Dude, where’s my financial aid?

November 24, 2008

Dude, where's my financial aid? By: Chris Damitio 11/24/08

What do you mean my financial aid has been cut $5,000? That's what went through my head at the beginning of this, my final semester, at UH.

As a kid, my family ate government cheese, and now as an adult without a degree, I've found mostly minimum-wage jobs, making barely enough to keep me hovering at, or just above, the national poverty line.

After a hellish four years in the Marine Corps, I used my GI Bill to get an associate's degree; then it ran out. I realized that an A.A. didn't get me much further than a high school diploma, so I decided to improve my life by getting a bachelor's degree.

I became a full-time student and that left me reliant on financial aid to support myself and pay for school, since I wasn't born with a silver spoon.

Financial aid is time-consuming and soul crushing. Not only must you provide the initial slew of paperwork needed to receive aid and resubmit the same stuff every semester, there are always those unexpected sucker punches.

This semester I got hit by a hard combination. First, the body blow: My aid was cut $5,000. This was because I was allegedly still collecting benefits from my expired GI Bill. Financial Aid took a month to process the correction after I brought them proof, so I was left scrambling to pay rent. I sold my books and tools and mowed my neighbor's lawn to avoid being evicted.

Then the upper-cut: A month later, I got a letter saying that their records showed I was still receiving V.A. benefits. The form I'd turned in from the V.A. earlier was no longer there, even though they had already processed it. They were taking my loans away again!

I called the Financial Aid Office, and the woman on the other end was rude and unfriendly. She told me she couldn't find the paperwork and offered the following advice: "You don't have to graduate." This was late on a Friday and she told me I could write a complaint letter if I didn't like it. The office was closed when I got there in person.

I felt like I was being knocked out… of school.

After freaking out about my future all weekend, I went to the Financial Aid Office that next Monday morning. The student worker was friendly, but solving my problem was beyond her authority. She said the problem was that they hadn't known about a scholarship I'd received and told me to sit down or come back later to see a counselor.

I'd had enough. It wasn't the scholarship, it was incompetence. I resorted to civil disobedience. I told her I would not sit down or move until the problem was resolved to my satisfaction.

At this point, she went in the back and got one of the counselors. Like an angel, Ku'u, the first truly competent person I'd been allowed to speak with came to my aid. She explained that the rude woman had been on her last day of work Friday. Ku'u immediately found the updated V.A. benefits form I'd been told was lost, saw the problem wasn't the scholarship and fixed everything in minutes.

If I was privileged, I wouldn't have been subjected to any of this. I spent a terrible weekend envisioning a future where I did all the work for a degree but didn't get it or where I became homeless and started subsisting on government cheese. I even had a brief moment where I considered lighting myself on fire in front of the Financial Aid Office.

As I stood in line that Monday morning, the guy in front of me was going through a similar nightmare. I think that was the last straw.

Those of us without trust funds have to deal with B.S. to get a B.A. Our society is designed, however subtly, to keep the poor impoverished, whether through the people they know, the education they get or the work they're able to find.

Why do some people have to work two jobs while taking full course loads and others don't have to work at all? And why do some have to deal with agonizing bureaucracy while others don't even bother going to class?

If I would have gone with the suggestions financial aid offered me, I would have taken multiple unnecessary trips to the V.A. For a while, I felt like I was getting punished for receiving a scholarship.

I actually thought I would become homeless, ask my friends. Seriously. Why? Entrenched bureaucracies don't care about us as human beings. They force us to jump through hoops, but a simple stand, like refusing to leave or sit down, not moving to the back of the bus or refusing to fight an unjust war really can make the difference.

So please, the next time bureaucracy starts punching you, refuse to go down. Have a one man or woman protest, and if I am anywhere nearby, I'll join you.

J.D.'s Notes: This is another reason to understand how the financial aid system works so that you or your student doesn't get taken advantage of.

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