Empowering Youth Through Education

Fighting for a College Education

One student's attempt to beat the odds shines a light on the struggles many first-generation aspiring college students face in the pursuit of a degree.

By Karina Santos

For those of us working with low-income students in the college access field, we count each student who goes to college as a win.

That college acceptance letter in hand is a beacon of hope that this student will be the one to break the cycle of poverty in their home and be the first in their family to graduate from college.

In many of the impacted schools in which we serve students, most college counselors don’t have the privilege of following a student through this college journey. This happens because as one class of students graduates and anxiously awaits their future, a new class of seniors rises and covets the undivided attention of this overworked counselor.

This is one student’s story - the story of what happened after she accepted her seat on that college campus, and beat the odds by graduating from high school as a single parent.

We had the privilege of working with this student, helping her fill out her college applications while pregnant and helping her complete her Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) with a car seat next to her. By anyone’s standards, this student was a success the minute she graduated from Manual Arts High School and entered California State University, Northridge with a good financial aid package.

A Year Filled with Challenges

One of the best parts of my job is having the opportunity to follow these students and continue supporting them once their Fulfillment Fund college counselor passes me the baton.

For Stephanie, the first year of college came with many challenges ranging from a two-hour commute from home to campus, to not feeling academically prepared for the rigors of college life. Time management is difficult for the typical college student but when you add responsibilities of supporting an infant daughter and having to care for a younger brother, the yield is very often disastrous.

Stephanie was placed in academic probation after her first semester and was dismissed from CSUN after her second semester. Looking back, Stephanie will tell you that at that time, her study skills and work habits lacked discipline and she didn’t seek help when she needed it.

Too many students enter college similarly unprepared for all the changes ahead. How many students have been in Stephanie’s situation where they are dismissed from an institution which confirms their thoughts that perhaps they don’t belong there? How many of those students never return? Stephanie could have been one of those students. Anyone would empathize with her situation and understand the "why" to her departure.

However, Stephanie had the Fulfillment Fund, and many of us kept in touch to help her stay true to her goals. Upon being dismissed from CSUN, Stephanie was asked to take four courses at community college so she would be allowed to return to the university. The task was easier said than done. Math became her gatekeeper. It took Stephanie three tries to pass that math class but with each try, her study skills improved and her desire to return to CSUN was heightened. 

"I Will Continue to Fight"

Her grades went from D's and F's to A's and B's and she completed the required classes within three years. She proceeded to reapply to CSUN last year and was readmitted.

After making all of the necessary adjustments in her life to ensure her success-arranging for daycare close to campus, finding student housing in Northridge, and securing reliable transportation-Stephanie found out that she would not receive financial aid because the admissions policy was separate from the financial aid policy. This meant she had reached yet another roadblock on her path to success. When a student is denied financial aid, they are also unable to take out student loans. The financial aid office at Cal State universities has to abide by the Satisfactory Academic Progress Policy which indicates that a student must have an 80% pass rate to be considered for financial aid. Although Stephanie now had a 3.5 GPA at Southwest Community College and was passing every single class, the policy indicated that she must have an 80% pass rate for courses taken at CSUN. The admissions office forbade Stephanie from returning to CSUN until she passed all of her courses and reapplied for admissions.

And so, here we are today waiting for a decision from the financial aid office’s appeals committee. This decision would determine whether Stephanie can continue to cling to that beacon of hope that she has preserved for the past five years, or if she joins the masses of students who have fallen victim to the dark hole that exists between these two policies that impede certain students from making it out.

“It’s been a rough path, but regardless of all the obstacles I have faced or all the doors that have shut in front of me, I will continue to fight until I can’t anymore,” Stephanie says.

To be continued....

Karina Santos is associate director of the Fulfillment Fund's scholarship program.