Op-Ed | Don’t let financial aid nightmare destroy your dreams

Close up of federal financial aid application
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When I started high school in Brooklyn, my parents who had immigrated to New York City from Hong Kong were very clear: You are going to college.

When the time finally came for me to select a college, my biggest challenge was applying for federal financial aid. As the first in my family to go to college, I didn’t have someone who completed the process before as a guide.

Filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, the FAFSA form, was daunting. I was new to a lot of these tax-related terms, and while my father understood financial concepts well in his native Chinese, it was hard for him to grasp many of the terms in English.

As a student at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, part of the City University of New York (CUNY), the FAFSA form definitely became easier to complete every year. I also understood the importance of helping others as they navigated the process in high school. 

So I became a College and Career Bridge for All coach, joining a team of students from CUNY who were paid to serve as peer mentors for high school seniors in New York City Public Schools. I was able to help students as they made plans for their next steps after graduation. For those considering college, this meant showing them what paperwork they needed to complete and helping them apply for financial aid. 

When I speak to the students, many of them are worried. They want to be successful, and those who are applying to college see this as their opportunity to do so. But they are navigating an unfamiliar process, unsure of if they will even be able to afford a higher education and understanding the burden student loans can have. With these concerns, many of my students list financial aid as the deciding factor in whether going to college makes sense for them.

When the changes to the FAFSA were announced last year, I was excited. A simplified system sounded like just what we needed to help students. Instead, it was more complicated. 

The form was not consistently available when it first launched, already three months later than usual. Many people encountered glitches, while others had to learn new terms. Students nationwide are anxious and many are still uncertain about their aid. 

I know these delays are frustrating, as I have also been helping my brother, a college freshman, complete his FAFSA. But last year, New Yorkers left over $200 million in financial aid on the table from not completing the form. That’s not what we do; we persevere in the face of challenges. My college education has already done so much for me, and the students I am helping deserve to have that same experience.

Sunny Kwong is a recent graduate of John Jay College of Criminal Justice who is a coach on the City University of New York Financial Aid Support Team.