The Powerful & The Powerless Part II: Financial Aid

This post is a continuation of the saga/soap opera that has become my second year of graduate school. In the last segment of “The Powerful & The Powerless,” we witnessed a group of returning grad students grappling with their decision to return to a disorganized and tyrannical grad department. 

In this installment we behold the great, gaping sink hole that is the entire graduate program at my university, as narrated by…moi.

My classes are scheduled to begin in less than a week and I still have not received any funding information from my department. This is every graduate student’s worst nightmare: showing up to your first day of class with no clue as to who and how you will pay for the semester. Let me clarify. I am a doctoral student and with at least four more years to go, you can see where my confusion lies in trying to understand why I have not received even a ray of hope that I will be offered a tuition remission for this upcoming year, let alone the assistantships that most grad students have come to depend upon. 

When my cohort and I contacted our department in June, July, and August we were all given same answer: the department was waiting on the graduate school to issue funding and the department did not have any idea when the graduate school would be through with their audits and other preliminary work needed to issue said funding. Thus one disorganized segment of my future career was waiting on an even larger disorganized segment before they could pretend to get their crap together; we would all be playing the waiting game. It did not seem too worrisome in June or early July because the beginning of the semester was still in the semi-distant future. But now we are up on the starting line and there are still no answers. On top of that, I hold a position in my department's graduate student organization and my peers have been asking me for answers. So what steps have I taken on behalf of myself and my cohort to extort some answers? 

I Started Showing Up in Person

Since my department was displacing responsibility onto the graduate school, I decided to show up to their offices directly and speak with someone in person. I’m sure that you will find it very believable that with my luck none of the game changers were in their offices that day (at 2pm...on a Tuesday...the week before classes were set to begin). So I spoke with two staff members who informed me that they also had no clue when the graduate school would be issuing funding letters and that they do recognize that this is unusually unprofessional, especially considering the time of year. 

I think the worstand the best–advise that I received from speaking with these staff members is that “face-time” (the time you spend in someone’s office either asking the right questions or just outright kissing tuchus) will often override the official rules and regulations in place. I was floored when I heard this directly from the staff of the graduate department. This left me with the impression that those of us who follow the proper procedure to secure a place within a graduate program may still be usurped by someone who might be slightly less qualified, but whose face the staff can recognize. Please comment below if you may have a different interpretation.

Where Else Could I Go For Help?

Since the graduate school had no answers, I decided to show up at the financial aid office. Like many other students, the problem isn’t just that I need to pay for tuition; I also have no guaranteed income with the possibility of my assistantship also being tied up with the graduate school. Rent is still due on the first of the month, regardless of whatever my school is going through. Of course with the rampant bureaucracy at my institution, mentioned in this last post, I had to make an appointment and show up the next day. Even with my appointment, the disorganization led to an additional forty minutes of wait time before I could speak to someone regarding my non-existent financial aid package.

Fortunately, I had taken the trouble to do my own research regarding the various financial solutions my institution offered. I learned that my institution could not offer me a federal loan without a FAFSA (that pesky form that we had to fill out as undergraduates). And of course I absolutely DID NOT fill out a FAFSA in time to meet the February deadline, making it clear that I’ve likely grown complacent with my financial aid matters. But I also learned that my institution offers emergency loans. Though this option is only available after classes start, it is a great way to secure a quick loan directly from your institution (watch for those interest rates though).

The representative I spoke with made it clear that because my FAFSA was submitted less than one week ago (and over six months past the deadline), it was highly unlikely that I could secure a loan by the end of the month. Luckily, however, another financial aid representatives I met that day was from my birth country and spoke my mother-tongue (I’m from the clan of Wu-Tang if you haven’t guessed it already). My kindred/countryman discreetly went to the back room and pulled some strings for me so that my FAFSA paperwork was “magically” processed and my loan was approved. Though he did warn that it is not guaranteed that they wouldn’t take most of my loan money and put it toward my tuition instead of disbursing it directly to my account. I still left feeling smugly satisfied that at least one issue was precariously resolved. 

The last helpful campus visit I could think of was a trip to my department. I sat with the graduate chair and of course he still had no answers regarding our overall funding situation. All he could advise was that we were to still show up to class on Monday and that he had taken some steps toward arranging a faculty meeting regarding our voiced concerns about the professors we had this past year (you will recall the first episode of this saga).  

I left campus this day with a feeling of accomplishment that was in drastic contrast to the fact that I had not solidified any answers regarding my funding this year. It may just be a trick of the mind that is wrought upon us as an after effect of waiting in long lines and talking to too many people. But I cannot stress enough how cathartic it is to be able to speak with someone in person: it made me feel as though my concerns were not easily dismissed or overlooked as they may have been via email. I suppose that graduate school staffer was right: face-time does miraculously override the rules and regulations under the right circumstances. 

Never Bring a Knife to a Gun Fight & Other Lessons Learned

  • Face-time, face-time, face-time: Show up or shut up
  • Fill out a FAFSA every year, no matter what
  • A graduate assistantship (teaching or research) may not be the best source of income during the school year as these positions are not dependable and often do not employ you during the summer months
    • Try for a fellowship
  • Find out if your school offers emergency loan options for those times when you are cutting it close to paying bills on-time
  • Official rules and regulations may be in place, but can also go unenforced


P.S.: In case you missed it, my department is finally having a faculty meeting to address the concerns voiced by us students who received insufferable grades without recourse. I will be sure to keep you posted if any infrastructural or cultural changes arise from this meeting in my next installment of “The Powerful & the Powerless."
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