City: West Valley City, Utah
Title: College Access Advisor, Hunter High School
Sambat Kim, an alumnus of Hunter High School in West Valley City, returned to his alma mater to help more students pursue their educational goals after completing high school. To increase FAFSA completion among its students, Hunter High School partnered with the Utah Higher Education Assistance Authority, which was recently recognized in the National College Access Network’s 2018-2019 FAFSA Completion Challenge. Sambat spoke with the Kresge Foundation and shared more about his experiences working with fellow colleagues to educate students and families about college grant and scholarship opportunities.
Kresge: Why is it important for your community to boost FAFSA completion? What strategies do you use to get the word out about the FAFSA?
Sambat: In our communication with students and parents, we try to make it clear that completing the FAFSA will help pay for school, and in turn, open more educational doors. It’s not simply about the college applications, it’s about how to pay for college as well. We use a few strategies. We hold FAFSA nights, talk to seniors during college and career planning sessions, and I have one-on-one meetings with each senior. I also collaborate with my faculty and staff colleagues so they can help me get the word out and get everyone around the school talking about FAFSA.
In the West Valley City community, sometimes we can have a hard time engaging parents. Many of our parents work two or three jobs so it’s hard for them to come out during the evening. But last year we had great parent engagement. Almost 100 students attended with their parents! It was a crazy busy night, but we had a lot of success with helping students complete their FAFSAs.
Kresge: What brought you to this work, Sambat?
Sambat: I’m a Hunter High alumnus and during my senior year I got a lot of help from my teachers, college advisors, and counselors. Back then, the FAFSA didn’t open until January 1st. It was difficult to focus on high school, navigate college applications, and figure out how to pay for college. But I got a lot of help. In my senior year I applied to five colleges and for 70 scholarships. Completing the FAFSA was critical. And at the end of my senior year I got a full-ride scholarship to my dream school. Several years later, I graduated from college debt-free. And because of my personal experience, I wanted to come back to my community to tell students, not only my success story, but how to overcome challenges, and show that it’s possible to go to college and graduate debt- free. I want students to know that it’s possible, and that there are a lot of resources and people to help.
When you grow up in low-income communities, where people don’t really talk more about higher education, seeing someone from your school community get scholarships and grants can give students hope that they can achieve their goals as well.
Kresge: What is one challenge you face in motivating students? Motivating parents?
Sambat: I’m pretty sure every school, every community nationwide has some challenges. Sometimes I have a parent that doesn’t want to provide their tax information. Or I might have parents who are undocumented, and even though their students are citizens, they are reluctant to provide their information. I not only try talking to parents individually, I talk to scholarship donors and students, and try to find a way to break down barriers, just really helping people understand the FAFSA completion process. I don’t care how much time it takes for me to help one student. I don’t want money to be a burden or the reason a student cannot go to college. If they don’t complete the FAFSA, they might miss out on several scholarship opportunities, including the Utah Promise Scholarship. Just one application – the FAFSA – can mean more college opportunities.
Kresge: Is there a student or family experience that stands out in terms of helping with FAFSA completion?
Sambat: Every student has a different situation, but one of my students stands out. One of my students is homeless. Together with our counseling team, and our school social worker, we helped her every step of the way with applying to colleges and completing the FAFSA. She received a full Pell Grant and now attends college. When a student completes the FAFSA, the student is identified as dependent or independent. This student did not require any financial information from a parent or guardian and could complete the FAFSA on her own.
Kresge: Do you have any advice for fellow counselors or coaches trying to help boost FAFSA completion?
Sambat: I work with a lot of seniors with different situations. My advice? Make every effort to speak to students individually about their educational dreams and help them explore opportunities. And even though their plan may not be to go to college right away, help them complete the FAFSA just in case their plans change. If they complete the FAFSA, they’re less likely to miss important scholarship deadlines.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Utah Promise Scholarship is a need-based, last-dollar scholarship. It covers tuition and fees for up to two years at Utah’s public colleges and universities as well as the state’s public technical colleges for qualifying students. The scholarship is open to both recent high school graduates and adult learners who: 1) have a high school diploma or equivalent, 2) have not previously earned a postsecondary degree, 3) are Utah residents, 4) have demonstrated financial need, and 5) accept all other forms of financial aid offered, according to the Utah System of Higher Education website.
When filing the FAFSA, students must indicate whether they are dependent or independent from their parents. According to the Federal Student Aid website: “A dependent student is assumed to have the support of parents, so the parents’ information has to be assessed along with the student’s, in order to get a full picture of the family’s financial strength.” The 2020-21 FAFSA asks 10 questions to determine a student’s dependency status. Students are considered independent if they meet criteria such as being married, being a veteran of the U.S. armed forces, or being an “unaccompanied youth who is homeless.”