James Madison University wasn’t Alex Herrera’s first choice in college.
“The first time I went, I actually didn’t like it,” she says. “I went to visit other schools. I took another tour at JMU and fell in love the second time.”
This kind of back and forth decision making is common for any student preparing themselves to head to college after high school. For many, though, it’s a luxury. For others, it’s downright confusing and intimidating. Pell Grants, FAFSA forms, scholarship applications—where do you start if you’re a first-generation college student?
For Herrera, Great Aspirations Scholarship Program, Inc. (GRASP) stepped in to lead the way. She’s one of the more than 7,000 students the organization helped last academic year. She met with one of the nonprofit organization’s financial advisors.
“What we do is not really flashy, but it’s crucial,” says Paula Buckley, Director of Outreach and Public Affairs.
Senator Walter Stosch and Dr. Ray Gargiulo founded GRASP in 1983. The organization’s growing team of
advisors are adept at navigating the college financial aid system and the processes required to make a post-secondary educational plan a reality. As the rhythm of the fall semester sets in, GRASP advisors are heading to schools this October.
“Advisors are part-time and have other careers but have a passion for helping students,” says Buckley, who retired from the United States Marine Corps and now serves as an advisor.
The valuable services provided by professional advisors are free to students and families. Fundraising efforts by GRASP make it possible to position advisors in critical roles that help students access institutional, federal, state and community resources. They walk them through the options and processes during individual meetings in schools and during financial aid seminars.
“We help anyone, not just cream of the crop,” Buckley says.
Donna Millhouse has been working with students for seven years. She’s a retired guidance counselor.
“High school guidance counselors have so many other things to do,” she says. “They don’t have time to navigate the financial aid system for students.”
Advisors like her are placed in nearly 80 schools throughout the state. They generally meet with students one day a week. At higher risk schools, they may come in two days a week. Advisors not only help connect students to government grants and outside scholarships, GRASP has its own scholarship and funding opportunities for students to take advantage of. Last year, Millhouse personally helped award 27 GRASP scholarships to students from Thomas Dale High School. Total financial aid packages often average around $13,000, says Buckley.
“I always had an idea I wanted to be in healthcare, but I knew that was going to be expensive,” says Herrera. She’s about to start her third year of college, her second year at James Madison University.
Not only is funding important, but so is ongoing educational support. GRASP’sCollege Success Program pairs students with a recent college graduate who mentors students as they matriculate to a post-secondary institution. They leverage social media and email to help along the way.
On October 5, GRASP will host its annual Reach for the Stars Gala. Students will share success stories and more. The event is 6 – 9 p.m. at the Bolling Haxall House. You can learn more by visiting grasp4va.org and purchase tickets here.