As a first-generation college graduate, I understood if I wanted to get a college education, it was my responsibility to pay for school. I wanted to avoid student loans and take advantage of as many “free aid” resources I could.
I attended a four-year institution relying solely on scholarships and graduated this past spring free of debt. My strategy was doing well in my high school courses, participating in extracurriculars of my interest, and writing compelling essays.
Deciding to stay in state for school helped me understand what programs the state offered incoming and current college students. My high school provided a high school acceleration program that helped me pass a series of exams to graduate with an Advanced International Certificate of Education (AICE) diploma. Obtaining this diploma and 100 community service hours led me to automatically receive a full tuition scholarship to any state school in Florida.
By my senior year of high school, I knew what university I wanted to attend, so I prepared my admissions application material and applied as soon as the application opened. Early acceptance helped me qualify for scholarships the university offered incoming students based on GPA and test scores and grants the state provided based on income level. I stayed within my university bubble and looked to the National Alumni Association and my hometown's alumni associations to see their available scholarships. The alumni association granted me a scholarship and renewed it every year until I graduated because I kept my GPA up.
Although I applied for national scholarships, I had more luck landing opportunities with local resources. I received scholarships from the non-profits in my city and the county fair. I crafted my applications to focus on my passion for community service, how I plan to use my college education to help my community, and highlighting my need for scholarships as a first-generation, low-income student.
Landing scholarships and avoiding student loans while in undergrad wasn't by luck, but through strategy. Although I kept my grades up, I still had an average admissions test score. I focused on what I did have that would help me in telling my story, consistently applied to whatever opportunity no matter the amount, used the resources around me (like my English teacher in reviewing my essays), and had the confidence to believe there were enough resources out there to achieve my goal.