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Following a Dream to Help Cure Epilepsy

Education, General Foundation News


Age: 18
City: Phoenix, AZ
College: Bryn Mawr College

“My grandmother said over and over again, ‘You are going to college.’ Her side of the family didn’t have much opportunity to get an education. My great-grandfather came to the U.S. as a farm worker from Mexico at age 13. He didn’t even have an elementary school education,” says Maya.

Maya lives with her grandparents. “I haven’t had contact with my biological father for years. My mom just got her high school diploma. We don’t really have a relationship.”

Even though Maya assumed she’d go to college, it was her uncle who inspired her career goals.

“My uncle got diagnosed with epilepsy. It was a big thing in my family because no one knew what it was,” she remembers.

“I got interested in studying the brain. For a project with the Girl Scouts, I helped the Arizona Epilepsy Foundation create presentations for kids of different ages so they know what to do if someone is having a seizure.”

Taking steps to get financial aid for college

“I’ve lived with my grandparents my entire life, but they weren’t my legal guardians,” Maya explains. That made her high school counselor worry about Maya’s ability to get financial aid.

“My counselor told me and my grandparents that, if they didn’t get guardianship of me, my financial aid would go off the double income of my biological parents I never see or talk to. I had no idea if my biological parents would contribute to my education or not.”

Maya’s grandparents decided to go through the process of becoming her legal guardians, which paid off when it was time to fill out the FAFSA.

“The FAFSA asked a few questions to find out if I’m considered an independent student. Like, have you ever been a ward of the court, yes or no? Are you in a legal guardianship? I said yes.”

As an independent student, Maya didn’t have to fill out a lot of the FAFSA.

“It was like pressing a ‘skip’ button. I didn’t have to enter any information about my biological parents or my grandparents’ income.”

The big hurdle: verification

The FAFSA was easy for Maya. But later, when she logged onto the online portal of one of the colleges she’d applied to, she saw a weird message.

“It said that the U.S. Board of Education has randomly selected me to be part of this verification process. I was like, okay, I don’t know what this is.”

“She told my grandparents that, if they didn’t get guardianship of me, my financial aid would go off the income of my biological parents I never see or talk to.”

Maya was confused, so she talked to her counselor. “She told me it means I have to verify my income is what I say it is. I don’t have a job, so I don’t have any income.”

“I found out I had to fill out a form saying that I don’t have to file taxes with the IRS. Then, I’d have to send that form to an office and they send a letter back to me verifying that I don’t file taxes. After that, I’d have to upload that letter to all the schools I’d applied to.”

“It was frustrating,” Maya remembers. “I got the form and it was really confusing. I asked my economics teacher to help me and then I sent it in. They sent it back to me saying I filled it out wrong. My counselor sent me to talk to a woman at College Depot — they helped me get it filled out correctly. She was a great resource.”

Maya resent her form. “It was Christmas time, so offices were closed and I had to wait an even longer time. It was at least a six-week process.”

Eventually, Maya received the letter she needed and gave it to the schools where she’d applied.

“It definitely paid off. The total tuition for my school is $69,000. I got a Pell Grant, work-study and a grant from the college totaling $62,000. So I just have to take out $7,000 a year in loans. It was great finding that out.”

Maya’s advice: Don’t be afraid of making mistakes

“Verification is frustrating, especially if you are applying to so many schools. If I was doing it again, I would have checked my online portals more often to see if I was selected for verification sooner.”

Still, Maya hopes others know it’s okay to make mistakes. “If you fill out the FAFSA and mess up, just go fill it out again. You can mess up so many times. But don’t be afraid of filling it out.”

“Filling it out is step one. If you don’t fill it out, you won’t know if you even have options.”

Maya will be attending Bryn Mawr College. She hopes to major in neuroscience so she can research cures for brain diseases like epilepsy and dementia.