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When Mom wants you to go to college but can’t help you get there

In 2014, Stephanie Lee, a Reporter Corps participant, wrote about the complexities of applying for financial-aid as the child of an immigrant family. We recently caught up with Stephanie, who says that she started working with the Asian Youth Center upon graduating from Loyola Marymount University. She will be attending Rutgers University this fall to work on an MA in City and Regional Planning. Is she more confident in the financial aid process, compare to when she'd applied as an undergrad? "This time, the FAFSA is just another part of the process," said Lee.


Stephanie Lee in 2014.

When I submitted my college applications in the fall of 2009, I thought the hard part was over. But a few weeks later, I found myself hunched over my computer trying to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), the standard form to determine how much funding a student is eligible to receive. The document does not look that difficult; the lines of the online application clearly link to corresponding lines of the federal tax form. But I was 17, and instead of my mother helping me to fill it out, I had to try and explain the form to her.

My mom, Nancy, was born in Laos and moved to Taiwan when she was 14. In Taiwan, she met my father and studied fashion design and sewing at a vocational school. She immigrated to the United States when she was 27 with her family; my father stayed behind for a job. Since then, they have maintained a long-distance relationship. My brother and I were born in California and we only see our father a few times a year.

My mother juggled caring for my brother and me with a series of part-time jobs: caretaking for the elderly, administrative duties at a Chinese school. We never talked about it, but I always knew she assumed I would go to college—and handle all the work of getting there.

But when it was time for me to apply for financial aid, we both became frustrated. I was sitting in front of my computer at my desk in my bedroom, and I made my mother come over to help me fill out the form. She asked me to explain each item that requested her financial information, and I had a hard time finding the words in my Chinglish to explain it to her. I was applying early in the year, and she hadn’t filed her taxes yet. The form asked for the previous year’s income based on her tax return. When she could not provide me with what I needed, I became annoyed.

“Why didn’t you do this earlier if you knew I had to fill this out?” I demanded. “What am I supposed to put for this?” I was angry at her, but mostly I was really scared that if I made a mistake I would never get the money I needed to go to college.

Lee (right) at her graduation from AHS.I thought I’d have to take out $30,000 a year in loans, and filling out the forms made me feel even more nervous. I read on the Internet about people saddled with debt. I felt like the application process was a do or die situation. Those concerns only grew during the summer before college, when UC San Diego called me and told me they could not find a form I had sent—one that would complete my financial aid application. Only later did I learn forms could be corrected. With some perseverance I would get the aid I needed.

A study by the Project on Student Debt found that low-income and immigrant parents often overestimate the costs of attending college because they have so little information or experience. Often these parents didn’t go to college themselves or did so abroad in a very different system.

Low-income and immigrant parents and their children often need extra help in applying for financial aid.

In the San Gabriel Valley, where I’m from, the Alhambra Unified School District employs parent coordinators from different backgrounds who serve as liaisons between parents and the schools. They provide translation services in Spanish, Mandarin, Cantonese, and Vietnamese, help new students with enrollment, and conduct home visits with students. Once every year, they co-host the Cash for College event with Alhambra High School’s guidance office. The Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce-sponsored program runs workshops to “provide free one-on-one professional financial aid assistance to families completing the FAFSA.”

Lee's desk at UC San Diego.My mom attended the Cash for College workshop during my senior year. The workshop helped her to understand that any student — regardless of income — could find a way to attend college. She told me the workshop had interpreters in Cantonese, Mandarin, Vietnamese, and Spanish, typical of large AUSD meetings, but it was difficult for her to keep up or understand. She was told there would be another time to fill out the forms, but she also understood the students who would help her did not speak Mandarin, the language that she speaks. She figured I could do a better job.

When I spoke recently to the Cash for College parent coordinators, they told me that they serve as translators at the workshops, and help parents fill out the forms in the career counselor’s office. If my mother had that opportunity, it would have made my transition much easier. 

If I could redo the process, I would be more prepared to demand help from my high school teachers and guidance counselor. I also wish someone had told me that these financial aid forms can be corrected, and each one did not have to be perfect or my chance would be ruined. 

I just graduated from Loyola Marymount University, where I transferred after a quarter at UC San Diego. I am more cognizant than ever that financial aid—scholarships, federal and private grants, and loans—made my education possible. Without that assistance, I would not have been able to afford school. I received a scholarship and various grants from Loyola, as well as Pell Grants.  I graduated with about $5,000 in debt. 

Lee's student ID cards.I’ve realized that my friends and cousins had their parents fill out the financial aid forms in their college applications. I thought it was strange at first—but then it occurred to me  that the parents actually understood the forms and know more about their finances than their kids.

Many high school students and their parents in California need guidance on the college application process. School districts across the state should invest in programs to provide extra support over the course of a student’s senior year. The promised additional funding from the state’s new Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) could be used to create and maintain a “seasonal” program that starts at the outset of senior year, and ends after the FAFSA deadline. Guidance counselors or parent coordinators could step in to mentor a student or family once a month until FAFSA is due. 

This kind of support would have really helped me when I was applying to college. My mother still occasionally says, in Chinese, “It was not that I did not want to be involved in your college applications, I just did not expect that you wouldn’t know how to fill out the forms.”

This story was produced by USC Annenberg's Reporter Corps, which trains young adults from diverse and under-represented neighborhoods to report on their own communities, in partnership with The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University. The local news site Alhambra Source, which is also affiliated with USC, hosted the project.

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3 thoughts on “When Mom wants you to go to college but can’t help you get there”

  1. I worked at the financial Aid office at PCC for 6 years. Applying for financial Aid is not an easy process and explaining it alone to every single student was harder. I would recommend to all students to check your fafsa status a week after you apply. After you find out what college you’re going to attend for the next 2-4 years, contact the Financial Aid office right away to follow up. YOU can always estimate your parents income and make corrections later once your parents finish filing their taxes.

  2. Alas, it’s not always true that “…any student — regardless of income — could find a way to attend college.” If the parents make over a certain amount, there is little to no financial aid offered, and yet the parents don’t make enough to foot the bill and have to take out astronomical $30K+ per year loans.

    The alternative is for the student to attend a community college, but that is very disheartening to a student who worked hard and gained acceptance to highly-regarded universities.

    I am happy that the author received the aid she deserved, but the system is not equitable and it’s extremely frustrating and sad.

  3. Just think how much college would cost if there was no financial assistance or student loans.

    Something to ponder!