Help raise $2700 to ensure that our high school grads who are accepted to college can continue to attend. Join us! Demolish barriers!
At the end of August, Erica (name changed) calls me crying. She and her family are on campus, van full of her possessions, ready to move her into her dorm so she can start her freshman year of college. However, although Pell grants cover her entire tuition, the college wants a $700 housing payment before they’ll give her the key to her room. Her family doesn’t have that kind of money. They stand paralyzed outside, watching as around them other families unload cars and carry in comforters, mini fridges, lamps and clothes.
“I don’t know what to do,” Erica whispers into the phone.
And 200 miles away, I fear we’ve finally reached the point where I can offer no more help.
For the past year I worked with Erica as she applied to college. Despite all the rhetoric about sending every student to college, the process remains labyrinthine. For young people without a comprehensive support system, the challenge of applying is often daunting enough that they give up.
Here’s an example of how routine actions become ordeals:
Erica needed to send her high school transcripts to the places she was applying. She had taken a gap year after graduating, so she had to make a special trip back to the counselor’s office. When she arrived at her high school the security guard informed her that since she was no longer a student, she wasn’t allowed in the building until after school got out at 3pm. She couldn’t wait until 3; her job started then.
The next week she took off work and made it to school at 4pm. At the front desk, the receptionist apologized. Sorry, the counselor wasn’t in the office. He left at 3pm, when school got out.
The next week she showed up at exactly at 3pm. The receptionist checked her list. “Sorry, your counselor doesn’t work here anymore. He was transferred to another school.” Did she know which school he had gone to? “No, we don’t keep those records.”
The fourth time Erica traveled to the school, another counselor found her records. Each transcript copy cost $6.00. She was applying to four schools. She pulled out her wallet and began to count bills.
This represents only a tiny portion of the process. There were also the FAFSA, essay writing, getting recommendations, completing housing and financial aid forms. Each step was plagued with similarly absurd setbacks. Every week Erica and I sat down and confronted the challenges that had reared up since our last meeting. The setbacks were endless and concrete, the triumphs were mostly marked by high fives and hugs from me. At every point in the journey, she had plenty of reasons to give up.
But she didn’t. In her personal statement, Erica wrote:
“After my sister passed my whole demeanor changed. I used to smile all the time; now I became more violent. I waited for arguments to happen so I could fight. I missed a lot of days of school because I couldn’t focus at all. When I finally came back to school my grades were really low. I stayed after school and I got help from my teachers to bring up my grades. I graduated on time and plan on continuing my future at college. My past has made me a very motivated student. I want to make my sister proud of me, so I’m determine to get the job done.”
Erica has always been low-key about the struggles in her past. She doesn’t complain and she doesn’t use them as excuses. She just keeps moving forward.
And now, at the last moment, one final obstacle. There’s literally a single locked door between Erica and her life as a college student. After me, she calls Nancy Schwalb, the Workshop’s executive director. Nancy’s known Erica since she was ten. She’s seen her whole journey. And now, when she is so, so close. Nancy connects her to one of our Board members, who steps up and puts the $700 on a credit card. They unlock the door.
A week later I get a text from Erica. It’s a picture of an essay with “90%” scrawled on the top in red ink. “My first A,” the message reads.
Every year we send several students off to college. They always qualify for the highest amount of aid available, but there are many hidden costs to the application process. It is Workshop policy to cover as much of these costs as we can. We know our students, we love them and have walked the journey with them.
Now we share their stories with you, hoping that you will be moved as we are. We hope to raise $2700 in the next month. This will cover Erica’s housing payment and establish a fund to pay the application costs of future students. Join us, and these phenomenal young people, to make sure that nothing keeps college out of reach.
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