Reina Olivas: Financial aid + guidance = college success

This is part of a blog series written by current Dell Scholars Program Ambassador, Reina Olivas. Reina discusses her experiences as a first-generation college student and describes what it’s like for her to both give and receive help. Read the entire series here.

As I discussed in my previous blog, as a high schooler, I was intimidated by the idea of college. Both of my parents were Mexican immigrants with no college education. But I think what scared me the most was the COST of a college education. I had no idea what financial aid was, how to begin looking for scholarships or how I was going to pay for a college education at a four-year university.

As an AVID student, I received tremendous support in applying for college (and all that comes with it.) They encouraged us to apply for scholarships, so I spent a lot of free time in the computer lab doing exactly that. This was when I first became familiar with the Dell Scholars Program. Since the Dell Scholars Program is known to provide support to its scholars, my AVID teacher encouraged the entire class to apply, reminded us of deadlines and guided us through the process.

My path to financial aid

For me, being selected as a Dell Scholar would determine where I went to college. I desperately needed the money – in addition to school, I was working up to ten hours a day at a local restaurant – and I knew the support they offered would help me immensely. I also needed the money to help my mother pay household bills, to pay my own expenses and to save what I could for college.

It was April 10 – the day the new class of Dell Scholars would be announced. I was working at the restaurant and I was anxiously awaiting the email telling me if I was one of the 300 new scholars. During my breaks, I ran to my cell phone and repeatedly refreshed my email. I was pretty nervous as I waited. I had a knot in my throat and butterflies in my stomach because this scholarship was going to determine if I would be attending my first choice school: The University of Texas at Austin (UT).

At around 6 p.m., I refreshed my email one last time and there it was. The subject line of an email from the Dell Scholars Program that read “Congratulations!” I didn’t even open it before I burst into tears. I ran to my manager’s office with eyes full of tears and a heart beating so fast it felt like it was going to explode. I told him the good news, and he congratulated me with a warm hug.[quote]My goal as a Dell Scholars Program Ambassador and mentor is to help other first-generation students through this process.[/quote]

How I help others

When it comes to financials and college affordability for first-generation students, there are three main issues: access, awareness and guidance.

Access: There are an endless amount of scholarships out there, but first-generation students have very little knowledge about how to find the applications, how to gather the required documents and everything that follows.

Awareness: They are unaware that there is federal financial help (FAFSA) to help them finance their college expenses. They don’t know what an award letter is, how to gather their parents tax information, and so on. Like it was for me, it’s all a plethora of new information.

Guidance: Guidance is critical in helping first-generation students not only acquire but also understand all the financial aid information. My college financial guidance started with my AVID teachers, continued with the Dell Scholars Program, and even continues today if issues arise with my own aid.

My goal as a Dell Scholars Program Ambassador and mentor is to help other first-generation students through this process. To help them understand their finances and the financial aid process; and, maybe even more importantly, to let them know someone is there to help them. I feel lucky to have the opportunity to do this work and to be able to give back in this way. No one should have to do it alone. And with programs like the Dell Scholars Program, they don’t have to.