An Atlanta Journal Constitution reporter called me for assistance in identifying students and parents for a story about “drop offs” - students brought to campus to register just before fall semester begins without securing housing, financial aid, or taking any of the necessary steps to begin school on the right foot. For a moment, I wanted no part of this assignment, but as I honed in on the premise, I saw an opportunity to tell the real story behind what HBCUs like FVSU do to usher students into college.
FVSU meets a need that major institutions don’t – one that they don’t have patience to deliver: personal, individualized service to first-generation college students trying to navigate the maze of the financial aid process, most times without the help of parents. This week I’ve seen the patience and true character of the financial aid staff and FVSU family as they walked students from one office to the next, helping them complete FAFSA forms and loan applications.
I talked to freshman Sekema Tannahill, who shared her story. Admittedly she missed the deadlines for filing paperwork and arrived on campus a week before the start of school. Her mother walked the student through the process the first semester but refused to do it the second time around, after she didn’t make acceptable grades.
For every student who dragged his or her feet in submitting verification forms, FAFSAs and the required tax documents from parents, others filed on time. However in some cases, parents didn’t qualify for loans or couldn’t pick up the slack where financial aid left off. Anticipating the money gap, FVSU’s Office of External Affairs, directed by the president, mailed 12,000 letters to alumni asking for donations to help students pay tuition, living expenses and books.
I received a call from a parent trying to reach the financial aid office. Four people live in the household on a meager sum. The mother was making sure she signed all the paperwork to get financial aid for her son, who is now on campus. Attending college is his one-way ticket out of the cycle of poverty.
Scholarship funds from community groups and alumni are trickling in. Flint Energies Foundation gave $5,000. The Peach County Development Authority wrote a check for $8,000. Zellner’s Chapel, a small, under-50-member church located across from the campus’s main entrance donated $24,000 to help students like this.
From showing students how to properly fill out forms and offering advice about classes to digging, scratching, fighting and finagling for scholarship funds, I am amazed at the miracles worked every day on this campus to get students into school. I have a renewed appreciation for FVSU as it seeks to fulfill its mission.
The Atlanta Journal Constitution decided not to go ahead with the story. Even so, I’m glad the reporter asked for my help. I got the chance to step away from the hustle and bustle of my office to witness firsthand the nurturing work that occurs in Wildcat Country. Not every student our counselors reach out to help can cut it in college, but for every one who does, God bless ‘em - the effort is well worth it.
Vickie Oldham is Director of Marketing & Communications at Fort Valley State University.