Dear MM

Almost 16 years ago, as soon as I got over the shock and excitement of knowing I was going to be a mom, I faced the fear that almost 16 years later I’d be where I’m at today. I’d be sitting here trying to encourage you to dream bigger and bigger, but also to be sensible and make good decisions, keeping your feet planted firmly on the ground, no matter how high through the clouds you soared.

For the past 15 years, I have tried to cultivate in you a spirit of adventure. I wanted you to get out there and explore. The theory that guided me was that you’d never know if you never tried. So when you were not even four years old, we hopped on a plane and crossed the Atlantic for the first of many trips overseas for you. In Kindergarten, I signed you up for dance and cheer at the community center in New Jersey. That summer, I put you on a plane and sent you to another country to spend a summer with family you barely knew. When you were in first grade, I signed you up for ballet and swimming lessons at the YMCA in Connecticut. That same year, I made the commitment to lead you, and several other girls, through the world of Girl Scouting. I introduced you to camping and service to your community. We read books together. Oh so many books. You read me the stories of all of the American Girl Dolls, which lead to your grandfather calling you Josefina.

When you were in second grade, you decided you wanted to play the guitar. Off we went to the local music store and found you a teacher. Eight years down the road, you are now playing guitar in your school’s marching band. You grew into your own skin, discovering your passions. You grew up and left your dolls behind.  You spent your summers exploring ancient Greek ruins and traveling around Italy, touring the monuments of D.C. with your Girl Scout troop, enjoying a girls’ trip to Savannah, GA with our friends, you spent a whole summer camping with me and hundreds of other girls. You’ve done a lot. And every year, I encouraged you to think bigger.

So here we are. In less than three years, you will be setting off on a journey I myself took just 20 years ago.

Like you, I had big dreams. I knew what I wanted to be and “knew” how I was going to do it. So I packed my bags and headed off to the other side of the country. I had found my ideal college. Or so I thought. But there was one huge difference. I did not have nearly as many tools at my disposal as you do today. What do I mean? I’m not the first in our family to go to college, but neither do we have a tradition of higher education in our family. We do not have a family school that everybody dating back to your greattothefifthdegree-grandfather attended. So even though your grandparents were clear that they intended for me to go to college, we didn’t have a plan. I am sure there were resources out there that could have helped me through the process, but I didn’t have anyone to point me in the right direction. My high school counselors weren’t nearly as proactive as yours. Armed with an impressive transcript and SAT scores, I applied to a few schools, but in my mind that was just a formality. I only had one school that I wanted to go to. That was also the only school I chose to visit. (I was flown up to visit another school, but that was not my choice, so I don’t count that).

I got accepted to my school of choice but I had no plan. I didn’t apply for a single scholarship and I only received one or two small scholarships that didn’t require applications. That was a huge mistake because tuition was over $20,000 a year. This was 20 years ago. It’s now over $40,000 a year. Well what did I do? I took out student loans. Don’t get me wrong, student loans aren’t evil. But you don’t want to take out $20,000+ a year! Why not? Because you have to pay them back! I didn’t have anyone there to explain all of this to me. Still, I was receiving a top notch education and I’d have a great career when I graduated, so it was worth it….right??? Well… It would have been a top notch education, if I actually had taken advantage of it. Let’s just say this, I characterize my time at that school as a year and a half long, $30,000 party.  And what a party! waste of money. I didn’t understand what I was doing. I wasn’t mature enough to be doing this on my own. I needed someone to help me navigate this new world.

As you know, I moved back home, to go to school in state but the damage was done. I had missed out on the opportunity to go to school for free in my own backyard. The school I ended up graduating from turned out to be one of the best schools in the country for my major. Had I had more guidance, I would have known this when I was deciding where to go to school. I would have understood the value of what I was passing up. Georgia had just established the HOPE Scholarship. Graduating with my grades, if I had stayed in state to go to college, I would have gone to school for free. Instead, I was deeply in debt and I had basically wasted over two years because, to be honest, my heart was no longer in it by the time I moved back home. I dropped out of college.

In the end, I finally did go back to school but it was so much harder. You were already born and I was working full time. It took me another four years of going to school part time while working full time to finish my degree. Even though it was much cheaper than where I started, I was still taking out loans. I had wasted my opportunities. There was no longer a chance of going to school for free. And because I had a family, a home, and a car note, I had to continue working instead of focusing solely on school.

So here we are, twenty years after my journey started. My college debt has grown. Again, due to lack of guidance, I didn’t know how to handle all of those loans I had taken out so I just avoided them. I put off paying for them instead of trying to slowly pay them off. I deferred and deferred for as long as I could. But I have stopped avoiding and am now paying off. I will be for a long time. This is not what I want for you.

This is why we are doing what we are doing. This is why I am searching night and day for any “free money” I can find for you. This is why you are writing essay after essay. This is why I am writing this never ending post! 🙂 So when I insist that you consider schools in state that you are absolutely 10000% against considering, it’s not because I’m trying kill your dreams. It is because I am trying to make your dreams come true instead of turning them into a nightmare. I will do everything I can to get you to where you want to go. But, in the end, my ultimate goal is that you attend the best school possible combined with the least amount of debt. I want you to finish school and have no regrets and not have any debt. I even want you to enjoy some parties, just not too many! So if you will give me the benefit of the doubt and just consider what I have to say, I am certain you will end up somewhere you love and you will get the best education available and do it all for free. I will give up my first born child if I’m not right. 😉

~ Mom

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Are you my fit? – Financials (Part 2)

The second of a two-part post with great tips on things to consider when evaluating colleges and making a final decision.

Are you my fit? – Academics (Part 1)

There’s so much to consider when deciding which college to attend. This post, the first of two, gives you some things to consider.

University of Mississippi

I want to apologize in advance if this post makes no sense, or seems unorganized. I hope over the next few years I will figure this out and learn to better organize my thoughts about our college visits. But, for now, this is what I have.

Last week I mentioned taking a trip over to Oxford, MS for a football game and sticking around to visit the campus of University of Mississippi, also known as Ole Miss. I almost decided not to go because I realized classes start this week, so the campus would be full of students moving in. Basically, a madhouse. But as I thought more about it, I realized that would be a great time to visit. Since it would be an unofficial visit and we wouldn’t get inside any buildings or dorms, MM would get a chance to see the campus while it was buzzing with activity. So, off to Oxford we went.

MM headed over after school Friday with the band and I drove up later, arriving just as the game was starting. Unfortunately, we lost the game but we didn’t let that put a damper on the weekend. After the game, we got a good night’s sleep and headed out the next morning on a mini-adventure.

Ole Miss doesn’t offer Saturday tours, so we were on our own. A long, long, looooong time ago, I started college at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts. Currently, undergraduate enrollment is around 3,800. I am fairly certain it was much lower when I was there. While Ole Miss is not the largest school around, total enrollment is around 21,000. Needless to say, the campus was huge compared to where I started. We chose to drive around campus instead of walking. Hey, it’s August in Mississippi. Neither of us wanted to melt!

The Lyceum

The Lyceum

We were both very impressed with what we saw.  There are plenty of classical buildings.  The kind you expect when you think of a college campus. White columns. Old brick. In a word: beautiful. And it wasn’t just that the buildings were classical, but the way in which they were presented was also so nice. Exiting a central green area, you approach old world architecture and are just wowed. At the same time, there were obvious signs of improvement going on around campus. Modern buildings housing Ole Miss’s Pharmacy college (I understand it’s a pretty good program), newer dorms, and more.

While we drove around, I started explaining some of the ins and outs of college life to MM. We drove past the Psychology building and she wondered about how many classes could fit in a relatively small looking building. We

Confederate Monument

Confederate Monument

then discussed department advisors, faculty, upper level courses, and the purpose of department buildings. Eventually, we made our way to student housing area. Again, more discussion about college life. We spent a while talking about how it is for incoming freshmen. Coed dorms, unisex dorms, all freshmen dorms, meal plans, dining halls.

After some time discussing dorm life, we found our way to Fraternity and Sorority rows. I chose not to join a sorority in college. First of all, we only had three, one of which lost its charter during rush my freshman year. Secondly, it just wasn’t my thing. But, I want MM to make her own decisions about these things, so I gave her all of the pros and cons I could think of about joining a sorority. I told her what I knew about Rush Week and gave her an idea of what they do. I might have scared her a tad when I discussed why a fraternity or sorority might be made to leave campus. She jokingly asked, “Like killing someone?” She didn’t expect me to say, “Yes,” and mean it. Way to go Mom!

Around this time, we chose to head into downtown Oxford and check out The Square. Living in Mississippi, you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting someone who went to Ole Miss. Therefore, I had received several recommendations on places to visit while in Oxford. One that piqued our interest was Square Books. I was told, if I like books, I had to go there. Okay, so we visited the bookstore and everybody was right. MM loved it. I could see her being drawn in more and more. But, despite my desire for her to make a logical decision about college, I also don’t want her to just pick the first school she sees. We spent time walking around The Square, before I realized we hadn’t taken any pictures of the campus!

MM visiting with William Faulkner on The Square

MM visiting with William Faulkner on The Square

MM getting sassy with Mr. Faulkner

MM getting sassy with Mr. Faulkner

We headed back to campus to take some pictures and also to pick up a souvenir. While we were walking around The Square, we decided we should get something from each school she visits. Initially, we thought about shirts so we could make a quilt, putting the college she ends up at in the center. But, after thinking about it, we decided to do something like magnets. Best laid plans…the campus store didn’t have magnets. So we went with a car decal. I figure every school must have those. We will get one from each school, and make her announcement by proudly displaying her school of choice on her car.

MM & Mom in front of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium

MM & Mom in front of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium

So, all in all, we had a nice trip. Although it wasn’t an official tour, we were able to drive around campus, see the buildings, watch the campus come to life, visit The Square, and, most importantly, spend some time together.

~Mom

New year. Same challenges.

So, we have survived our first week of high school. Although there was a bit of a hectic feel to it, it’s actually the calm before the storm. That might be reflected in the somewhat random, rambling nature of this post.

The school year always starts off with an afternoon of picking up her school books, getting her locker and schedule, gathering those remaining school supplies we forgot, and stressing out over her outfit for the first day of school. Okay, that last bit is a joke. She wears uniforms. Which is why I don’t understand why it takes her sooooo long every morning to get ready!

Entering high school, MM’s school encourages students to find a mentor. The mentor can either be personal or professional. At the start of the summer, we discussed MM finding a mentor who is a psychologist since she has said that’s what she wants to study. While MM was away this summer, I came across an piece written by the editor of a local paper. There was just something about it that made me think, “MM would love her!” I think I was right. She agreed to mentor MM and we got a chance to meet her last weekend. What a wonderful person she is! MM was quiet at the first meeting, but I think she liked what Mentor had to say. (I’m going to call her that since she’s going to be part of MM’s life for the next three years, so I’m likely to write about her a lot.) There is a lot of potential there.

Other than that, there was just a lot of first week stuff. Meeting teachers, getting used to her schedule, planning the year ahead, blah blah blah. It’s next week when the real fun starts.

When MM came to this school in 7th grade, the marching band was super small. She had already been playing the guitar for about four years at that point and since she could read music, the director recruited her in to the varsity marching band. For the first year, she marched and played flute. After that, he brought back the flag corps and moved her to flag. Being a part of the marching band means a very busy fall schedule for both of us. Band practice during the week, pep rally on Friday, and of course football on Friday nights.  Fridays are the craziest as I rush from work to get her food before the game and then the hours spent at school until the game is over. Even though I get a break when they have away games (my one rule has been I don’t do away games, even when it’s around the corner), MM is on the go from the last week of July until about the middle of December. Next week is their first game of the season. It’s also the first performance where MM is a legitimate senior high member of the band. Also, this year, she is making her debut on guitar! Because of that, I have made a compromise on my rule and am traveling to an away game. It’s almost 200 miles away! Yes. TWO HUNDRED. But we are going to make the most of it because we will stay overnight and visit the campus of University of Mississippi. It’s the last weekend before classes start, so the campus will be busy, but we are going to just show ourselves around and check out the town. MM is adamant about leaving the state, but I told her she had to look at local schools as well.

So, with all of this going on (I know, it doesn’t seem like a lot, but it was),  there weren’t any scholarship applications submitted this week. But if you follow us on Twitter, you’ll see we have been busy sharing any great information we’ve found about financial aid, scholarships, applications, etc.  Hopefully MM can shoot off another application this week (we have a couple more quick and easy ones on our list) and we can post a summary here before the week is out.

Can’t wait to share our campus tour with you next weekend!

~Mom

And we’re off!

Today, MM submitted her first scholarship application today. As I mentioned in my first post, we are starting at page 1 and working our way through the book. The very first entry happened to be one that she was qualified for. Actually, most people qualify for this one.

College JumpStart Scholarship is a $1,500 merit-based scholarship open to 10th-12th graders (or undergraduate and non-traditional students) who plan to attend a 2- or 4-year  accredited school. Each year there are two awards, one in the spring and one in the fall. The deadlines are April 15 and October 17. This means there is still time for you to submit your application for the fall competition. It’s a quick and easy online form with an essay of no more than 250 words. How easy is that?

We’re still learning, so the essay was the hardest part of this process. There was a bit of stress, on both of our parts, trying to figure out how to approach the essay. There were four choices, but only two applied to MM. From there, it was a matter of expanding something that can be answered in one sentence to something a bit more eloquent. MM drafted her essay, I made a couple of suggestions, she revised and submitted. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy. I didn’t see anywhere on the site that applicants are only allowed to enter once, so if you don’t succeed…well, you know.

So get on over there  and apply, or pass this along if you know someone who could use this.

~Mom

Day Zero

I’m a single mother with a teenage daughter who has begun her journey towards higher education. She’s starting her sophomore year in high school and already has her sights set high. Very high. Based on her list of colleges thus far, I know it’s never too early to start thinking about paying for college.

Within the past year or so, my daughter (we’ll call her MM, which is short for Mini Me) has started talking about what she wants to study beyond high school and where she wants to go to college. Already she has mentioned NYU, Brown, and Arizona State University, among others. As soon as the words left her mouth, I saw my bank account balance in the red! But, as a mother, of course I want to give her everything she wants. Within reason.

Approaching her sophomore year, we started discussing what it would mean to go to any of these schools. None of them are in state. Many on her list are considered selective universities. This means they accept a lower percentage of applicants than most schools. Although that doesn’t necessarily mean “more expensive”, in MM’s case it does. What this means for us is we have to figure out how we are going to pay for them. I have a good job and make good money, but I don’t make “NYU” money. Assuming MM gets accepted into one of the schools, how am I going to pay for it? Will we be considered a family with a need for financial aid? How much financial aid would she receive? How would I make up the difference? These questions are just the tip of the iceberg and the beginning of a mild major freakout.

We need a plan of attack.

Call it fate. Call it coincidence. But, last week in the library I was scanning the suggested reading display. Prominently featured was a book about financial aid. Basically,  it was a list of tons of scholarships. Score! MM and I headed to the bookstore last weekend and piled our table high with every financial aid book they offered. As she looked up information about Psychology (her intended major), I combed through the books.

What you should know about books about scholarships and grants is there is a lot of overlap in the information provided. Actually, all of it is out there on the Internet for free. You just have to find it. That’s why we were there looking to pay for this information. It’s going to be enough work as it is applying for scholarships, adding all the time it would take to find them it was well worth it to pay for a list somebody else already put together. Plus, the information is organized by various categories and indexed for easy reference. So, what makes one book better than another? First, there’s the thump factor. The harder the book thumps when you drop it on the table, the more information it contains. Secondly, there’s the additional information contained within the book. What is the background of the authors? What makes them an “expert” on the topic? What tips can they provide for your search?

I thought about all of these things as I compared books and finally settled on The Ultimate Scholarship Book 2014. Why? Well, the book really thumped! I could probably do some serious damage with this book. You don’t believe me? Come at me bro! Also, the authors have “been there, done that.” They both were accepted to Harvard but their families didn’t have the financial means to pay for it. They had to work hard to realize their dreams. In short, I could relate.

So here we are, how-to manual in hand, beginning our journey. We will begin at page 1 and go all the way through to the end. And, hopefully, you will be there with us every step of the way. Our strategy is that MM will apply for every scholarship available to her. This blog will document our ups and downs. There will be posts about each one we apply to (at least that is the goal today) and links to any information about them. If we’re lucky, we’ll learn things along the way that will help you, such as essay writing tips. We’ll also blog about MM’s journey through her final years of high school. Occasionally, she will post as well, but mostly it will be Mom posting.

One thing I’ve already learned is that, while it does create more competition, sharing what you find also pays off. That being said, if you come across any “free money” you want to share, just go to the Contact Us! page and send us an email and we will share it with our readers.

So, just sit back and enjoy the ride. Oh, and invite your friends along!

~Mom