Personal Experience

529 college savings plan concept with graduation cap and coin

There has been a number of scenarios and experiences that I can reflect back on in regards to racial climate as a student or as an upcoming student affairs professional. As I was reflecting on what experience to share, I reflected back to my time as a student worker in an Office of Financial Aid. My time in this specific department helped me grow personally and professionally in a number of ways. I spent four years of my undergrad working for this department as a work-study student and met amazing mentors and professionals that supported and encouraged my work in this discipline. It’s through this department that I also learned about the many systematic inequalities, barriers and challenges that exist within higher education and that students face in regards to financial aid. The financial aid protocol can be intimidating for students and their families, it’s during these spaces that the tough questions are asked, how will I afford to attend college? Financial aid literacy within higher education can be an extreme barrier in the college experience and trajectory of a student.

When I enrolled into college I had no idea how to navigate financial aid, my parents never attended college and they were unable to guide me through the process. Many times, I found myself learning to teach them. I recall my parents not being too involved with the financial aid process, it was just as overwhelming for them as it was for me. My freshman year of college I accepted a subsidized and unsubsidized loan, and during this time I was clueless in regards to interest rates, and pros and cons about federal loans. When I approached the office of financial aid I was told that I needed to complete entrance counseling and a Master Promissory Note online in order for my loans to disburse and pay my outstanding bill. I could not identify a person within the department that I was comfortable speaking too and sharing my concerns with. That year, I received a couple of refund checks, with no idea where the money was coming from. I couldn’t confide in my parents because I knew they would have questions that I didn’t have the answers to.

During sophomore year I applied to a student clerical position on campus for the Office of Financial Aid and was later offered the job. It’s here where I began to learn about financial literacy in regards to financial aid. Once I was able to understand how the financial aid system functioned such as interest rates, loans, disbursement, among many other things I immediately canceled the loans that I had previously accepted and was able to make more informed decisions in regards to my financial aid. This office along with other experiences on campus changed my trajectory in higher education, and it changed the way I viewed departments such as financial aid, admissions, registrars, students accounts and orientation and the critical role they play in the student experience of first-generation college students. Last term, I remember having a moment of reflection during a class conversation in my American Higher Education History course about the importance of sense of belonging and spaces in predominantly white institutions.

I reflected back to an experience that I had encounter with a Spanish speaking family who visited the Office of Financial Aid. During my time in financial aid there was not an advisor that fluently spoke or understood Spanish, besides myself as a student worker. There were times when I was tasked with translating for Spanish speaking families who visited the office. I remember a family in particular who visited our office in order to get more clarification about the status of their students financial aid. The parent’s first language is Spanish and they were hoping they could speak with someone who also spoke Spanish and could help them understand how financial aid functioned. Typically, these types of scenarios call for an appointment and the student along with their family is set up for a same day appointment with a financial aid advisor. Due to the financial aid office not having a Spanish speaking financial aid advisor I stepped in and had the appointment with the family. As a student worker, I did not have an office space, therefore I sat in the lobby with the family and explained to them their child’s financial aid status to the best of my ability and answered their questions and concerns. While we discussed these important matters in the office lobby students and parents walked through the door and could hear almost every word. I didn’t realize it then, but now I often reflect on this experience and wonder what type of message I was giving the family by not being able to offer them a physical private space like any other family that walked in through our doors.

The office of financial aid is one of the very first departments that students and parents encounter when enrolling into post-secondary education. This department within itself can be overwhelming and a breaking point for many students and their parents. Financial literacy is something that many students struggle with, and it’s a difficult subject to understand even within the English language. I reflect back on this family and my own personal experience as a first-generation student and the impact that such departments has had on our educational journey. The institution and departments such as financial aid offices should have a responsibility and commitment to underrepresented communities. Commitment and responsibility can be expressed by hiring bilingual and bicultural staff to better serve the growing diverse demographic of students or simply offering a space. Diversity is a popular subject among administration in higher education, however the conversation usually pertains to admissions and the need to enroll more students of color from underrepresented backgrounds. However, they fail to acknowledge the efforts to support these students and their families once they have been admitted to the university. Experiences and scenarios like the one I shared can send a negative message of not belonging in these spaces, and that they don’t matter enough to be equally supported by the university.

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