Employee Voice Series: Juan Cortes
By Juan Cortes
Growing up, my parents always told me that I had to go to college, but they never said how I was going to pay for it. By the time I reached my senior year of high school, my sister was already in college, so I was lucky to have her to guide me through the FAFSA process. But grants and federal aid could only cover so much; in order to avoid taking on any debt, I had to take the community college route instead.
Even though I did not have to take out loans, my community college’s remedial courses were always overfilled and hard to get into due to the limited spots available.Juan
The limited space in classes prolonged my time in college, and I had to go through junior college for three and a half years, instead of the two years people expect you to do before you transfer to a four-year university. During this time, I worked as a busser and a waiter, saving my money for when I transferred to a four-year school. Since I didn’t know how to find scholarships, I paid my tuition and school costs out of my own pocket with the money I earned from working.
However, whenever my friends and I got together during school breaks, their incredible stories and experiences about college life made me feel like a disappointment who was left behind.
As they were working towards their future careers, I was cleaning dishes and taking remedial courses. These feelings of insecurity pushed me to work hard on transferring to my dream school that nobody thought I could get into: UC Berkeley.
The Next Step
When I transferred to Cal in the Spring of 2013, I felt so out of place. Everyone in the dorm was significantly younger than me, and I had to take out loans for the first time. While other students knew how to find grants and scholarships to fund their study-abroad programs and unpaid internships, I continued working in restaurants and focused on studying. I budgeted my earnings and saved as much as I could so I didn’t have to worry about dropping out.
My hard work paid off, and I got to walk in the Winter graduation of 2014: I was a college graduate!Juan
However, due to one of my credits not transferring from junior college — a fact that my counselor failed to point out to me until three days before the Spring semester began — I had to come back for another semester I had never planned for. For just this one credit, I ended up having to take out the most debt I had ever had.
This left me crestfallen, but — like I have done my entire life — I persevered and pushed myself to work harder.
This experience made me realize that colleges and universities, despite providing numerous resources and support systems, do not effectively advertise to students the resources that are available. This is especially problematic when it comes to students who are first-generation and have no example in their life of someone who has gone through college and can explain how to navigate its bureaucracies.
Moneythink and Me
A few years later, when I found Moneythink, I saw how their coaching team reaches out to students who went through the same experiences that I had.
Moneythink connects students to resources on their campuses, helps create financial plans so students can manage their finances in college, and provides a support system to check in on students who may be too afraid to ask for help for fear of being chastised for not knowing something they would have no experience of. Moneythink’s mission to help first-generation, low-income students obtain an education is why I decided to join their coaching team and dedicate myself to helping students achieve their dreams and make an equitable future for America through education.