Leslie Flores is a 2019 graduate of Dobson High School in Mesa, Arizona, where she served as a FAFSA peer coach during the 2018-2019 school year. Dobson High School is in the Mesa Public Schools district, which recently won the National College Access Network’s 2018-2019 FAFSA Completion Challenge. Leslie, who now studies business entrepreneurship at Arizona State University, shared more about her experiences helping students and families complete the FAFSA and inspiring more students to pursue their dreams of a college education.
Kresge: Why is it important for your community at Dobson High School and in Mesa to increase FAFSA completion?
Leslie: It’s simple. More FAFSAs completed means more students in need receiving financial aid and more people enrolling in college. For our community specifically, we had a lot of students from low-income households who didn’t think college was even a possibility, but then find out they’re able to use FAFSA [federal and state aid] money to help with college costs. When I worked with fellow students, it was awesome to see their faces light up when they learned they received $1,000, $3,000 or even the top grant amounts. They instantly started thinking more about their goals. It’s imperative for our generation to pursue a college education. We can never have enough education because we never stop learning.
Kresge: From your experience, what is the most effective strategy in boosting FAFSA completion among your peers?
Leslie: Face-to-face communication helped to build bonds with students. Those bonds helped them feel more comfortable sharing personal information, which then helped us understand how to help them. All FAFSA peer coaches, there were five of us, were close in age to the students with whom we worked. As peer coaches, we also had to complete our own FAFSA applications. That was helpful because we had the experience of going through the application process. Sharing more about our own personal experience completing the FAFSA helped us address questions about the process.
We also created some social media accounts and an email address specifically for our Dobson FAFSA group. Parents and students emailed us questions or asked if they could meet up to talk through their questions.
Social media plays such a big part in our world, so the social media amplification really helped a lot. We used Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat, but Snapchat was our main platform. All five peer coaches had access to the Snapchat account and we tried to answer questions as often as possible, even when we were not at school. For example, if a student was working on their FAFSA late at night, they could just send us a quick Snapchat, and we would answer the question and try to help them along the way.
Kresge: What did you enjoy most about helping your peers and families with the FAFSA completion process?
Leslie: I really enjoyed seeing how surprised people were, how happy parents were, to see that going to college could be a possibility for their student, and that they weren’t looking at huge amounts of debt, particularly for Mesa Community College . If I’m not mistaken, if a student received the full Pell Grant amount, that pretty much covered the entire Mesa Community College tuition for one year. Before completing the FAFSA, some students were setting their sights on going straight to the workforce after high school. Just completing the FAFSA was a small part in paving new pathways for many of my peers.
Social media plays such a big part in our world, so the social media amplification really helped a lot.
And then for me personally, it was rewarding to translate helpful info about the FAFSA into Spanish. When we hosted FAFSA nights, me and another peer counselor who spoke Spanish would translate info for Spanish-speaking families. Dobson High School has a large Spanish-speaking community. It was really rewarding to help parents feel comfortable about asking questions directly.
Kresge: What is one challenge you faced while working to boost FAFSA completion rates, and how did you overcome it?
Leslie: As soon as the FAFSA becomes available in October there are students and parents who are super motivated. But there are also students who simply were not interested in completing it for any number of reasons. Our biggest challenge was motivating those students. Some would say, ‘I don’t see a point to it, I’m not going to do it, it’s a waste of my time, it’s too much time and energy, I don’t want to get my parents’ tax information, or I don’t want to make them an FSA ID.’ Those responses and situations were frustrating, and some were understandable. To address this, we tried to make people feel comfortable and understand that the process was not that difficult.
As peer coaches, our job was to aid these students. I, along with another peer coach, used the last hour of the school day as an unofficial official FAFSA hour. We’d meet with students who were having trouble completing the FAFSA and work with them over time, sometime over days or even weeks, instead of having to do it in just one sitting.
Kresge: Is there a standout story or interaction with a student that was particularly meaningful to you?
Leslie: One student comes to mind. We’ve known each other for many years. When she learned I was a peer coach, she approached me in class and said she didn’t want to talk to the counselors. But because she knew me well and saw the work I did around campus as a peer coach, she felt comfortable sharing with me that her parents were not citizens. And because they were not citizens, they didn’t have Social Security numbers, but they filed taxes as residents. This student was worried because she wanted to go to college and she wanted to complete the FAFSA application, but saw that it asked for parents’ Social Security numbers.
As a peer coach, many of these situations presented new learning experiences. We had to look up these answers or ask counselors for help. After doing some research, together we learned that the student is the only one who needs to provide a Social Security number. And for her parents, we could manually enter their tax information, and put in zeros for the Social Security numbers.
This interaction stood out because she felt comfortable working with me. It was a learning experience for both of us, and she was super patient with me. In the end, instead of electronically filing her FAFSA, we had to print it, have her parents sign it, then mail it.
Three weeks later she found me again on campus and she gave me the biggest hug. She told me she was so grateful that she talked to me because she received the maximum Pell Grant! Now she was going to go to college. Her parents were worried because although they were residents, it was a scary time for them to even do anything with the government. It was rewarding to see that she was happy, her parents were happy, and they were grateful. Later, throughout the year, when I met a student in that same situation, I knew how to help them.
Kresge: Do you have any advice that you would share with the next group of peer coaches that’s working at Dobson or elsewhere in the district or even the country?
Leslie: I would tell future peer coaches this: do your research and don’t give up. As a peer coach, we’re the ones who help students most with the FAFSA completion process. For some situations I had to do research on the FAFSA site or ask for help.
By ‘don’t give up,’ I mean some situations are going to be tough. Some students are going to be very unmotivated, but you have to push through it and look at the bigger picture because you’re not just doing it as the title of peer coach or just so Mesa has the highest completion rates. That shouldn’t be the reason. It should be so one more student can go to college, one more student is confident that they’re going to be able to make something of themselves, and that they’re going to make their family proud. This is about each student, not just the numbers, in the district and in the nation.
Kresge: What concrete advice do you have for students who don’t know where to begin?
Leslie: Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Just take everything one step at a time. And, believe! Believe that you’ll be able to get some sort of financial aid and that it can help you pursue your college dreams.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
In 2018-2019, the cost of tuition and fees at Mesa Community College for an in-state resident was $2,070 for a full-time student, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. The maximum Pell Grant award for that same time period was $6,095.
According to the office of Federal Student Aid, if a student’s parents do not have Social Security Number, they must enter 000-00-0000 when the FAFSA asks for this information. Also, parents without Social Security numbers will have to sign a printed version of the FAFSA (instead of signing electronically), as was the case with the student Leslie Flores worked with.