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 Communications Intern Kim Szarmach.

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

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. 

Making the Money Work
Member: The Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis (St. Louis, MO)

“Please don’t make me go in,” I pleaded. Over the phone, my mom insisted. I HAD to do this; I was an adult and if I wanted to be at Loyola I needed to walk into the financial aid office and ask my questions. The financial aid office was an intimidating place—it continues to be so on most campuses. Some things don’t change.

Years later, I meet with hundreds of students annually in my role as Advising Director for The Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis. Many of our students attend Missouri colleges and receive Access Missouri, the state’s need-based scholarship program.

“SEOG is a Crucial Piece of the Financial Aid Puzzle”
Members: Northern Virginia Community College Pathway to the Baccalaureate (Annandale, VA), College Now Greater Cleveland (Cleveland, OH), WACO Foundation’s MAC Program (Waco, TX), College Forward (Austin, TX)

My student, Jennifer, has no extra money to pay for classes without receiving the Pell grant and SEOG. She works full-time to support her mother, sister, and her sister’s children. Without federal aid, Jennifer will never be able to finish her associate degree and transfer to complete her bachelor’s degree in graphic design.

No matter what federal funding my students receive, they all need it and couldn’t go to school without it.

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.

"Because of This, I Feel Prepared and Courageous About My Future"
Student: Genesis
Member: Higher Edge (New London, CT)

My name is Genesis and I am a Latina woman. I am a dyslexic, low-income, first-generation sophomore at Connecticut College. In other words, I am a person with barriers – and tools to overcome them. 

In the past, the picture painted in my mind about college was that it was a place where people went to become professionals, and it cost a lot of money – therefore, it wasn’t for everyone. However, eager to challenge my own beliefs, I knew I would go to college, despite assuming that I didn’t have the funds to do so. Luckily enough, it turns out there are numerous financial resources to find, earn, and utilize in order to pay for tuition.


“File the FAFSA – No Matter What!”
Student: Marisol
Member: Office of Student Access and Completion (Eugene, OR)

The FAFSA is the first step to accessing financial aid and succeeding in college, but it can be a challenge – especially for high school seniors.  

Take Marisol, who graduated this spring from Pendleton High School in eastern Oregon. At first, she had some complications with the FAFSA. But Marisol persisted: “I kept asking for help from my ASPIRE coordinator, Jill Gregg, until I finally got answers on how to fix this problem,” she said. “Once I got that figured out, I had to create a new FAFSA and redo all the steps I had already done.”

"You Will Feel As If You Are Free."
Student: Oscar McClain 
Member: Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance (LOSFA) (Baton Rouge, LA)

FAFSA. It’s a five-letter acronym that stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. For some students, it induces feelings of confusion and thoughts of procrastination. But it also holds the potential to open doors to their dreams. 

College sophomore Oscar McClain is one of those students. He fully realizes the effort it takes to complete the FAFSA, but is grateful for the opportunities it has awarded him.

18 and at the White House - NCAN Students at Beating the Odds
Students: Thomas Perez and Victor Rodriguez
Member: CollegeCommunityCareer (Houston, TX)

On July 19, 2016, two students from CollegeCommunityCareer in Houston, Texas, represented NCAN at the First Lady’s “Beating the Odds” Summit.

“I want people to know that it's possible to do this,” Victor said. “Growing up in a tough situation, there's so much negativity. You can't escape. The world makes it seem like it's so hard to invest in yourself. If I can do it, you can do it." 


“Students with Stories Like Mine Run the Risk of Slipping Through the System.”
Student: Joshua Sparks
Member: Kentucky College and Career Connection (Ky3C) Coalition

 Growing up, I realized that my childhood was not like those of my peers. In elementary and middle school, I delved into my classes with the hope of fitting in with all of the “good kids” and minimizing the distinction set by my family’s income. When we moved to the Eastern Kentucky region, an area where state evaluations had once placed one in five high school graduates under the category of “unsuccessful,” the path to achievement was not always clear. Coming from a family that typically made under $20,000 per year, I was well aware at an early age that I would be solely responsible for financing any college endeavors. However, while I knew I wanted to attend college, having a mother who completed only a high school diploma and a father who finished with less than that made figuring out how almost impossible.

Despite my situation as a teenager, I was lucky to discover two invaluable resources that helped pave the route to my potential success: the Upward Bound and GEAR UP programs. While these programs provided me with an outlet to explore my educational options, one of their strongest assets was the attention they gave to financial aid resources for kids like me from low-income households. Through education about the FAFSA, grant opportunities, and various other forms of funding, I was able to chart my post-secondary goals with the knowledge that there was support out there for those who have the desire to achieve but may not have the necessary income to afford it.