As college students around the country begin their first month of classes, after a long summer break, there are a number of students who won't have that same opportunity to go back to school. Between a stagnant economy, increasing unemployment numbers and less endowment money, students are pretty much stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to financing their education. Vice President Joe Biden will travel to Syracuse, New York, this Wednesday to talk about college access and affordability, helping families learn how to save and pay for it all. Unfortunately, 19-year-old Justina Johnson didn't have that prior knowledge. After being the first in her family to be accepted into Spelman College, Johnson struggled to find the money to pay for school. She tells ESSENCE.com how she barely made it through her first year and why she believes she wasn't able to ultimately achieve her dreams.
ESSENCE.COM: When did you first realize that you may not be able to afford to attend Spelman?
JUSTINA JOHNSON: It was over the summer before I started my freshmen year, when I was asked to submit my housing deposit. My mother was already struggling, working as a cashier at Office Depot and as a stocker at Wal-Mart. My cousin graciously helped me with my housing deposit, but that was just the beginning of my financial problems.
ESSENCE.COM: After getting your housing deposit paid, what kind of financial aid package did you receive?
JOHNSON: When I arrived at school to speak with my financial advisor, I was informed that I didn't have enough financial aid to help me pay for the semester, let alone for the year. I'd have to get the money from an outside scholarships, grants and loans. I had always been advised not take out loans because it's such a hassle and stress to pay them back. At this point, I wanted to go to Spelman by any means necessary, so I just took out a bunch of loans.
ESSENCE.COM: Was it hard to get the loans?
JOHNSON: It was a bit challenging. I was able to obtain one subsidized loan and two unsubsidized loans since my mom didn't qualify for the Parent Plus loan.
ESSENCE.COM: What about any federal grants?
JOHNSON: I did receive the federal Pell grant, but by the time school started, my Pell grant was removed from my account. I went to my Financial Aid advisor and she told me that the school uses several means of doing a financial background check and even after my mom and I showed her that we could barely make ends meet, we still didn't qualify. So I lost the Pell grant which was a significant amount of money and was really going to help me pay for college.
ESSENCE.COM: What was your next step?
JOHNSON: My mother and I went back to speak with the Financial Aid advisor and we prayed for a miracle. The advisor received a call while we were in the office and after hanging up the phone, informed me that I received a scholarship. It was wonderful news to hear!
ESSENCE.COM: That's fantastic. So, you made it through the hurdle of the first semester of your freshman year. But how did the second semester go?
JOHNSON: Second semester was rough. It was like I took two steps forward and now I'm taking three steps back. I couldn't get the money to cover my tuition for the second semester. I kept thinking to myself, I know this can't be the end. I'm just in my first year of college. There's no way I'm going to give up this easily. I obtained a work study job, searched for scholarships and applied to as many as I could find. My work study helped me to buy books, but I still had a major balance due on my tuition account.
ESSENCE.COM: Wow, so after the struggle to get accepted into Spelman and be successful in your freshman year, where are you now?
JOHNSON: I had to withdraw from school. It was hard deciding to leave because I really wanted to stay, but the pressure on my family and me was just too much to handle. I walked away from this experience feeling like the people who really want to go to school get looked over and aren't given very much recognition of what we have to go through to stay in college.
Jennifer "Jaki" Johnson is a 2010 graduate of Spelman College. She is a featured reporter on Kiss 104.1FM, where she discusses different ways students can pay for college.