Graduate Early with Minimal Debt: Erma’s Story

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This week we will be featuring the first of many guest bloggers. Erma Mujic, a Training Specialist with the GEAR UP Iowa program, managed to graduate high school with 40 college credits and complete a Bachelor’s degree in only five semesters of college, the equivalent of 2 ½ years!  What makes Erma’s story incredibly unique, was the hardships she faced just to have the opportunity to receive a college education. Erma immigrated to the United States from a war torn Bosnia at the age of 12, with very limited knowledge of the English language. In addition to her work with GEAR UP Iowa, she is currently pursuing a Master’s of Public Administration from Drake University.

In my family, the word ‘college’ is equivalent to a future without boundaries. My parents, sisters and I immigrated to Iowa in 2001, after struggling to make ends meet in our native Bosnia. The war left the country and our family devastated. We fled from town to town without money or resources, and when the opportunity presented itself, we decided to try and make a life in the United States. Our story was similar to many other refugee families: this new life provided safety, economic opportunity, and best of all, education. Even while we were fleeing from bombs and poverty, the importance of education was always in the foreground. It was my parents’ expectation that I would get a college degree, one way or another. My dad would have sold the clothes off his back, if it came to that.

Arriving in Iowa was just the start of this journey. The beginning was rough as I could not speak more than five phrases of English, and while I was intelligent and received all A’s back home, that did not matter. Since I couldn’t communicate my ideas, my grades and my social life suffered. I will never forget my first report card. Not one single A was to be found on the page. I was heartbroken. Then I decided that after surviving war, hunger, poverty and fear, I had to survive middle school. I put all my energy into studying and learning English. With hard work, I did not need ESL after 7th grade. In 8th grade, I was invited to attend Central Academy, and this changed my entire life. I was challenged and I loved school again. I spent most of my time studying, but with the amount of reading that was required in each class, my English improved dramatically. I continued to attend Central, and made sure to take advantage of all the dual-credit and AP classes that I could handle. Upon graduating high school, I had earned more than 40 college credits. During my orientation at Drake University, I learned that all my credits would transfer and that I would be well on my way to graduate in two years. I could hardly believe this! I would go to college out of high school with half the work already done!

I was at Drake from August of 2008 to December of 2010, and obtained a Bachelor’s of Arts degree in Law, Politics and Society, as well as a minor in Business. Not only did this save time, but a great deal of money as well. Since I had a 4.2 GPA upon graduating high school and had been actively involved in many extracurricular activities and clubs, I was eligible for scholarships within the community and at Drake. My parents are laborers at a local factory with low wages; therefore I was able to qualify for need-based aid as well. I worked since the age of 14 to help pay for books, gas money and other college expenses. Additionally, I lived at home in Des Moines, sparing myself the room and board costs. By making small payments when I could, and utilizing all merit and need-based aid that I received, I graduated from Drake with less than $5,000 in student loan debt.

By graduating early, with low student loan debt, I was able to start a masters program one year after graduating with my undergraduate degree. This December at 24 years old, I will have completed both degrees.

This year marked 12 years of living in the U.S for me. I have lived equal years in each country which I must admit feels kind of strange. Never did I imagine that my life would lead me to Iowa, and that I would find all the opportunities that I’ve had along the way. What I hope you will take away from my story is that there is a way to make it, no matter what your circumstances are. You have to fight for your own future.

Expert Advice on Acing the College Application Process

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For high school seniors, fall is the height of college application season. Iowa College Aid urges all graduating seniors to begin applying to college if they haven’t already so there will be ample time to make the best decision and meet important deadlines. This process can seem quite daunting, so we encourage students to reach out to counselors, teachers and other education professionals to guide them. We spoke with Coe College Associate Director of Admission Josh Kite so he could share advice with students going through the application process.

Students who feel their high school grades aren’t the best reflection of their capabilities should still apply to schools even if they don’t meet all the admissions requirements. A college or university may have special policies or programs to assist students who performed poorly in high school. It’s up to each student to communicate with respective colleges about how he or she will do better in postsecondary coursework.

“The best thing for students to do in this case is be proactive. For example: students can write why their grades suffered their sophomore year and what they are doing now to get on the right track,” explained Kite.  “The more communication a student has with their admission representative, the better.”

Some colleges and universities will require students to write a personal essay as part of the application process. Topics can range from detailing a significant experience that impacted the student’s life, to discussing a current events topic. Students should take full advantage of this opportunity to display their creativity and individuality.

“I will say one of my favorite parts of reading an application is reviewing the essay or personal statement.  This is an opportunity for students to really think outside of the box and showcase their true personality,” remarked Kite.  “There was a specific student that actually wrote her essay in the form of a puzzle.  I found this to be extremely thought-provoking and actually called the student that night to show my appreciation for her essay.”

Lastly, students shouldn’t forget to relax during the college planning process. There is always help available from the student’s potential college, so enjoy senior year and what’s in store next.

“Breathe. I know this can be a very stressful time for a senior in high school, but this is also one of the most exciting times in an individual’s entire life. Also, please never hesitate to reach out to a college admission counselor for help,” advised Kite. “We are here to guide students through the admission process and there is no question too small or too silly.”

Local Experts Advise Freshmen on Making the Most of Their First Year

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As midterms approach, some college freshman may feel more secure in their new role as college student, while others may wonder how to get on track. To help, we spoke with two experts on how to make the most of that first year.  Andrew Beckett, Ph. D. is the Assistant Dean of the University College at the University of Iowa and J. Todd Coleman is the Assistant Vice President for Admissions at Wartburg College. Both experts agreed that one of the biggest mistakes students make is that they fail to manage their time. College is more unstructured than high school and students are held more accountable for their class attendance and academic performance.

“It’s very common for students to do poorly because they simply have “too much” free time and do not set aside uninterrupted time to focus on their academics.  It’s easy to procrastinate and fall into the trap of waiting until the last minute to read the text book or work on homework,” informs Beckett. “ Do you have an hour or two between classes?  If so, where might you go to study versus going back to your residence hall room?”

Most freshmen see on-campus academic resources as tools for those that are struggling with classes. However, these resources are meant to be utilized by all students so they can perform to the best of their scholastic ability. Students should take advantage of these tools as soon as possible for any class they have room for improvement in.

“Perhaps the biggest difference between high school and college is, generally speaking, you have to seek out help in college.  In college, you are responsible for your learning.  Most campuses have a plethora of resources that often go underutilized.  From my experience, tutoring, supplemental instruction (SI), and faculty office hours are the most underutilized resources,” explains Beckett.  “Many students think that those resources are for struggling students. The typical students using our resources are the “B” students who want to get an “A”.  Most students also wait until after the first exam before they attend. “

Overall, it’s up to each student to make the most of their college experience. This includes trying new activities, meeting new people and stepping outside of your comfort zone. College is a once in a lifetime opportunity and each experience offers more opportunities for networking. The networks you build in college will be useful throughout your entire career.

“Make the most of your experience. You’ll be meeting new people, people from all over the world and country; it’ll open up a lot of opportunities. I believe very strongly in the power of networking, whether it be with professors, administrators, alumni or fellow students, any opportunity to build and grow your network is extremely important,” advises Coleman.  “Find out more about your roommate then just his or her favorite food or what time they go to bed. His or her parents may be the CEOs of a company or superintendent of a school district. College is an important stepping stone in life; utilize all of the opportunities that will present themselves when on a college campus.”


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Welcome to Education Empowers, the new agency blog for the Iowa College Student Aid Commission! Here you will find updates and news as it relates to Iowa College Aid, state scholarships and grants, I Have A Plan Iowa® and GEAR UP Iowa. Be sure to check out the calendar feature which displays upcoming scholarships and grants deadlines, ACT and SAT® test dates, I Have A Plan Iowa® webinars and trainings, College Application Campaign events and much more! Every Wednesday will feature a new blog posting, starting next week on October 16. We will no longer be hosting the I Happenings blog, as all updates regarding I Have A Plan Iowa® will now be available on Education Empowers.

The name Education Empowers encompasses the vision of Iowa College Aid, that all Iowans can achieve an education beyond high school. This blog will serve as a resource to students, their families and educators from grade school to college and beyond. We encourage everyone to continue their education throughout their entire lifetime:

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

-Nelson Mandela