A library at the University of Washington, where Matt now works. As his love of books developed, so did the possibilities for his academic focus.
What advice would you give to students who maybe don’t have it figured out and who feel like the mistakes they make or the things they don’t know are a direct reflection on their ability to contribute to a college environment?
My first piece of advice is to remember that if you were accepted to the school, you belong there. Plenty of people are scared and confused, it’s not just you. The next piece of advice is ask questions. I didn’t know that I could ask for extra support from my faculty members. I was trying not to bother them as much as possible because I thought that was the relationship. You have that right and responsibility to yourself.
How did studying the first-gen experience from an academic perspective shape or inform the way in which you thought of your own college journey?
It’s interesting because at the time that I was doing my master’s, between 2008-2011, there wasn’t a wealth of literature on first-generation student experiences, not like there is now. So to answer your question, it was interesting, but it was difficult to hone in on the first-gen college experience because it was tied up with other issues like being low-income, etc. What I found out was that there were a lot of overlapping issues. For me, studying the first-gen experience resonated in a lot of ways. For example, the feeling of being othered or of not being able to get involved because you can’t cut your hours at work is one I'm familiar with. So in a way, even though I was out of college, it made me feel better about those choices that I had to make.
I also found the diversity of experiences within the first-gen experience very interesting. For example, going into college my connection with my family was relatively strong and I also didn’t have an obligation to send money home to my family. I didn’t feel ostracized by them for making the decision to go to college. Now, it did create some tension, but it wasn’t like I went back for Thanksgiving and was experiencing a different home situation, which some students do.
You currently work in financial aid, what is one common mistake you see students make when dealing with financial aid/concerns?
Because financial aid, overall, is both perceived and is really confusing, a lot of people are afraid or too frustrated to ask questions. Be that squeaky wheel—you need to get your questions answered.
One of the most frustrating things about financial aid is that every college awards financial aid differently. Fees are different, scholarships are awarded differently—there’s no consistency between institutions. You need to do everything you can to compare apples to apples across different schools.
If you could give any piece of advice to financial aid offices to ensure that students are being served, what would that be?
The model of financial aid offices has to change. There has been a lot of change across higher education in recent years, but unfortunately I think it’s gone more towards a one-stop model where you have a lot of offices where it’s the financial aid office, the registrar’s office, and admissions, because they think it’s the most convenient for the students and, a lot of times, it is. But I think we’re sacrificing counseling for customer service and those are very different things.
Our financial aid offices need to be very intentional about their counseling availability, which is easier said than done. The bigger the school, the harder it becomes. I think their needs to be an effort made to provide one-on-one counseling as often and in-depth as students need it. Now that’s going to potentially require extra counselors, longer hours of operation, and other such changes, but we need to meet students where they are. We need to be very aware of what our students need and delivering that. The only way you know out what students need is through asking. I don’t think we listen to the students as much as we should in terms of enacting change.