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Orphaned in College, Now What?

With the recent adjustments made to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, I, Anjelica Vargas, a young adult who has worked in community development for half of my life, have had college affordability in the forefront of my mind. I am a first-generation college graduate, raised by a single mother, and am a daughter of a Filipino immigrant father, who passed away when I was young.

Completing my first year of college was a massive achievement, and I remember feeling ecstatic. It felt as though my life had finally begun and I was in “the real world” so to speak. The future seemed bright. Unfortunately, the very weekend after school ended marked one of the biggest turning points in my life. My mom suddenly passed, leaving me orphaned.

Returning to school that fall, a new financial aid counselor handled my case. I was hopeful there would be programs and scholarships that served someone in my position and expected my counselor to help me navigate that process. Instead, in my first and only meeting with her, I felt accused, dismissed, and invalidated. There was a balance on my account, and I was expected to pay out of pocket on the spot. I was asked about the financial disbursements made to me the previous academic year and pressed about why those funds could not be used toward the present balance. Sitting there, I realized I would not receive the support I needed to find additional financial aid; rather, I’d become a liability and was treated harshly.

Without institutional support, I needed to find other ways of surviving and ultimately took out additional loans for the balance. I did not have the wherewithal to find additional scholarships or grants, and at that point, I did not know where to start. There was no guidance. The emotional and professional ineptitude of that financial aid counselor is inexcusable. My university failed me. I wasn’t represented. I was in this arena of higher education, one that was not made for me, and one that did not know how to support me or understand my hardships. Disenfranchised students are often targeted and not given access to adequate information or resources. Was my treatment so haphazard because I was a student of color from a low-income background?

All higher education institutions should have resources to support students of varying backgrounds. We invest tens of thousands of dollars in education at their institutions. The bare minimum is to expect faculty and staff, particularly financial aid counselors, to be trained in various funding opportunities other than additional loans, which would alleviate the financial burden that is a college education, especially for students experiencing extenuating circumstances. There should be mandated sensitivity training and annual resource conventions that these counselors are required to attend so that they can address the needs of underrepresented students: independent students, orphaned students, low-income students, and students of color.

Student debt support should not have to come after ten years of public service, where being underpaid is then rewarded with student loan forgiveness. Financial support should have been expected while I was in school. As proactive as schools were to apply for PPP loans for financial bailout to keep themselves afloat, the same effort should be focused on delivering financial resources to students. I hope my story holds higher institutions accountable for the well-being of current and future students experiencing similar circumstances.

Anjelica is an arts-based nonprofit founder who holds tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt ten years after graduating college and aggressively paying down loans. She holds a Masters of Art in Leadership and Leadership Development, and spent her formal academic career studying human-centered approaches to inform solutions for fractured social systems and effective team mobilization.