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Teaching your immigrant parents how to apply to college

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When I submitted my college applications, 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 document does not look that difficult; the lines on the online application clearly link to the corresponding lines of federal tax form. But I was 17, and I was showing my mom how to do it.

Stephanie Lee

Stephanie Lee

With family roots in China, my mom was born in Laos, and immigrated to the United States when she was 27. Like many immigrant parents, she juggled caring for my brother and me with a series of part-time jobs. She never attended college, and though she expected me to go to college, she trusted me to do whatever needed to be done to get myself there. So when it was time to apply for financial aid, we both became frustrated when I asked about her finances and assets.

Not only had we never had conversations about money, her limited English and my “Chinglish” made it impossible for me to translate the applications.

My situation was not unique. My friends, most of whom had immigrant parents, faced the same challenge of having to figure out FAFSA on their own.

A study by the Project on Student Debt found that low-income and minority parents often overestimate the costs of attending college due to a “lack of adequate knowledge.” Furthermore, it suggests that 60 percent of parents who make less than $50,000 a year say they need more information about paying for college. On the other hand, only 37 percent of families who bring in more than $75,000 annually reported the same problem. For immigrants and their children, accessing financial aid is affected by other factors like language barriers and lack of awareness. But, having resources to help in applying for financial aid has been shown to make crucial differences.

In the city of Alhambra, California where I’m from, more than half of all adults were born in other countries. At the Alhambra Unified School District (AUSD), with a student population of 18,000, 53 percent are Asian and 40 percent are Hispanic. In addition to this, the Education Development Center reports that “one-third of students are non-English speaking, and more than half of the students are not U.S. citizens. One fourth of students arrived in the U.S. less than three years ago.”

Student Voices

What I would do with more money for California schools

This essay is part of a collaboration between The Hechinger Report and USC Annenberg’s Reporter Corps, which trains young adults from diverse and under-represented neighborhoods to report on their own communities. Students from Alhambra, California — a predominantly immigrant Los Angeles suburb — wrote about how they’d spend a new influx of funding for the state’s schools.

Victoria Hong, the parent leadership coordinator of Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Los Angeles, a legal and civil rights organization for Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders, says that immigrant families often have misconceptions about college.

“College is often stereotyped as something that’s very expensive,” Hong said. “Speaking from my own experiences with my parents, who were also low-income immigrants, they didn’t have an awareness of what was available to make college affordable. [There are] misconceptions about loans, stigma behind taking out loans, how to pay them back, and if you can pay them back.”

AAAJ – LA works with communities in the San Gabriel Valley, often in conjunction with AUSD parent coordinators Josephine Wong, Lien Luu, and Nelly Chong. For most of the year, the parent coordinators serve as liaisons between parents and the schools. Their responsibilities include providing translations services in Spanish, Mandarin, Cantonese, and Vietnamese, helping new students with enrollment, and conducting home visits with students. But once every year, they help to host the Cash for College event with Alhambra High School’s (AHS) guidance office.

Cash for College is an organization that runs workshop to “provide free one-on-one professional financial aid assistance to families completing the FAFSA.” It was founded 11 years ago, and has “served more than 203,000 local students and their families by expanding college access awareness and the availability of financial aid resources.” Cash for College has workshops from January through early March, in different locations throughout Los Angeles County.

At the workshops that take place at AHS, counselors explain the application to parents, and the parent coordinators translate the instructions. After the presentation, the parent coordinators are available to walk parents through the online financial aid forms, in AHS’s career center.

My mom attended the Cash for College workshop at AHS, held once in the midst of financial aid application period. The thing is, getting to college is a process, and high schools should remember that when dealing with students applying for financial aid. The one-time workshop was helpful, but it wasn’t enough. Immigrant and low-income families need the most help when it comes to accessing financial aid that makes college a reality. Districts across California should invest in programs to guide high school students and their parents over the course of their senior year. Funding from the 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. So while Cash for College is providing an invaluable service, schools need to invest in an incremental approach. It would not require hiring a new cohort of people; guidance counselors or parent coordinators could step in to mentor a student or family once a month until FAFSA is due.

Four years later, as I am about to graduate from college, I am more cognizant than ever of the fact the financial aid—scholarships, federal and private grants, and loans—has made my education possible. If I could redo the process, I would have been more prepared to demand help from my high school teachers and guidance counselor.

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’sReporter Corps, which trains young adults from diverse and under-represented neighborhoods to report on their own communities, in partnership with The Hechinger Report. The local news site Alhambra Source, which is also affiliated with USC, hosted the project.

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