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Every student will have a unique experience of college, depending on who they are, where they choose to attend, and what they choose to study.

As your student considers what the college experience will look like for them, I would like to offer a letter of encouragement based on my experience. Now, as a college leader, I find this advice is not only still relevant, but essential. So here is my advice to the student considering college.

Dear high school junior and senior:

You are coming soon to the next stage of your life. As you are considering your life choices, I want to share with you advice I would share with my younger 17-year-old self. These pieces of knowledge are what I believe are essential factors to consider as you are pondering the value of higher education and whether or not you can afford it.

I grew up poor. Nevertheless, I recognized that even at this age in high school, I did not want to follow the path of living paycheck to paycheck. I ventured out from the norm of my upbringing by choosing to invest in myself and foregoing for four years earning a full-time income. Growing up poor, I did not have the resources or knowledge from my parents, family, or environment of how to get to the next stage of life.  At this age, I recognized that my choices to pursue my career and educational goals were informed by counselors and financial aid college staff who educated me on the federal and state resources available to me.  It benefitted me to learn how to apply for the Federal Student Application for Student Aid, also known as FAFSA (

My piece of advice to you is to invest in learning about the benefits to apply for FAFSA. At that time, I did not know I was investing in myself and in my future when I opted to be a pioneer in my life by choosing to gain more years of formal postsecondary education. I tell my younger self, although the path was difficult and at times, I was not sure, what made me stay on my path is understanding that FAFSA is designed to support my educational studies. As a poor and first-generation student, I qualified for state and federal grants and scholarships because of the income my parents made and the fact I was their dependent until the age of 24.

It is important as a high school junior or senior that you apply on time for FAFSA, attend those free workshops offered by financial aid representatives, and that you submit the application. After you submit the FAFSA application, the college or university you attend may ask you to submit additional documentation to verify your eligibility for free student aid.  Now, as a person who benefitted from such a federal program, I promise that this investment of time will give you the resources that you will need to gain greater economic vitality once you finish your degree or program of study.

I know this much is true. I invested in myself. I knew that FAFSA would offer me through their financial aid package a combination of grants, scholarships, loans, and work-study. I qualified for all. However, I accepted different parts of this financial aid package differently each year. What I know that I did correctly is to affirm my belief that using FAFSA facilitated my investment as I knew that postsecondary education would be the driver for me to make a career that pays well and got me off from being poor.

Even if you have a similar background as I once did, I encourage you to invest in learning about the vast resources available through the financial aid office. Information is widely available in multiple formats and languages. The most important is to begin by considering that if you decide to pursue higher education, there are career counselors and student affairs professionals whose job is to guide you and answer your questions.

Invest in yourself, ask questions, complete the FAFSA application and submit all the documents for verification. You have the right to choose a better life. You can invest in your life by taking the first steps to build your social capital and your knowledge by learning and trusting that there are financial aid resources that can get you to your destiny.

I thank my 17-year-old self for believing and for persevering in investing in me because I knew even back then, I am the best capital that continues to make more money through this first step.

20 years later, I am now serving as Dean of Enrollment Services at a public community college and have a Ph.D. degree. I oversee the Office of Financial Aid where I work with the director and staff to share a commitment to the vision that each student can have the commitment and space to ask questions, obtain assistance, and receive the best financial aid package that can help our students invest and achieve their postsecondary attainment.


Dr. Oscar Espinoza-Parra serves as Dean of Enrollment Services at College of the Desert. He holds a Ph.D. in Higher Education from Azusa Pacific University, a master’s degree and dual bachelor’s degrees from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and Reno. He is a faculty member at Maryville University.