Stuck on the JC merry-go-round: running in circles for financial aid


Arthur Gonzales Martin, Staff Writer

I’m finally off of academic suspension after two years of dealing with dispassionate office workers, being told to submit, resubmit, then unsubmit missing paperwork that I wasn’t given to begin with or that someone misplaced, all due to bureaucracy.

I hate dealing with bureaucracy. It’s a soulless machine that keeps everything going as slowly as possible. On a normal day it’s barely effective at all.

My personal odyssey getting off academic suspension started in spring 2014 after I failed math 150B for the second time.

I was taking a Spanish class as most of my family speaks it and it meets a requirement for graduation. But I had a hard time getting on the homework website, getting to class on time and finding a tutor. I finally had to drop it, and this caused even more problems with the requirements for my financial aid.

I went to my counselor to see how to get at least two more units to beat my probation. The counselor told me I didn’t need more classes because I might fail them, and I was better off just taking the classes I had and making it up in the summer.

It didn’t work like that all. A financial aid worker said I needed to complete at least 85 percent of my classes at the end of the semester. A student counselor said I needed 75 percent completion. Even taking and passing summer courses, I still lost my financial aid for fall 2014 and subsequent years.

I had to attend a workshop on how I ended up in suspension and how to fix it. After that I confronted my “very helpful” counselor. She went back on everything she told me and was in full-on “save my ass” mode. As frustrated as I was at them, I understood it was my fault, but I had to figure out what to tell my parents.

It’s not that I was scared to tell them, it’s that I didn’t know what it meant to be on academic suspension. My dad took it the best as he is the cool and logical one. My mom went from crying her eyes out to angrily comparing me to my former best friend who dropped out because, in his words. “College is too full of gay liberal assholes with no respect for Jesus.”

The workshop was vague about how academic suspension would affect me. Was I no longer allowed to take classes at Santa Rosa Junior College? Was my Board of Governors fee waiver gone? And where do I mail the appeal to anyway?

With backgrounds in finance and government, my parents tried to help out in their own ways as I started to battle the school’s bureaucracy. I met with a different counselor and with financial aid services in an exercise of being thrown from one department to another as they verified basic facts over and over again. At best someone would call another department so I didn’t have to walk there. At worst, I walked back and forth between the counseling & financial aid departments trying to meet someone that had understandable answers.

At financial aid I dealt with student employees who seemed lost for the most part or didn’t want to be there. And information about academic suspension is nearly impossible to find on the financial aid webpage.

Finally, I learned I wasn’t getting kicked out of school. I had to get my grade point average to a 2.5, have 85 percent completion of classes with at least six units to a declared major and write an appeal to the state and feds on why I should be funded again.

I switched majors to journalism as I could not get into the science classes for my biology degree. I would need an extension from financial aid to complete the workshop, but I didn’t think I had a chance of getting it.

To raise my GPA I took physical education classes. Yes, exercising is useful for something other than finding you can’t do a single pull-up. It counts for your total GPA, helps with stress relief and is relatively easy to pass if you make the effort to show up.

Making up six degree units is easy as the information for your major is online in your student cubby. You just have to go to a counselor to declare a degree.

The only problem was the last step – the appeal letter. It’s a minimum of one page, with proof, of why you failed each semester and why you should get off suspension. I didn’t have much proof to begin with.

Who documents everything that happens in a semester? Everything that affected me was online and swiftly deleted, too informal to need documenting, was deemed too minor or wasn’t the proof they required. I only had proof for one of my bad semesters, and it was the death of one of my best friends in 2013 due to organ rejection. I tried to get an obituary, which meant more bureaucracy. I could either drive to Santa Cruz to have it done for free, go online and pay $30-50 depending on the website, or ask the family. I wasn’t going to the web, due to how shady the sites can be. The family didn’t reply, though I don’t think there’s a good way to ask for something like that.

That left driving there, but I had lost my federal work study job. I tried getting unemployment, but I didn’t qualify. I was living off of my life savings which were quickly eaten away by my 15-year-old car. The starter failed, the battery had to be replaced and a recall on the air bags led to a month-long car rental while the repair dragged on. I was living off my parents. I tried to get a new job at school, but no one called me back.

I became a writer for a “creative” short stories service, writing mainly erotic stories. I didn’t get a single story done as the ones people requested had questionable legal themes. Plus I only got $5 for 800 words single spaced, too little to write about people getting sexually kicked to death by vampires.

I was than paid to referee the roleplaying game Pathfinder for someone that may or may not have been a pimp and/or drug dealer. I didn’t see any drug dealing or pimping going on, but the landlord had a house full of girls who seemed to all be on some kind of drug, had drug paraphernalia everywhere, and went to work in very revealing clothing. If one of the girls wanted something they had to ask the landlord for money and he was building a hotel that was “close enough to his clients.” He fired me two weeks later, after I said I was studying to be a forensic investigator and my family had cop friends, because “f**k the pigs.”

Finally, I landed my current job at a gas station, getting yelled at by complete strangers for the most mundane of things. It’s retail with more homeless people & stoners.

So how did I get my appeal?

I went to the financial aid office on the Petaluma campus to turn in the Free Application for Federal Student Aid for the next school year, hoping I wasn’t too late. I met someone that wasn’t a student worker about sending my appeal letter for a second time. It turned out I didn’t need it, apparently because I didn’t get any aid for a full semester. I was qualified for financial aid as long as I passed the spring semester with good grades. By just trying for so long I somehow didn’t need the letter anymore. I was happy and mad as all hell at the same time.

At the beginning of fall 2015 I got some more paperwork that I could understand this time and turned it in for the final step.

If you’re in a similar situation, keep at it. It will feel like you’re banging your head against a wall more than half the time but you’ll get there. As for the rest of you, don’t get Ws in your classes.