What is something that surprised you about college?
Many things have surprised me about college, but nothing quite like the department called Financial Aid. I remember the first time I became aware that I would get a financial aid refund. The refund was a result of all the student loans I had accepted as well as the Pell Grant (see Karly’s commentary below for more about loans vs grants). After covering a semester’s expense, the remainder from the loans and grant is issued to you via a refund. I was in shock, and even more so once I saw it in my bank account. Some of the refund I would give to my parents to help with the household bills and the rest of the money I would keep. I would upgrade my phone, hit the sales racks at Forever 21, and did I hear someone say Sephora?! Of course, I did all this shopping after I bought my textbooks!
That was the first year, the second year I got smart. My family shared one computer at home and it was slow, so I would stay on campus late doing class work. So the second semester I got the refund, I bought a Windows Surface tablet. That was my first big investment and I still have it to this day. Refunds have also helped me travel, help my family financially and at one point helped me pay rent for a whole year.
However, in 2014 I learned how my academic standing influences my financial aid status. That year, I had some serious family issues and school did not become a priority. I slipped in some classes and failed others. Not only was this a hit to my GPA, it also was a hit to my financial aid status.
After that, I went through the process of trying to gain good standing with financial aid. It was a long process, and my family issues continued often took priority over my classes. I would take easy classes that weren’t in my degree plan to help me get the full refund for being a full-time student, but this put me behind on my degree plan and wasted time. All of this extra effort simply so I could get the max amount of refund to help myself and my family. I knew that at the rate I was going I would lose my positive financial aid standing. Looking back, I should have been a part time student, allowing me to work harder on 3 classes rather than taking 1 extra class to be full time. But all I knew then was the pressure to be a full-time student to get the money to help my family.
In 2017 I got partial financial aid but still had to pay for half of my classes that semester. During the summer I would save and save and save money to build it enough money to pay for the next semester. Once I started filing my own taxes, I qualified for a different refund and used that money to pay for school. This year, I had saved money and was able to pay for my full spring semester and am currently building my savings for my last semester in December.
At UTEP, students are also the ones who work the student financial aid center, so it was difficult to ask for guidance, or feel the repercussions of signing the paperwork just to get it over with. At the time, getting loans was a "future me's" problem. My siblings are older and had varying levels of college experience, and my father only speaks Spanish, so I had to figure out the forms and loans on my own. It wasn’t until I had messed up my standing with financial aid and saw my student debt.
If I could go back in time and change things, I would hold off getting loans and pay out pocket, since I was getting the Pell grant for most of my college career. I would warn my younger self of the importance of being wise with my money and really emphasizing the importance of saving it and building it. Invest in technology that will last you and ALWAYS BUY THE INSURANCE. I would also tell my younger self to not take filler classes. Instead, I should have been realistic for what I could handle, and stuck to my degree plan. Financial Aid will be there to help cover classes and if I did well in the classes I was supposed to be taking, I could have avoided some of the problems I faced later on with my standing. Balance your classes and your check books.
Written by Corinthia Fraire
Cory is an undergraduate at the University of Texas at El Paso. She is majoring in Health Promotion, with a minor in Community Health. In addition to her classes, Cory also works as an intern at Westfund, promoting access to reproductive health care along the US/Mexico border. She is passionate about reproductive justice and has a lit Instagram @Corysmileyface.
A final note about Financial Aid (from Karly)
Financial aid can be a confusing and often misunderstood aspect of higher education. In Cory’s post, she mentions that she got a refund (i.e., cash back) from her loans and grants. Refunds are great, but students need to be careful about where the money is coming from.
Grants are similar to scholarships, in that it is money that you are given (and don’t have to pay back). You can learn about the differences between scholarships and grants here, but grants are usually “need based”, meaning that things like your household income can affect how much money you are awarded. Many students need extra financial help outside of grants, so they turn to student loans. Student loans must be paid back (in installments or monthly payments) after you graduate. For more information, click the links below (and let us know in the comments if we should do a whole post about student loans!):