income on the FAFSA. The expected family contribution that is calculated using FAFSA data demonstrates ability to pay rather than willingness to pay.

Nikki was deemed ineligible for the Pell Grant due to the roughly $22,000 she earns annually and her mother’s income.

“I Feared [College] was Something I Wouldn't Get to Do”
Student: Elisa DeLong
Member: Emporia Community Foundation (Emporia, KS)

For Elisa DeLong, college was never a question. She knew she would continue her education after high school. However, after her parents’ divorce, finances became even tighter for the family.

“I was worried. I had always wanted to go to college, but I feared it was something I wouldn’t get to do,” Elisa said. “And I have three other siblings. My parents can’t just give me all their money to go to college. So there’s been a big push for scholarships and push for as much financial assistance as I can get.”

Elisa’s high school guidance office spread the word about the Emporia Community Foundation (ECF). When she and her mom heard about the organization, and saw it was only 20 miles away from their house, they both agreed it was something Elisa should sign up for. Through ECF, Elisa benefited from the Brown Family College Access Endowment Fund, which covered the cost of the college courses she was taking in high school.

“It’s So Much Harder to Get Anywhere in Life Without a Degree”
Student: Matisse Lepre
Member: Woodward Hines Education Foundation (Jackson, MS)

Originally, Matisse Lepre and her parents lived in Florida, during which time they experienced three different hurricanes and the damage that ensued. They eventually moved to Mississippi, where – only three weeks after they moved into the new house they had just built – Hurricane Katrina destroyed it. The damage of these storms has caused Matisse and her parents to experience significant financial insecurity.  

Both struggling financially and lacking a bachelor’s degree, Matisse’s parents urged her to get one. “My parents always told me I had to go to college,” she said, “because it’s so much harder to get anywhere in life without a degree.”

"I Wanted to Change this Chain of Poverty and Drug Abuse"
Student: Ronald Moreno
Member: Reality Changers (San Diego)

Ronald Moreno, a high school senior at The Preuss School at University of California San Diego, never had a place to call home. In the 8th grade, his family got evicted from their apartment because of unpaid bills. They were homeless, had no other relatives to stay with and ultimately nowhere to go, so they ended up staying in a motel. With the financial strains weighing solely on his mother, Ronald started to work to provide additional income. His grades began to drop as he struggled to balance his newfound role as a financial provider with his academic life at the college-prep charter school.

“I just wanted my mom to be happy,” Ronald said.

San Diego-based NCAN member Reality Changers (RC) would fill that void, as a support team and at times even providing Ronald with financial assistance to pay for rent and food.

"It Does Take a Village"
Student: Alexiea Feaster 
Member: OneGoal (Chicago, IL)

Alexiea Feaster knew from the moment she entered high school that she would attend college, despite coming from a low-income background in Chicago.

"College was always on my mind,” she told NCAN. “I said, 'I'm gonna work my way out of Englewood, I'm gonna go to college, I'm gonna become a doctor, and then I'm gonna come back to Englewood to serve the community that helped raise me.’ Because it does take a village, and I think my community has been a big part of me growing."

After years of hard work and dedication, Alexiea is making strides toward achieving her academic and professional goals. In the fall she will attend Xavier University in New Orleans, as a biology major on a pre-med track. Alexiea knew financial aid would be essential to her access to a postsecondary education. But as a first-generation college student, Alexiea could not look to her parents for experienced assistance or advice on the financial aid process.

"It's Free Money That They're Giving You."
Student: Jocelyn Salinas 
Member: CollegeTracks (Bethesda, MD)

Jocelyn Salinas wanted to go to college because her parents never had the same opportunity. They moved to Maryland from El Salvador when they were young and had to get jobs right away to support themselves and their family members back home. 

"They have motivated me to go to college because I know that they had to sacrifice their education to come here," Jocelyn said.

But while Jocelyn was always clear on her goal of obtaining a higher education, she wasn't sure how she would be able to pay for one. 

"At first I didn’t think [college] was [possible] because I'm the first in my family to go," Jocelyn said. "I didn't really see it happening and I didn't think we would be financially capable of paying for it."

"It's Not Just The Scholarship."
Student: Jose Jimenez 
Member: 10,000 Degrees (San Rafael, CA) 

When Jose Jimenez was in high school, he knew he needed to go to college but had no idea how to get there. His parents emigrated from Mexico to Marin County, CA, where he grew up and his family still lives today. Although neither of his parents received any education beyond elementary school, they made sure he understood its importance. They didn't want him to have to work as hard as they did to take care of their family. 

"I've seen how [my dad] hustles in order to make sure we have the money to have food on our plates," Jose said. "That keeps motivating me all the time." 

In Jose’s junior year of high school, a client of his dad's landscaping company told Jose about a program called 10,000 Degrees that could give him the guidance he needed to get into college. But Jose was not interested. He wasn't used to getting help academically, and so didn't expect much from the college access program.  

"Through my academic career I had always been denied support," he said, "whether it was tutoring or applying for college."

"Limited Means Do Not Equal Limited Dreams"
Student: Estephany Garcia Ramirez
Member: College Success Arizona (Phoenix, AZ)

Estephany Garcia Ramirez is pursuing her lifelong dream of becoming an Emergency Room Nurse.

“In my family there was a very terrible accident and they (nurses) were the ones that were rushing to save their lives, and to me, that was my first definition of a hero," Estephany says. "I just carry a lot of sentiment for the dedication that nurses have for their jobs, and the importance of their jobs. It’s just a part of me that I’ve always known that I want to help other people around me. Even if it’s just putting on a band aid or providing the band aid, I already feel like I’m accomplishing something of great magnitude in that day. I’ve always wanted to be a nurse, because when I was younger, I would walk into their offices feeling some type of hurt in me, but when I left, even if I was still sick – just the way they treated me, their care, and their patience, made me feel a hundred times better. That’s when I decided that I wanted to provide the same feeling to others.”

"Education is Important, and if You Want to Pursue it, You Should Be Able to."
Student: Giselle Gonzalez
Member: CollegeTracks (Bethesda, MD)

Giselle Gonzalez has made the most out of college since she enrolled in 2015. At her school, McDaniel College, she's become an active member of the Hispanic Latino Alliance, joined a club that teaches English to non-English speakers around the community, and spent a semester studying abroad in Argentina.

"College has helped me grow as a person," Giselle said. "I learned a lot, not just through studying abroad but being here and being able to pursue what I want to do."

Part of the reason Giselle has been so involved on her campus is because she knows she has an opportunity that many people will never get. She has seen friends be forced to end their pursuit of higher education without a degree because of the rising cost of college tuition. In fact, between 2015 and 2016, 3.9 million Americans dropped out of college and wound up with student loan debt.

"I Didn't Know How Much Help I Needed to Get to College"
Student: Tony Ismalaj
Member: CollegeTracks (Bethesda, MD)

Senior year of high school wasn't easy for Tony Ismalaj. For one thing, he had just moved from Albania with his family and barely knew enough English to get by.

"When I came to the U.S. I couldn't even have a conversation,” he said. "It was depressing the first two years. But, I gave myself two options — one, I can sit here and cry. Or two, I can learn the language."

Tony stuck with option two. He spent hours locked in his bedroom Google-Translating history lessons word by word until he understood. A year and a half later, he was fluent.

But hard work isn't the only thing that got Tony through senior year. When the Washington, D.C.-area college access and success program CollegeTracks came to his school, he signed up to be matched with a coach who would help him apply to college and stay on top of his work once he got in.

"We Weren't Really Informed About College."
Student: Jazmin Harnandez
Member: Bottom Line (Boston, MA)

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.”

"Filling out the FAFSA Was the Greatest Thing I Could Ever Do."
Student: Camryn Pollard
Member: College Now Greater Cleveland (Cleveland, OH)

Camryn Pollard wanted to become an FBI agent ever since he started watching Law & Order as a kid. He knew he would need a college degree to pursue his dream, but before he found out about the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), he didn't know how he would be able to afford it.

"My mom is a single mother, so how is she going to pay $59,000 a year for me to go to school?" he said. "When I heard about the FAFSA, I was like, ‘let’s get this filled out real quick.' Filling out the FAFSA was the greatest thing I could ever do."

Camryn learned about the FAFSA from NCAN member College Now Greater Cleveland, whose staff came to his high school and helped students apply for college and financial aid.

"They helped me understand that life after earning a degree would be so much easier," he said.

"Financial Aid Enabled Me to Have a College Experience"
Student: Candace Chambers
Member: Woodward Hines Education Foundation (Jackson, MS)

When Candace Chambers was in high school, the Woodward Hines Education Foundation showed her how to access the financial aid she needed and deserved. She filled out and filed her Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and was awarded enough money to attend Jackson State University at no cost to her or her family. 

Candace stated that it probably would not have been possible for her to attend college without financial aid, unless she was willing to take on a large amount of student loan debt.

"Financial aid enabled me to have a college experience without having to worry about financial burden,” she said. “Without it, I probably wouldn't have been able to complete college in four years.”

Financial Aid: "the Lifeline for What I'm Doing"
Student: Samps Taylor
Member: Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance (LOSFA) (Baton Rouge, LA)

Samps Taylor's future was unclear until he found the tuba.

"When I was in high school I didn't really participate in a lot of extracurriculars," Samps said. "I kind of just came to school, did what I had to do, and then left. In 10th grade I was looking for something to do so I thought, 'What about band?'"

Playing music became not only a hobby for Samps, but a potential career. After facing lots of discouragement from people who said majoring in performance arts would never lead to a job, Samps met a coordinator and mentor at the Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance (LOSFA) who told him otherwise.

"Most of the time people tend not to major in music because they think they can't make a career out of it," Samps said. "But really it depends on you and the amount of work you want to put in. That's why when I told [my mentor] I wanted to major in music, he wasn't one of the people who told me, 'That's probably not a good idea.' He actually supported me." 

"Coming in, I Was More Prepared Than a Lot of the Other Students."
Student: Gilberto Ramirez
Member: Appalachian State University (Boone, NC)

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.  

"I Have the Potential to do Something Great in the Future."
Student: Umesh Bhandari
Member: Scholarship America (Minneapolis, MN)

Umesh Bhandari lost his father, Shree Parsad Bhandari when he was 1 year old. Umesh's family lived in Nepal, but his father worked in India. One day on Shree Parsad's way to work, he collapsed and became unconscious. He didn't receive help for two hours before he was finally sent to the hospital. But because he didn't have enough money, he didn't receive proper care and passed away.

"That will always stick with me," Umesh said. "What if there had been a better [medical] community, what if there were more helpful people, not just focusing on the money? That’s what drives me to be in the medical field. I want to become a psychiatrist and open my own clinic one day so I can help people."

Now Umesh is a sophomore at the University of Texas at Arlington, earning his Bachelor’s of Science in nursing. He originally wanted to study psychology, but felt that a nursing degree would allow him to get a job right after college and support his single mom and two siblings.

"I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the scholarships."
Student: Abigail Luna
Member: Appalachian State University (Boone, NC)

As she grew up, college was always a topic of conversation in Abigail Luna's house. Her parents, both immigrants, wanted her to have the opportunity to achieve a higher education, because they were never able to.

"My parents have always inspired me to be a good student and eventually attend college," she said. "I guess that’s always something I wanted to do in my life.” But when it came time to apply, Abigail realized she would need financial help through federal student aid to make her family's dream come true. 

The Long Last Miles to College – The Chronicle of Higher Education
Students: Ramon Alfaro and Marisol Perez
Member: Academic Success Program (ASP) Dallas (Dallas, TX)

Two months after graduation, they had come for one last meeting with their college counselor, one last chance to ask questions, one last dash of reassurance. They all planned to leave Dallas for other towns, other states: the unknown of college. But even then, not everyone knew if they were really going.

The road to college is long, and the last miles can prove especially difficult. Between committing to go and move-in day, many challenges keep low-income and first-generation students, especially those who lack helpful guides, from reaching their chosen campuses. Recent research on "summer melt" found that 20 to 30 percent of low-income graduates of urban school districts who had been accepted by — and planned to attend — four-year colleges didn’t end up enrolling anywhere.

From afar, the problem might seem as simple as a lack of will, a case of cold feet. But watch students’ lives unfold up close, and you’ll see a mesh of circumstances as complex as the students themselves. Here, just south of downtown Dallas, parental expectations yanked Mr. Alfaro, a dancer, this way and that. Red tape entangled Ms. Perez, an undocumented immigrant who loves math. For both, worries about money, always, loomed over everything. 

“It seems like every semester [the cost of college] goes up a little bit more"
Student: Darius Spurlock
Member: Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance (LOSFA) (Baton Rouge, LA)

When Darius Spurlock was a freshman in high school he saw his name posted on a list of students whose GPAs were too low to allow them to attend an upcoming field trip. 

“My name on the list was large and it was in red print," Darius said. "Once I saw at the top that these were the students who couldn’t participate, it kind of made my heart sink. I had to make up my mind … this was going to be the last time my name was on that list.”

Darius never forgot his promise to stay off that list, and he graduated high school with a 3.89 GPA. He's now in his junior year at Louisiana State University studying Chemistry and Secondary Education. But it wasn't just hard work and determination that got Darius to where he is today.

Federal Work-Study “Allowed Me to Graduate Debt-Free”
Students: Emily and Hannah
Members: American Student Assistance (Boston, MA), College Forward (Austin, TX)

I have a student, Emily (name changed), who due to significant medical issues resulting from childhood leukemia has had to transfer schools and programs multiple times. She has essentially exhausted her federal student loan benefits and has about 10 percent left on her lifetime Pell Grant eligibility limit. Emily has 10 classes left to finish her bachelor’s degree.

Federal Work-Study and SEOG are the few financial aid programs that Emily might benefit from. The only way she can work is if she is on campus, as work-study jobs tend to have more flexibility than traditional jobs, and her hospitalizations would not be cause for firing. She still has one semester left of partial Pell eligibility, which also grants her SEOG eligibility. These, along with state funds, might allow her to finish her degree.

These College Grads Relied on Programs Trump Would Cut
Students: Vanessa Ferrer, Houa Lor, and Fushia-Ann Hoover
Member: College Possible (Saint Paul, MN)

Both of my parents work two jobs. They make less than $25,000 a year. My dad has a high school diploma and my mom has completed elementary-level English language classes. It was their dream for me to go to college.

I almost didn’t make it. I had a very low GPA when I applied to join College Possible, but the coaches at Central High School took a chance on me. I came very, close to falling through the cracks.

How One DACA Student Pushed Through to Pay it Forward
Student: Maria Baaz
Member: TheDream.US (Arlington, VA)

Children in America are raised to believe that if they work hard and apply themselves, they can achieve anything they set their minds to – including going to college. However, there is a group of children for whom college is a near impossibility – no matter how hard they work. These students are called DREAMers. They are immigrants who came to this country as children, have grown up here, and consider this country to be their home. Like many of their peers, they have big dreams for their futures. 

Unfortunately, at the age of 18, these DREAMers are considered to be unauthorized immigrants. They have no path to become a citizen – no matter how hard they work, no matter how talented they are, no matter that this is the only country they have ever known. It is often at this age when these students learn that their status prevents them from accessing any federal financial aid, student loans, or scholarships to help them afford college. It is at this age that the doors of opportunity close. 

This is the story of Maria Baaz. Maria came to the U.S. at the young age of 10 with her family. Like other immigrant families, her family came seeking better opportunities for their children. As Maria’s mother often reminded her, “We came to the United States because we want you to be someone in life.” 

Why a Streamlined FAFSA Could Cut the Red Tape to College Aid
Students: Carlos, Bryce, and Sydney
Members: Davidson College Advising Corps (Chapel Hill, NC), ACCESS College Foundation (Norfolk, VA), Public Education Foundation (Chattanooga, TN)

A first-generation North Carolina student, Carlos says he wouldn’t have been able to attend college without it. It helped Sydney – 96% of whose high school classmates were eligible for free- or reduced-price lunch – attend her dream private college in Georgia. And after it opened Bryce’s eyes to all the ways he could finance a postsecondary education, it nearly yanked the rug out from under him. 

Filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid is an essential process for most prospective college students; 85 percent of four-year students receive financial aid, and those who complete the FAFSA are 63 percent more likely to enroll. But the form also poses barriers that can make or break a postsecondary education, as Bryce’s story demonstrates.