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For some families, FAFSA delays are only the beginning

Language barriers, technical glitches complicating matters for some college-bound seniors

Grand Rapids — High school seniors nationwide have faced significant issues in receiving college financial aid information this year, due to the botched rollout of the Department of Education’s new Free Application for Federal Student Aid. But those stresses have been compounded for students hoping to be the first in their family to pursue higher education.

This issue is in stark relief at Grand Rapids Public Schools’ Southwest Middle High School, where many seniors are first-generation college prospects whose parents do not speak fluent English.

“A lot of our parents don’t know how to use technology, some are illiterate, so their students are making accounts for them … and then they’re having to go through all the tax forms on their own because their parents also don’t really know about the tax forms,” said Alyssa Zahra, head counselor at Southwest. “It’s been a lot of trial and error.”

The fact that many Southwest students’ parents are undocumented immigrants adds another layer of difficulty. Due to a glitch, the online FAFSA doesn’t allow contributors to submit the form without entering Social Security numbers.

Southwest Middle High School counselor Alyssa Zahra

“If (parents) don’t have a Social Security number, what my students have to do is call FAFSA and get on the phone with customer service,” Zahra said. “They don’t normally answer, so I say, ‘Keep calling, keep calling, be persistent.’” 

When students do reach someone, they’re often met with more hurdles. Sometimes issues can be cleared up over the phone, but that’s not a feasible option for students with non-English-speaking parents, who often have to ask for hard copies of the forms to be mailed to their homes. 

The school is not allowed to ask students about their parents’ citizenship status, so Zahra is not sure exactly how many of their students are facing these specific problems. But she noted that “undocumentation is very, very prevalent in this area, for our school.” 

One thing she does know is that pretty much everyone has struggled. Asked how many students have come to her with questions and concerns related to FAFSA, Zahra says “every single one.” 

Still Searching for Answers

The school has hosted several FAFSA nights to address questions from the community and worked with the Hispanic Center of West Michigan to help with translation and communication.

Southwest senior Perla Cervantes received help with her FAFSA form the Hispanic Center of West Michigan

Southwest senior Perla Cervantes made use of the Hispanic Center, and she’s glad she did. 

“For me it was easy, because I got help,” Perla said, noting that her application has been submitted and she’s just waiting to hear back. 

Senior Jeasy Rodas is “still stuck” on verifying her parents’ information. She’s hit a wall in the process, but is unclear what she’s done wrong.

“They just sent back an email that I sent like two weeks ago saying that I was missing some information, but I’m not sure what I was missing because I submitted exactly what they asked for,” she said. 

Jeasy’s parents are not fluent English speakers, so she’s been handling the bulk of the work. 

“I’m still learning how to do it,” she said. “I’m scared I’m not going to be able to finish it on time.”

Senior Jeasy Rodas had problems verifying her parents’ information on the FAFSA

Both Jeasy and Perla plan to attend Grand Rapids Community College in the fall, and with two years of tuition provided at GRCC through the Grand Rapids Promise Zone Scholarship, FAFSA responses won’t be make-or-break. But if they were planning to attend a four-year school, it would be a different story.

“If I was going to a bigger college, I’d be scared,” Jeasy said. “I’d be on the edge right now.”

She added that she hopes the FAFSA process is modified to give more options to non-English speaking parents, and that the other kinks are ironed out too.

Zahra said that if the FAFSA glitches aren’t resolved soon, more students will likely fall back on their Promise Zone scholarship and “universities throughout the state of Michigan, and everywhere, are probably going to see a decline, at least from urban school districts.”

Read more from Grand Rapids: 
Making an impact: Tutoring center empowers kids through literacy
Sophomore exhibits shine light on human rights

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Riley Kelley
Riley Kelley
Riley Kelley is a reporter covering Cedar Springs, Grand Rapids, East Grand Rapids and Sparta school districts. An award-winning journalist, Riley spent eight years with the Ludington Daily News, reporting, copy editing, paginating and acting as editor for its weekly entertainment section. He also contributed to LDN’s sister publications, Oceana’s Herald-Journal and the White Lake Beacon. His reporting on issues in education and government has earned accolades from the Michigan Press Association and Michigan Associated Press Media Editors. Riley’s early work in journalism included a stint as an on-air news reporter for WMOM Radio, and work on the editorial staff of various student publications. Riley is a graduate of Grand Valley State University. He originally hails from western Washington.


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