By Elisa Espinoza
One of the main concerns when it comes to college is money. Paying for tuition, rent, books and food are only some of the things students have to worry about, therefore financial aid and scholarships become crucial for many.
Obtaining support from college advisers, staff, and programs can help make a difference in student’s academic experiences at Whatcom.
Kelly Bashaw, an academic adviser in Entry and Advising in Laidlaw Center, focuses on helping students navigate financial aid.
“Many students who are probably income-eligible either haven’t taken the time to do it or they get overwhelmed by it,” she says.
Laurie Comley, a financial aid specialist who works in the Financial Aid office in Laidlaw, has many responsibilities including reviewing student’s FAFSA information and checking their eligibility. She also manages other funding programs, by coordinating scholarships and grants.
Bashaw and Comley explained the different ways financial support is offered on campus.
“We work as a team, we are all working together to help students be successful,” said Comley about the financial aid office and the advising center.
The biggest grants administered through Whatcom are the Washington State Need Grant, and the Pell Grant.
Students are eligible for Pell Grant and the State Need Grant funds based on their financial aid eligibility informed by their FAFSA or WAFSA application.
FAFSA and WAFSA are important determinants that designate your eligibility for many things, including scholarships, work study, and student loans, but sometimes are not easy to figure out and students can get frustrated.
“A lot of times students are just trying to understand what financial aid looks like,” Bashaw said.
She also explained that currently undocumented students don’t qualify for federal dollars such as the Pell Grant and some student loans, but they can receive scholarships and grant money from other sources like the Opportunity Grant offered by the state.
There is a lot of support on campus to help students navigate these systems, she added, but many are not using them. She said the financial aid office has a computer available for students to sit with someone while going through financial aid questions.
Comley mentioned sometimes she notices mistakes on students’ FAFSA forms that keep them from being eligible for financial aid. Her job is to try to reach out and help fix the issue. She invites students to stop by if they’re struggling with completing their FAFSA, or other forms.
“We try to do a good job making sure the students get the aid they’re eligible for,” she said. “We are here to assist them and get their financial aid in place, and help them with that process. We try to be as welcoming and as helpful as we can. We understand that it can be difficult to get all the information together.”
Whatcom also offers financial support through the Whatcom Community College Foundation scholarships and the Orca Success Fund.
The Foundation raises private funds to bring students opportunities. The Foundation Scholarship application period opens every January and usually closes at the end of February.
“Every year in January we do a scholarship workshop to promote the foundation scholarships,” said Comley. “Seventy percent of students who apply to the foundation for funds receive some type of scholarship.”
Bashaw said it is also important to give updates to donors on how the scholarship received has benefitted students.
“They want to know that they’re making a difference in someone’s life,” she said. “They want to keep giving when they know they’re making a difference.”
The Orca Success Fund is also called the Emergency Fund, which is provided each quarter to help any student with sudden and difficult financial situations.
Students are required to explain their need, along with documentation that confirms the situation, and the amount of money they’re requesting.
The money for this fund comes from the Whatcom Foundation on a yearly basis, and it’s divided between quarters according to how many students apply.
“We see all different types of requests,” said Bashaw. “We’re funding requests up to $1,000 sometimes.”
Comley said the fund is available to all students, including those who don’t use or qualify for financial aid.
A panel of people review the applications, and granting usually takes about a week.
“We used to do the emergency fund one week per quarter but we realized the needs come up various times throughout the quarter,” she said. “The toughest part is getting the word out that these funds are available, we are trying various formats or ways to let students know.”
Comley mentioned a new scholarship through the state of Washington, designated for community and technical colleges, to support STEM and healthcare professions.
“It’s a very awesome scholarship, it pays up to $1,500 per quarter, and it can be renewable so [students] can have it for more than one year,” she said.
Looking for outside scholarships is very important, too. Bashaw said they can be hard to find, but there are many out there.
“There were years when more than a million dollars were not given out because not enough students applied,” she said.
Bashaw recommended a website for those planning to attend Washington State institutions, called thewashboard.org. After setting up a profile, the search engine will match students with suitable scholarships.
Bashaw said sometimes students don’t want to take the time to apply for scholarships, but the process is definitely worth it.
“Where else can you get $500 for an hour of work?” she said.
Bashaw also talked about student loans. Many students find themselves in the situation of requesting a certain amount of money, or even the maximum.
“If you don’t need it, don’t take extra money because you’re going to have to pay it back with interest,” said Bashaw.
One of the main reasons students leave school is because they find themselves financially overwhelmed.
Bashaw said it is important to reach out to advisers, even before things get too complicated.
“I’d like to see students using advisers to help them when they’re planning their time here,” she said.
Besides financial assistance, Whatcom offers a new online tool called iGrad on Whatcom’s website under Student Services, Financial Wellness. This free tool can help students keep track of their loans, debt, credit score, budgeting and many other financial factors, explained Bashaw.
“It can be an assumption that everybody knows how to do financial planning, and that’s not true,” said Bashaw.
Financial issues are one of the main stressors for students, and this can interrupt the student’s academic fluidity.
Leslie Mendez, who is working on her associate degree in science at Whatcom, said she affords college through financial aid and work study in the Writing Center.
“I don’t know how I would do it if I didn’t have financial aid,” she said.
Mendez said she thinks it is very conflicting that students’ parents are considered for financial aid, since not all students are supported by their families.
“Obviously they help a lot of people who don’t have enough money but they don’t really consider independent people besides their parents,” she said about FAFSA.
Mendez reached out to the financial aid office.
“They managed to get me a little bit more funding so I can have full tuition paid,” she said and added, “you really need to communicate with them because if not, they don’t do it.”
Nicholas Peters-Dagestino saidthat in order to afford his associate degree in computer engineering, he works in the summer, and his mother also helps a little.
During the school year, he tries to have a few jobs to supplement his expenses.
Peters-Dagestino moved to Bellingham from Southern California and said that figuring out the different financial aid systems, in addition to navigating the different departments at Whatcom, was difficult.
“There’s not exactly a whole lot of direction for new students,” he said. “I wish there was a blinking arrow sign that says, ‘here’s where you go for that.’”
Peters said the financial support on campus “can be beneficial and helpful.”