Your First Step to Financial Aid is... Free! Part 1

Students standing at the FLAMES desk.
Rebecca A. Eckland

If you think you can’t go to college because it’s too expensive, think again! In this two-part series, we will show you the opportunities available to you through Financial Aid that you can access for free. In Part I, we spoke to two TMCC students who have experience with Financial Aid recipients, and who currently work as mentors for TMCC’s Financial Literacy and Money Education by Students office (called FLAMES) that offer workshops and one-on-one training sessions focused on how to pay for college and to budget responsibly. 

FLAMES Mentor Mariela Ocampo knows first-hand the challenges of finding ways to afford to be a full-time college student. When she made the choice to come to TMCC, she was working full-time at McDonald’s—a job she’d had since she was 15 years old—and raising a young child. Even though the Dental Assisting program was challenging, she continued to work full-time throughout her time in the Dental Assisting program, and after she landed a position as a Dental Assistant at a local dentist office. 

“So, I was basically working two full-time jobs. But then I got to a point where I just decided that I didn’t want to do that for the rest of my life. I wanted something better,” she said. 

Ocampo filled out the FAFSA and qualified for a Pell Grant and work-study. She applied for an on-campus position in TMCC’s Office of Financial Aid, Scholarships and Employment.  The rest, as they say, is history. 

“It was one of the best decisions I’ve made. Even though my classes were broken up [throughout the day], I could work in between my classes and I’m still able to pay the bills that I have while working as a Dental Assistant. You need leeway and flexibility [to work and go to college] and a lot of jobs say they can offer that, but they really don’t,” she said. These days, Ocampo continues to work as a FLAMES mentor and is pursuing her bachelor’s degree at UNR.

It might not be easy, but applying for Financial Aid is definitely worth it, said Ocampo. “We know that it can be frustrating… [and] it might seem hard at first, but once you get the hang of [the FASFA], the application process becomes easy-peasy,” she said. 

It Starts with the FASFA... and it’s Free

So, here’s something to keep in mind: Financial Aid is out there, waiting to help prospective, continuing, or returning students just like you.  What do you have to do to get it? You have to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, otherwise known as the FAFSA.  

The FAFSA is available online, and it is completely free for anyone to complete. Granted, there are companies who will charge you a fee to complete the form for you, but according to Leslie Jia, Director of Financial Aid, you should never have to pay for assistance when you complete the FAFSA. If you want help, however, TMCC’s Office of Financial Aid and/or a mentor from FLAMES can help you...for free.

“A lot of people think that [the FAFSA] is really long and hard to fill out, but actually, it’s really self-explanatory if you take the time to read the questions. I think [prospective students hesitate] because you have to use your tax information, and that can be scary for some people,” said Ocampo.

Daniella Trujilo Rosas is also a part of the FLAMES team. She received her associate degree from TMCC and is currently pursuing a Bachelor’s degree at UNR. She is empathetic with students who hesitate to fill out the application. “I remember when I filled out the FAFSA in high school, I had my counselors help me out because doing the application myself was very intimidating,” she said. “I was always very hesitant about what I was writing down just because it was all so new. But, once I started working in Financial Aid, I realized there are a lot of resources to help students fill it out.”

First, it’s important to remember that the application is free, and all you need is your personal information, an assortment of documents (more about that, below), and tax information. If you’re under 24, it’s important to keep in mind that your parents will also have to be a part of the application process, and they will have to provide their tax information, too. 

“I think parents being educated helps the student out a lot. Because [for example] my parents [didn’t] really know what it was. My younger sister just asked for their tax information, and they were like ‘will my information remain safe?’” Helping parents to understand their role in this application process is crucial, said Ocampo, who noted that more often than not, parents are accompanying their students to the Financial Aid department.

“Our office is happy to help anyone complete their FAFSA application,” said Jia. “Right now, you have to make an online appointment with one of our Financial Aid staff—but just keep in mind that we are definitely here for you.”

If you’re ready to start the process of completing your FAFSA for the 2020-2021 Fall semester, make sure you have the following documents handy: 

  • Information about you (name date of birth, address, etc.) 
  • Your Social Security number
  • Your parents’ Social Security number
  • Your driver’s license number (if you have one) 
  • Federal tax information or tax returns for 2018
  • Federal tax information or tax returns for 2018 for your parents (if you are under the age of 24)

Next step: take a deep breath, and make sure you have a comfortable chair in which to sit and some water nearby. This application might take a while. But trust us: it’s worth the investment of your time.

Why Financial Aid Matters

Did you know that students who complete the FAFSA are 82% more likely to continue their academic and professional journeys into higher education?  If you’ve been thinking about pursuing a career of your dreams or improving the career you have, there has never been a better opportunity than the present.  

We’ll cover the kinds of Financial Aid that are available to you right now if you fill out the FAFSA, in the second part of this series focusing on Financial Aid. If you have questions regarding the FAFSA or any aspect of the Financial Aid application process, contact TMCC’s Office of Financial Aid, Scholarships and Employment at 775-673-7072 or the Financial Literacy and Money Education by Students (FLAMES) at 775-673-7263.