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In this article, I will explain how I was able to join the Class of 2020 with a Bachelor's of Computer Engineering from the University of Washington completely debt-free. In fact, I was able to attend college financially net-positive.
Keep in mind this article is not a how-to guide on navigating the college system financially. Instead, I want to share my story on how I was able to pay for school.
For those of you that are trying to pay for college, I hope this can be of some inspiration that it's possible to go to school if you are willing to navigate some complexity.
“You never lose a dream, it just incubates as a hobby.” Larry Page
Let's back up a bit to 2011, the year I graduated from high school. During this time, I had basically zero desire to go to college. From my family's financial situation, it was up to me to pay for school.
One thing about me is I am probably risk-averse to a fault. The thought of taking out loans to attend college just because it was considered the "normal thing to do" directly after high school didn't sit right with me. At the time, I wanted to be a music producer and songwriter, and college degrees in music production seemed to only get you so far for what you'd paid for them.
After high school, I continued living with my parents, trying to pursue my professional music career. Concurrently, I was working at minimum-wage jobs to make money since I wasn't making a ton of money from music-making alone.
My music career wasn't taking off as I hoped, and I was honestly starting to not get the same enjoyment out of making music as when I first started. I've always had the belief that you should be in a career where you enjoy what you're doing. This is what prompted me to not go the traditional route of going to college directly after high school. But with how I was currently feeling about making music professionally, I began exploring other career avenues.
Also at this time, I was still living at home with my mom and stepdad. I felt that staying in my hometown was not good for my personal growth. I felt I needed to step out of my comfort zone if I was going to make significant progress in my life.
My cousin Andrew, living in New Orleans at the time, posted on Facebook that he was looking for a roommate. Andrew is about half a decade older than me. Naturally, I've always looked up to him. He's a smart, talented, and motivated individual. I realized moving in with Andrew in New Orleans could be a great opportunity for me to step out of my comfort zone and make more progress in my life.
I also had another friend from my hometown, Joe, who was living in New Orleans attending Tulane pursuing a degree in Applied Computing. He told me about this Applied Computing program and explained that it was very easy to apply and enroll—even if your high school GPA was absolute garbage like mine was. I could attend Tulane to pursue this Bachelor's in Applied Computing if I moved to New Orleans.
I had saved up a little over $1000, so I had enough to put in a deposit and hold me over while I found a new job in New Orleans. I contacted Andrew and he agreed to have me as a roommate. I packed up a U-Haul truck with my stuff and headed off to New Orleans!
I got to New Orleans and immediately began looking for a job so that I could pay rent. This is when I had a serious reality check. It is quite difficult to make ends meet while working a minimum wage job. (Big surprise, right?)
I sought out a few different avenues to help me pay for school. I knew I wasn't going to get an academic scholarship since I barely scraped by in high school.
Also, FAFSA would only consider me an independent once I turned 24 since I didn't meet any of the extenuating qualifiers. Even though I was paying for all of my bills and filing my taxes independently, I was considered a dependent in the eyes of FAFSA and shouldn't expect federal aid.
I then considered Tulane's ROTC program as potentially a good option to help pay for school. I figured in addition to helping pay for school, I would be able to get training in leadership and have an opportunity to serve my country. But the Air Force ROTC program didn't have scholarship funds, and the Army ROTC wouldn't take me as I am colorblind. And with my less than stellar high school grades, it wasn't like they were bending over backward to make exceptions for me. 😆
I had to keep looking. If I couldn't pay for college through an ROTC scholarship, then maybe I could pay for it via the G.I. Bill if I joined the Louisiana National Guard. Joe told me about some of the computing jobs that were available through the Air Force ROTC. These seemed like win-win options because I would be doing something relevant to my career goals and they would help me get an education.
I talked with a recruiter, went through the medical exam process, and got very close to signing up. However, there simply weren't any computing jobs available. The recruiter said he would call me and let me know as soon as a job would become available. I'm very much of the belief that one should do a career path they want to do. So instead of signing up for some other random job, I decided to wait for the recruiter's raincheck.
Months went by, I continued working as a delivery bicyclist at Jimmy John's and at the Tulane campus recreation center. My dad even helped me pay for a couple of college classes, but I definitely couldn't afford sustainable full-time student status. But at least I was able to feel like I am not completely stagnant while waiting for the recruiter's call.
Around this time, I met my now fiance, Mary. She was a senior at Tulane at the time joining the Class of 2015. By the time she graduated, she decided to move back to her hometown in the Seattle area.
My apartment's lease had ended around the same time so I was kind of at a crossroads myself. Do I sign another lease at my New Orleans apartment to continue waiting until God-knows-when for the recruiter to call me about a job? It had been months since I last heard from him. I decided to move back in with my mom and stepdad in Atlanta to buy me time to figure out my next steps.
Shortly after moving back to Atlanta, Mary came to visit. Her dad, Mike, owns a private farm and was looking for someone to take care of his animals. The job was minimum wage (which is higher in Washington than Georgia and Louisiana by the way) and included a trailer on the property that the caretaker could live in for free.
Mary and I discussed the possibility of me moving to become the caretaker on his farm. Keep in mind, I am probably one of the least handy people I know. I've always been a music maker—never a farmer. However, becoming a caretaker on his farm provided some benefits:
- Mary and I could be close to each other and not have to figure out long-distance.
- I would be mostly free of living expenses while I lived in the trailer.
- There was the nearby Everett Community College which offered solid engineering programs at reasonable prices.
It was a no-brainer for us. We called Mike on the phone and asked about the possibility of me being a caretaker on his farm. He warned us that this was a risky move since I would be moving across the country to Washington. What if Mary and I's relationship doesn't work out? What if working on the farm doesn't work out?
I still remember when Mary and I talked to him on speakerphone when we asked the question if I could become the next caretaker when he replied "OK". I stayed up all night thinking about moving to the beautiful Pacific Northwest to begin this adventure with Mary.
I moved to the farm and the next day I had a weed-whacker around my shoulders and I was in the fields, whacking away. Although I didn't have any prior farm experience, I tried to express a willingness to learn and to be helpful however I could. I helped Mike with cleaning the animal stalls, taking the animals to and from the pastures every day, and doing projects around the farm. I saved enough money to start taking classes at Everett Community College.
For the first time ever, I was a full-time college student.
Because I was investing time in both my college studies and on the farm concurrently, it seemed my quality of work on the farm started to suffer. Mike wanted a caretaker that wanted to be a full-time farmhand. Someone that was, you know, actually handy. He told me he would begin looking for a new caretaker but that I could continue living for free on the farm, but I would need to find another job.
By this time, Mary was working full-time at a biotech company in Seattle. Instead of living on the farm, Mary and I decided it would be better if I just came to move in with her. Mary helped me out by letting me only pay $300 per month for rent so that I didn't have to stress as much about living expenses since I would probably be making minimum wage while I was still in school.
I transferred to Seattle Central College (SCC) and got a job working at the IT help desk. This was a really great job for me because it was close to the thing I wanted to be doing—that is, working with computers. The job also had quite a bit of downtime and my boss didn't mind if I worked on homework during that downtime.
Now with a couple of quarters under my belt, I started to have an academic record beyond just my high school transcript that I could show when applying for scholarships. I applied to the Financial Aid for Education (FAFE) scholarship provided by the Assistance League of Seattle (ASL) and was awarded the aid. This scholarship would completely cover my tuition and books for the duration of my time at SCC. I remember sitting at lunch after ASL awarded me the scholarship and feeling the huge weight off my shoulder.
All the money I made from my job at the IT helpdesk would go directly to living expenses, which allowed me to save money while going through school.
By this time, I was officially making tangible progress towards my degree. I was sustaining full-time student status with the help of the FAFE scholarship. However, there was still a huge hurdle I had to overcome—applying to the extremely competitive Computer Science and Engineering (CSE) program at the University of Washington Seattle (UW).
Let me tell ya, as a pre-transfer student, I was pretty hardcore about getting good grades and getting my ducks in a row in order to transfer to UW. In addition to UW having the top computer science program in the area, the other options either required long commutes (UW Bothell) or would cost me a ton of money from being a private school (Seattle U). I wanted to get into UW Seattle extremely bad so I worked my ass off to make good grades and rewrote my personal statement for admission several times to get it as good as I could get it.
I submitted my application to UW and finished up my Associate's degree at SCC in June. Since the FAFE scholarship expired once I graduated from SCC, I began applying to as many scholarships as I could on the WashBoard.
By late June, I got the notice that my hard work had paid off when I was accepted into UW's CSE program. 🥳
Also, by this time, I am now over 24 years old so I'm considered independent in the eyes of FAFSA. Therefore, I would qualify for a Pell Grant and also the Husky Promise. The two of these together would end up covering all of my tuition plus some while I was at UW.
In addition to the Pell Grant and Husky Promise, I was awarded several smaller scholarships that I was able to apply directly towards my living expenses. Here are the scholarships I was awarded:
- C. E. Boucher Memorial Scholarship—$3000 for an essay I wrote about my desire to be an engineer. I found this scholarship through WashBoard.
- Jussila-Ford Endowed Scholarship—$2000 for an essay I wrote about my background in producing music. This scholarship was offered through the Office of Financial Aid and the application was announced around the time I began the transfer to UW.
- Google Endowed Scholarship—$4000 offered through the CSE program for an essay explaining my financial need. I was awarded this scholarship for two consecutive years.
With the help of the grants and scholarships, I had enough momentum to complete the last 2 years of my degree without having to worry about how I was going to pay for it. I graduated with the Class of 2020 with a degree in Computer Engineering from the University of Washington.
If you or someone you know is currently trying to figure out navigating how to pay for college, I hope my story can offer some inspiration that it's totally possible. It may not be easy. It will most likely require a lot of work and backtracking until you find a path that works for you. My journey certainly would not have been possible without the help of the people, scholarships, and opportunities that helped me achieve my goal of getting a degree.
For those of you struggling to pay for college, keep trying! If I can do this, you can too.