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Faces of FAFSA: James
Education/Faces Of FAFSA

James, 41

Let me start by saying that I am, by no means, an expert in public policy or the inner workings of the higher education system. I write this having just recently earned my associates degree in Applied Sciences, and my strengths lie in digital software and computer solutions, not political strategy or advocacy. I also don’t come with a story of how a simpler financial aid system could have dramatically changed my life, and reflect on where I could be today “if only”. Those stories are inspiring, compelling and at times heart-wrenching; and yes, as you will see my life has experienced dramatic transformation over the last few years. But my story centers around one kind, generous, incredible woman named Debra, and how with her support I was able to dust off years of setbacks to reestablish myself on the path I am today.

My story starts simple enough: I served in the Marine Corps, got married and tried to support my three kids by working construction. But when one of our children was diagnosed with a severe metabolic disorder requiring extensive medical care, we didn’t have enough to cover the rising financial costs. I desperately needed a better job and sought a career where I could use my skills with computers and IT, but quickly realized this was a wasted dream without a college certificate or degree. So, I enrolled in an online program…but I dropped out. Personally, I needed more advising and support than those colleges were offering. With my background, I just didn’t have the experience or confidence to navigate the higher education system on my own. Both of my subsequent attempts to achieve college credentials through an online program ended the same way.

A series of unfortunate events led me and my family deeper into financial despair, until eventually we were homeless. Our children lived with their grandparents for a while, and we survived on food stamps and public assistance while living in government housing. Our future had never looked bleaker. Then I learned about a computer lab at the Jefferson Community & Technical College Adult Learning Center in Louisville. Still homeless, I made the serendipitous decision to offer to volunteer at the lab. And that’s where I met Debra.

The center’s director, Debra, showed me tremendous kindness and took me under her wing. She connected me with the TRIO program (a federal program designed to provide services to students from disadvantaged backgrounds), an opportunity I had no knowledge of before meeting her. Thanks to Debra’s guidance and the staff at TRIO I was able to secure a Pell grant and state financial aid. Debra even recommended me for a work-study job in the computer lab. She was, quite literally, a life savior.

With Debra’s encouragement and support, and piecing together various student aid, I completed an Associates of Applied Science at JCTC a few months ago – and my wife and children had front row seats at graduation. Immediately I started working for the University of Louisville as a Technology Specialist. I am proud to say my family is now back together in our own apartment and is entirely self-sufficient, and I plan to pursue my bachelor’s degree over the next few years while continuing to work at U of L.

So why am I a Face of FAFSA? Because not everyone has a Debra. Millions of aspiring students, engineers, teachers, nurses, software technicians, etc., are at risk of not realizing their dreams or being able to provide for their families because they don’t have a network of support and experience to answer the questions they don’t even know to ask. To sacrifice all that potential because we adhere to an unnecessarily complex system seems irresponsible. We should be taking every step possible to prop up these individuals and implement straightforward, comprehensive measures to make the path to higher education financially attainable for those who desire to pursue it.

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