When you’re little, you’re told that if you work hard and do your homework, you will be able to experience the magnificent world of college. Then, when you get into middle school, you are told that all you need are good grades to get into a good college. Once you are in high school, you finally learn that if you get straight A’s, get a nearly perfect score on standardized tests and do an obscene amount of extracurricular work, you might get into the college you want to go to.
Finally, you’ve done it. You have that acceptance letter in your hand. Now is when you find out that you have to be able to pay for college. And that can be the biggest obstacle of all.
Everyone who pursues any type of secondary education should be proud of themselves. In this day and age, it’s assumed that the next step after high school has to be college, but that assumption is an ignorant one. So many different pieces have to fit together for a person to even have the option of going to college. But the collegiate world fails to reflect that reality. And it is definitely not reflected in UC Berkeley’s financial aid system.
I bring all this up because, this summer, I was hung up on by UC Berkeley’s financial aid office.
To clarify my financial situation, I am not an independent in terms of the FAFSA. I am not an orphan, and I am not a ward of the court. Yet my own personal circumstances have left me paying for college by myself. But because there is no specific box I can check on the FAFSA to explain the complexities of my financial situation, I am not getting the financial support I need.
I spent months trying to sort out a multitude of problems that had arisen from my insufficient financial aid reward. I had to navigate the bureaucratic channels of the financial aid offices while trying to verify my situation. And I did this while working 35-hour weeks, trying to scrape together money for rent and groceries.
More often than not, I’ve found myself dealing with an automated voice message saying, “We are currently experiencing a high volume of calls and are unable to take your call at this time. Please try again later.” After two months of playing phone tag with the financial aid office, I finally got on the phone with a living, breathing adviser.
My voice shook with excitement as I frantically scrambled to offer up my Cal ID number. As she looked up my file, I rehearsed the concerns I had been waiting nearly two months to ask about. And when she asked why I was calling, I carefully stated, “My CalCentral account said that I was going to be dropped from my classes because I had not paid the $7,000 I owed the school — costs that my financial aid was supposed to cover.”
The financial aid officer told me that their office was backed up and that they had not processed my paperwork yet, though I had submitted it two months earlier. She told me that because of this, I would have to take out an emergency loan or pay a third of the 7,000 dollars I owed the school upfront to avoid being canceled from enrollment.
Naturally, I prodded. I felt I was being punished for the financial aid office’s inadequacies. And I was tired of constantly worrying about my finances while trying to be a student.
So, with the heaviness of all these frustrations and fears weighing on me, I demanded an explanation. I asked her why I was having to pay nearly $2,000 if the problem had been caused by the financial aid office to begin with. In response to my question, she hung up.
The first person I was able to talk to about this in months hung up on me.
At first, I cried, feeling hopeless. Then I got angry. Now, I have moved past the initial shock of being hung up on. Because I realize I was asking too much of her. The problem is bigger than her behavior — it’s an institutional failure.
UC Berkeley doesn’t have the resources required to support the number of students who have questions about their financial aid. With two-thirds of students qualifying for financial support, this should be one of the biggest departments on campus –– not one that you have to wait almost an hour to even get on the phone with.
I am just one of the many students receiving financial aid here on campus. And in a world that stigmatizes cheaper secondary education alternatives such as community college, financial aid at universities needs to be more attainable and more reliable.
Like many other students, I’ve worked so hard to get where I am. After all of the obstacles students have overcome to get into college, being able to afford an education should be the least of our concerns. And yet, rather than worrying about schoolwork or exams, I spend every day worrying that my financial aid will fall through and that I won’t be able to pay my rent or afford my food.
Getting into college was one of the most exciting moments of my life. Trying to sort out my financial aid is perpetually the most stressful. So after every hurdle I’ve overcome to get here, what I need is help.
What I don’t need is to be dismissively hung up on.