Marissa Gonsalves-not her real name
It’s a busy day at Cal, it’s the last day of class before Thanksgiving break and there’s the hustle and bustle of many students making their way to their flights to get home for the holiday. Fortunately, student Marissa Gonsalves (not her name) was able to meet to discuss her involvement with an Oakland based non-profit organization, the East Bay Consortium.
Marissa is a unique student, she’s a freshman in college, graduated from high school with excellent grades, and was accepted into one of the best public universities in the country, UC Berkeley. However, Marissa also has one issue working against her, she is an AB540 student. And as an AB540 student, she’s unable to receive federal or state financial aid to help her through school, aid that the majority of students are able to receive. Without it, she is left to incur the rising costs of college without government assistance.
But Marissa knew this, and with the help of the staff at East Bay Consortium, she was able to navigate through the confusing scholarship and grant processes, and amass an amount of over $30,000 for her first year of college. A feat that many students aren’t able to do, but without it, she may have been unable to attend. She had many great things to say about the organization that helped her to do this, one that she said if she had never met she would have “had a harder time” getting to where she is now.
What is EBC to you?
A really good resource, and motivation. When comparing to other scholarships, instead of just giving the money, like “OK here, go off into college”. I got really close with the staff, especially with the counselor at my school. She helped me a lot with filling out scholarships, proofreading essays. The staff rally got to know me as a person. She actually came to my house once and talked to me, about the third week of school, telling me what I need to know to keep going, giving me a sense of how Cal is, so I wouldn't be overwhelmed.
How did you find out about EBC?
Through the counselor, she was part of the CCIC (Career & College Information Center). As a senior, I would go in to find out about scholarships, college information. They would give presentations in our classrooms about college reps visiting, etc. I started getting attached to her, then she found out about my financial needs and she began to show me different scholarships and different programs that could help me out. Then I ended up getting really close to her, and she asked me one day “hey, would you like to apply to our scholarship”? Then I got it, and now she's become more of a peer advisor.
So, she continues her role as a counselor?
Yea, and actually, she's really more like a friend. Like on Facebook, if I update my status that I'm stressed, she'll call me and give me advice. Kind of like an older sister who's already been through college.
At Castlemont, you didn't have a counselor, right? So the principal takes the role as a counselor?
Well, not really. He tried, but at the same time there was like 300+ students, so really, he had to be more of a principal than a counselor. So it was really up to us to find our way. Like I found my way through Nanci. She's the one who reviewed my requirements, my A-G, my classes, and scholarships. I think the principal did help, but we had to approach him and find the time for him to open up a space for us because we would go to his office and find him in a meeting, or he wasn't there, or they would tell us “oh he already left for the day, he had to go to some conference”. So that's when I would go to Nanci, and that's where I got most of my help. She could see my classes, and she could see my profile, and tell me what scholarships I could apply to, things like that.
What about picking classes, who would help with that?
Nanci helped me. Since I was in the 11th grade, when I met her, she actually came to me and asked me what classes I was taking. Then she would plan out, finding out what classes I took in 9th grade, in 10th grade, what was I going to take spring semester in 11th grade, and as a senior, so she would make sure I was taking the classes I was supposed to.
Oh, OK, so I didn't realize that they would actually go through scheduling, I thought it was just making sure you all were on track.
Oh, yea she did. And by the summer of my junior year she started emailing us to “start up on our personal statements, I want a personal statement when you start your senior year”. And it was something she didn't have to do, but she wanted to get close with the seniors. Well for me, as a senior, she really helped me a lot. And I feel like many of the seniors kept approaching her, and I would think, “Oh my God, I don't wanna go talk to her, she's probably so overwhelmed with reading all of these personal statements.” Or helping out all these people. But she never said no, she would tell me, “OK, I'll have this read by tomorrow and give you feedback”. Or on essays for the scholarships. So she was really, really helpful.
What were the biggest struggles going through school?
Being AB540, it was hard, it's still hard. So many scholarships that I couldn't apply to. So many that I could have won, but they would say, “oh I'm sorry, you don't have a social security, we regret to inform you...”. Just finding the money, and just knowing that you're AB540, and you're not an average student, and you're on a different... path.
Can you elaborate on being an AB540 student?
It's just, you can't apply to any financial aid. I actually applied to a scholarship, and I was a finalist, and we set up the interview. But then she told me, “oh I just realized that you didn't apply for FASFA, and being that you didn't apply for FASFA that makes you ineligible for the scholarship”. It's an assembly bill, and it classifies that we don't have to pay out-of-state tuition. We pay as residents. But we can't apply for financial aid; we have to look for other sources that don't require an SSN. We have to find different programs, like I couldn't join “upward bound”, because they ask for your taxes, and your SSN. So we can't apply to something like that. It's just, for us, there's already limited sources for money right now, and we have even more limitations, so we have to find a way around things.
What do you think our government can do to help students like you?
Well, everyone wants the Dream Act to pass, to help AB540 students get financial aid. But the way I see it, our economy is really struggling right now, they're not going to pay attention to giving AB540 students money. But what I would think to be ideal is giving us an easier process to get our legal resident status. So that even though we can't get financial aid, at least we can apply to jobs, and get income that way. Or internships, just give us something to work with.
What advice would you give to a brand new AB540 student?
I would give them the same advice that I gave to my sister. I would tell them that, it's only going to get harder from now on. So, every opportunity you see, just take it, and give it your 100%, and don't think “oh I'll put that off, and get something else later on”. The opportunities that come your way, there's not going to be a lot. That's what I did in high school; I never, ever let a scholarship that I could apply to just pass. Sometimes I would have three applications due on the same day, but that's what I did. Just prepare yourself, take advantage of every opportunity, every workshop. Just don't let them pass, because they might not ever be back.