Senior Jordon Pelon is ready for next year at Spring Arbor University, where he intends to pursue a degree in social work and likely the ministry.
“All of my paperwork is in line,” he said. “I am ready to rock and roll.”
Figuring out how to pay for college presents a number of challenges, and filling out financial aid forms is often the most difficult. But Jordon wasn’t worried. After attending a senior parent meeting last fall, he knew exactly what needed to be done: meet with Becky Powell.
Powell, who has been working in the financial aid field for more than four decades, is on a mission to make sure Cedar Springs students get on the right track for college financial aid.
Powell previously served as director of financial aid at two separate colleges and now, after scaling back from full-time, works for Grand Rapids Community College part time in the same field.
For decades she has helped Cedar Springs students and their families fill out necessary required FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) forms as well as other applications for financial aid, work study and scholarships.
“Ms. Powell helped me so much getting the FAFSA stuff taken care of,” said Kari Pelon Ruth, Jordon’s mother. “I didn’t really know what I was doing and ended up doing it a little wrong, but she was able to get it all straightened out for me.”
Get What You are Entitled To
Oct. 1 is the earliest a high school senior is allowed to submit the FAFSA, but it is rarely ever too late; in fact, students can apply or adjust their applications for aid even after they start college, as long as it is the same year, Powell said.
“They need to be in good standing, but can receive the aid for back semesters if they need to.”
The federal financial-aid form used to be 15 to 20 pages and needed to be filled out by hand. But while the forms have become more user-friendly, many applicants still benefit from her expertise.
“There are exceptions to everything, and if there is something unusual in your case, it can make a difference between getting aid and not getting aid,” she said. “It is always a good idea to talk to the financial office where you plan to attend and make sure you are getting what you are entitled to.”
Powell’s association with the district goes back a long way, with her artist husband volunteering at the school. After he was killed in a vehicle accident, she wanted to continue his legacy, she said.
“I knew I needed to stay connected with kids, and this school has a wonderful volunteer group.”
She offered the skills she knew best. “I had been filling out forms for all of my friends and their kids around the dining room table, so I thought, why don’t I come here and help?”
Technically a volunteer at Cedar Springs High School since only the early 1990s, for several years before then she had convinced Grand Rapids Community College that it would be a good recruitment tool to allow her one day a week at the high school. During those first years, the school’s counseling department set up appointments for her to meet with students.
As word spread, more and more local families began seeking her help, and financial-aid counseling with Powell became a tradition.
Heart of Gold, Meet Pot of Gold
Now Powell makes presentations at senior/parent events every year at the school. And she is the go-to person at school sponsored “fill-out-FAFSA” parties, said high school counselor Rebecca Kooi.
“We refer questions to her as much as possible,” she said. “Shelley (Counselor Shelley Pero) and I help where we can, but anything difficult goes to her.”
Special family circumstances such as divorced parents, foster care or homelessness change students’ eligibility, so having an expert like Powell to help is invaluable, Kooi said.
Principal Ron Behrenwald calls Powell “an absolute gem” who over the years has helped hundreds of students and families gain access to federal and state funding to help make their post-secondary education tuition and fees doable.
“She has literally secured hundreds of thousands of dollars, some of which was free money for our students,” Behrenwald said. “Becky has a heart of gold and knowing her as I do, if she had a pot of gold as well, she would give it all away to support our graduates in making their dreams become a reality.”