Can you speak a little bit about your educational journey?
I figured out that I wanted to be a teacher when I was in middle school, so I knew that in order to do that I would have to go to college and eventually get a master’s degree. In high school I took a lot of AP and honors courses and I also enrolled in dual enrollment courses at University of Massachusetts Lowell.
In high school I was very proactive in order to make sure that I was prepared to go to college. I knew that by taking AP and honors courses I would have less courses to take in college, and ultimately it would save me money.
My parents are divorced and I was raised by my dad. My dad talked a lot about me and my younger brother going to college. He is a truck driver and he loves his job, but he always talks about how he has a very different lifestyle from someone who has gone to college. He could theoretically make a lot of money, but he would also have to work a lot harder and it would require a different kind of effort—often physically intensive labor. He was very much of the opinion that I should go to college. Even though he would’ve supported me either way, I could see that it was something that was important to him.
I’m a perfectionist and I take pride in my work and I’m often hard on myself. I think my dad saw that and he actually didn’t bring up my schoolwork because he didn’t want to add any more stress. He knew that I would take care of it on my own.
How did you decide where to go for college? How would you advise students to figure this out?
For me, it was a mix of looking at financial aid packages and trying to make sure that the college I ended up going to accepted my AP and dual enrollment credits. The private school financial aid packages looked nice, but when I looked more closely I realized I wasn’t getting scholarships, but rather loans. I graduated high school ranked 8th in my class, I had a really high GPA, and I felt that I could have gotten a merit scholarship for that. UMass Lowell gave me the best tuition fees and I couldn’t pass it up. It was also way cheaper than a private school and it wasn’t too far from my house, so I was able to commute and save money.
I didn’t have a very straightforward college journey. I had to take some time off of UMass Lowell because of a family emergency and ended up going to Middlesex Community College for a while because they were also very affordable. After that, I went to another state school, Westfield, to finish up my bachelor’s degree. Westfield was also very affordable and because I was working and going to school, I was able to take most of my classes online. So really, my decisions were all based on affordability, credit transferability, and picking what made the most sense for me.
The whole time, the money aspect was huge for me. I still got the same education, the same degree, but at a more affordable price. As long as you put in the hard work, it pays off.
It seems like you were very aware of what you needed from a financial aid package. What would you recommend students who feel lost in the financial jargon do to make it more accessible to them and to their families?
A lot of it is looking things up yourself, but also making sure you’re taking to the right people, like your guidance counselor. There are also advisors in college that you can reach out to, so don’t discount them either. They can definitely help you decipher what your financial aid actually says.
What advice do you have for students who are hoping to graduate debt free?
It’s very beneficial to look into scholarships—whether it’s just Googling to see what’s out there, or looking at what kinds of scholarships your high school might offer to graduating seniors, or even seeing if your college has any opportunities for current students to apply to. It’s also helpful to have some sort of job throughout college, even if it’s just a part-time job. Working gives you some pocket money and a way to start paying off your loans while you’re still in school.
For me it was a mixture of figuring things out in advance and also planning it out as I went along. I saved a lot of money by living at home. I made sure that I tapped into a wide variety of scholarships and I worked full time. In addition to all that, at the time, my job was working at Headstart in Lowell as a preschool teacher. My employer considered the degree that I was pursuing to be in a related field so I was able to get tuition reimbursement for that.