Takeaway: A high school school counselor's presentation on the FAFSA and financial aid gave Nick hope on figuring out a way to pay for college.

“In my neighborhood, I walk outside and hear gunshots. I come home and hope my house hasn’t been broken into. But I still dream big,” says Nick.

“I could be mad, but it helps when I focus on helping other people. I help tutor other students, from seniors on down. I’m student body president, so a lot of people know me. My dad was a preacher and I grew up watching my mom and dad help people a lot. I have seen how happy it made them,” Nick remembers.

Nick’s family expected him to go to college. “Even though my father didn’t go to college, he always stressed it and said a high school diploma wouldn’t get me anything. It will get me a starter job, but not something stable. If I didn’t go to college, he told me, I wouldn’t be living at home.”

Growing up, Nick thought he could go to any college he wanted and his dad would pay for it. But in 6th grade, Nick’s parents got divorced and his dad was out of his life.

The ups and downs of figuring out financial aid

“Paying for college was a major question because my dad was the money of the family. When I got to high school I was like, the time is almost here. How am I going to pay?

“My friend dropped out of college sophomore year. He can’t get a job anywhere. I didn’t want to be in those shoes.”

Nick focused on doing well in basketball, thinking it would help pay for college. But it was a presentation at school that gave him hope.

“When I was a junior, a school counselor did a presentation for the seniors on the FAFSA and financial aid. They let a few younger students sit in and listen. And I really listened. That’s when I learned about the Pell Grant. I kept thinking it was a loan, but it’s money you don’t have to pay back.”

The more he heard, the more hopeful he got. Nick went home and looked up the FAFSA on the internet — and almost got scammed.

“I went to some site that ended in .com and it took me through a lot of pages. Then, it asked me for a credit card. I was like, ‘Hey Mom, give me a credit card so I can fill out this FAFSA.’ She said, ‘Boy, wait until you are a senior to fill out that application.’”

At first Nick was disappointed, but later he found out that the first “F” in FAFSA stands for “free,” as in Free Application for Federal Student Aid. His school counselor said to always use the site that ends in .gov.

Filling out the real FAFSA

Nick worked on filling out the real FAFSA at a workshop at the Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance. “I liked that the people at the workshop didn’t talk to you like you were a child. I started it there, and then that same night I told my mom to finish her portion.”

“When I got to high school I was like, the time is almost here. How am I going to pay for college?”

“I put on the FAFSA that I had one parent, because my mom was the only one who was going to cooperate through the process. I wasn’t going to waste time calling my father. My mom is who I’ve been with since 6th grade.”

Nick found out he was eligible for a Pell Grant of $5,900 for his first year of school. “I ended up getting four scholarships too, but that Pell Grant was essential. Some of those scholarships end at $25,000 and tuition is $30,000, so that’s the rest of my tuition right there.”

“The FAFSA also helped my mom go back to school so she can get a bachelor’s degree,” added Nick. “She also got the Pell Grant and isn’t paying a dime.”

Nick’s advice: Do this for yourself

Nick saw a lot of students struggle with the FAFSA. “I saw some people cry. They didn’t have support at home. But they wouldn’t have you fill out this information if it was impossible. Go to the front office for your Social Security number. Ask a counselor for help.”

“This could be more than $5,000 in your pocket, per year, that you don’t have to pay back. They are paying you to go be successful,” Nick says. “Don’t do it for your family, do it for yourself. You owe it to yourself to go be the best you can be.”

“Even if you had a rough start, you can finish strong.”

Nick will be attending Alcorn State University and is interested in studying computer science or sports administration.

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