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We Were in Their Shoes

Education, General Foundation News

London Johnson & Jassadi Moore

City: Detroit, Michigan
Title: College Counselors, Detroit Cristo Rey High School

Detroit Cristo Rey High School College Counselors London Johnson and Jassadi Moore find innovative ways to engage students and their families to complete the FAFSA, including inviting local civic leaders to provide support during the process. They utilized this and other techniques to help boost Cristo Rey’s FAFSA completion to 87% for the current 2019-2020 academic year. As recent first-generation college graduates, both understand their students’ challenges and patiently walk them through the completion process. In many ways, they are serving as the advisors they wished they had.

Kresge: Why is it important for your community to increase FAFSA completion?

London: Our students want to pursue a postsecondary education, but they feel like affording it is a barrier. As counselors, we can help make college accessible and affordable by helping them complete the FAFSA. Many of our students are Pell-eligible and qualify for Michigan’s tuition incentive program1, but don’t know what that means. We try break down misconceptions and build awareness about how the FAFSA can help them reach their educational goals.

Kresge: What is the most effective strategy you’ve used to boost FAFSA completion in your community?

Jassadi: One of our school’s traditions is to invite Detroit Councilwoman Raquel Castañeda-López and her team to the school to help students and their parents complete the FAFSA. Our school is predominantly Spanish-speaking. Having the councilwoman and her staff come, most of whom speak Spanish, is very helpful, especially among some of our parents who feel uneasy about providing personal information. Councilwoman Castañeda-López’s team works one-on-one with our students and their families to help alleviate any uncertainty.

London: Our school implemented a Nov. 1 deadline even though the Michigan deadline is March 1. We want our students to get the financial aid that is first-come, first-served, especially those who are eligible for Pell and Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants.

Kresge: What brought you to this work? What do you enjoy most about helping students and families with the FAFSA completion process?

London: I am a social worker by training. I wasn’t thinking about becoming a college advisor until my undergraduate advisor recommended me for the position. Then the advising bug bit me. I enjoy seeing the “ah-ha” moment on the faces of students and their families when they sit down, complete the FAFSA, and realize how simple it can be. Everything that they thought was going to be complicated, from the language barrier, taxes, or signing up for the selective service for young men becomes just a little easier. Then they ask, ‘That was it?’

Both of us can relate to our students because we were also first-generation students. When it comes to financial aid, scholarships, scheduling classes, or the college knowledge that I didn’t receive from the adults around me, I want to be the person I wish I had when I was a student.

Jassadi: When I was completing my undergraduate studies, I was undecided about the career path I wanted to pursue but knew I wanted to help others. My advisor pointed me in the direction of the Michigan State University College Advising Corps and serving for the past two years as a college advisor has been very rewarding.

Kresge: What is one challenge you faced while working to boost FAFSA completion rates, and how did you overcome it?

London: Communication can be a barrier because many in our community are Spanish-speaking, but many of our staff members, us included, are not fully fluent in Spanish. Parents may not understand why we are asking for important documentation. But even though many of the parents have never completed the FAFSA, they are engaged because they want what is best for their child. To overcome the communication barrier, we provide them with information during Senior Parent Night and all materials are translated into Spanish. Finally, we always have an active translator at the event.

Kresge: Is there a standout story you’d like to (briefly) share about your students’ experience with FAFSA completion?

London: I want to highlight my partner in college counseling, Jassadi. Recently, a distressed parent came to our office crying and worried because they were struggling with a specific issue on their child’s FAFSA. Jassadi calmly talked to the parent and, even with the language barrier, she eased the parent’s worries. The parent left saying, “I feel so much better.” That was an important moment. My partner Jassadi took control of the situation and turned it around to make the parent feel like there was a solution and that their child was going to be okay, At that moment, she made the parent feel special and loved. Weeks later when the parent returned we were able to resolve her issue. People may not remember what you said but they remember how you made them feel.

Kresge: What advice would you share with fellow FAFSA completion professionals?

London: Take a deep breath and take the time to understand the complexities of the FAFSA by attending trainings, webinars and asking experts. This is a complicated document and we are constantly learning something new.

Jassadi: Understand the language of the application. Although it can be simple, some students have unique circumstances. It is important to be sensitive to students’ situations. Also, incentivizing students can be an effective engagement. When you tie pizza to completion, they might be more likely to be engaged.

Kresge: What advice would you share with students who may be unsure of where to begin the FAFSA completion process?

Jassadi: That’s an easy question because we were once those same exact students. The key part of the entire process is asking questions. Collect all of the information beforehand and then start with the more basic things like creating an FSA ID, completing the demographic information, and other information you know for sure. And then start asking the more serious questions as you work through the application.

London: Completing the FAFSA can provide a level of financial security. Without this assistance, it can be a lot harder to afford the degree or certificate our students are shooting for. Never be afraid to ask for help. Students struggle with this process because they feel like they need to do it all on their own. Finally, write down your FSA ID because you’ll need it next year!

  1. The Tuition Incentive Program (TIP) encourages eligible Medicaid recipients in Michigan to complete high school by providing tuition assistance during an eligible student’s qualifying certificate or associate degree program and during the student’s bachelor’s degree program.
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