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Mar. 18

Five of the Scariest Letters for College-Bound Students Demystified by One America Volunteers

This post is by Vikki Conwell, an Atlanta-based writer who came out to the One America tour stop in Atlanta last week with her son to get advice on college financial aid. See how One America helped her family and join in the conversation at www.facebook.org/joinoneamerica

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The author's son, Ryan, poses for his
high school senior picture.

Five little letters stood between my son and the college experience – FAFSA.

Each year the federal student aid program awards more than $150 billion in grants, loans and work-study opportunities to help more than 15 million students pay for their higher education. This year I need my son, Ryan, to be one of them.

To qualify for the funds, eligible students must complete the FAFSA, short for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. More than 22 million of these online forms are submitted by hopeful students and their anxious parents annually. Ironically, the form with the tongue-twister of an acronym has gained quite a reputation for being complicated to decipher and challenging to complete. Parents speak of it with the same angst they voice when discussing their income taxes.

So, when the One America tour rolled into Atlanta offering free help completing the FAFSA, I eagerly accepted this gift from the gods of financial aid. A partnership between JPMorgan Chase and Points of Light, the One America nationwide campaign is designed to bring people together to volunteer in their communities. The Atlanta stop was geared toward preparing students for college and ready them for the workforce.

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Students learn about their college financial aid options at
One America Atlanta.

Panelists and guest speakers, including actress and Spelman College graduate Keshia Knight Pulliam (Rudy from “The Cosby Show”) were enlisted to inform and inspire students to pursue their dreams after high school. And the speakers delivered, turning the event into a post-graduation motivation rally of sorts.

After an initial welcome, college resource fair and presentations, participants were guided into a computer lab for the FAFSA instruction. Parents and students walked into the room staffed with volunteers from Project GRAD, a local nonprofit that works to increase the high school graduation rate. A sense of trepidation and uncertainty was expressed among the attendees. How much assistance would the young volunteers provide? Could they answer direct questions? Would we really receive hands-on instruction?

Armed with questions and reserved optimism, we sat in front of computers logged on the FAFSA website. Volunteer Johnicia Hardaway provided step-by-step instructions for completing the questionnaire, even answering direct inquiries about household filing status. She offered suggestions that best suited my family situation and guided me through the tax retrieval process.

Hardaway even helped unaccompanied students complete the student portion before requesting the additional information later from their parents. More important than just answering questions, she and the other volunteers explained the financial aid process and set realistic expectations about how much money we could expect to receive and spend on college.

Within 30 minutes, we had registered, created PIN numbers and submitted the 2014 Free Application for Federal Student Aid. An email confirmed our successful submission with the relevant information forwarded to the colleges we selected. Thanks to the One America event we had overcome the daunting task of filing the FAFSA.

Now, the only letters that stand between my son and the college experience are a heartfelt, teary-eyed B-Y-E.

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