Jameelah Ra’oof, a first generation college graduate and author learned through trial and error how to financially survive her college years. She has volunteered, interned, and worked every type of minimum wage job to put herself through college. Teaching herself how to manage money and minimize debt. With an unwillingness to give up on her dreams of higher education – she earned her associate, bachelor, and masters degrees. All of which are in the field of information technology. Ra’oof discovered in the process that being persistent, asking the right questions, and being proactive about taking control of your financial future is critical. Not only for navigating the financial aid process, but also in life.
As an accomplished college professor, writer, and motivator – Jameelah is currently paying it forward by helping students and their families to become empowered with knowledge and awareness. Through her books, workshops and seminars – Ra’oof is teaching valuable lessons on how to save money and time, and how to get access to the financial aid needed for a college education. Recently, I connected with Professor Ra’oof (@professorraoof) on twitter and asked if she was interested in an interview discussing her latest book: ‘How to Survive Financial Aid’. She agreed to the interview and offered to share some of her personal stories and a few tips from the book that would be valuable to our readers.
HBCU Lifestyle: What made you decide to purse a higher education?
Ra’oof: Growing up, I had no one influencing me to attend college. It was not that my family and community were against higher education. The culture where I lived was more focused on becoming an entrepreneur, and college just wasn’t a consideration. My family lived in Marrero, Louisiana, a suburb right outside of New Orleans. As I started thinking about what I wanted do after high school, I noticed there wasn’t a lot of career opportunities outside of the tourism and service industry in my area. My initial decision to go to college came from my best friend at the time. She said: “we can decorate our dorm room”. I thought: “really? That sounds fun”. The funny part is – I thought that was all I would be doing. The experience wound up changing my life.
I attended an HBCU at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I stayed there for a year and a half. I found without family and financial support, the demands of living in a dorm, supporting myself and being far away form home made it very difficult for me to finish my education. So I came back home and transferred to Southern University at New Orleans (SUNO) for a short time, before moving to Washington State where my Mom had moved. I continued my studies and graduated from Evergreen State College. It was a positive experience that changed my whole outlook on people, places, and life.
HBCU Lifestyle: What inspired you to write a book on financial aid?
Ra’oof: The financial aspect of education is a huge part of any person’s decision to attend college. I have come in contact with many people that have completely quit school because they did not have access to the financial aid needed to complete their education. My educational experiences include attending both community and four-year colleges. In all instances I was able to successfully obtain financial aid at every level. There were situations where I encountered students who’s family members encouraged them to put their tuition on credit cards. They chose this method rather than applying for financial aid. My advice to them was that you should finance your education through low interest student loans from the federal government. My brother suggested that I write a book because of my efforts in helping others with the financial aid process.[/toggle]
HL: What mind-set should students have when starting the financial aid process?
Ra’oof: If possible, you should have the same mind-set as you would when purchasing something you love and want. I say this because in many cases – when people enter into situations such as making a major purchase, ie., purchasing a car, they act as if the bank is doing them a favor. Often times, people go into these situations in an apprehensive mode. They think you are lucky to be there. The truth of the matter is that the financial aid officer needs your business. You should enter the financial aid office with a mind-set that says, I need this product “financial aid” in order to jumpstart my education. Persons who work in the financial aid office are there to help you.
HL: How often should students meet with their financial aid officer/counselor about scholarships opportunities?
Ra’oof: Financial aid officers/counselors frequently get new scholarship information throughout the year. The majority of the information is released prior to the fall and spring semesters. The most important thing for students is to inquire about both scholarships and grants. Most of the opportunities associated with grants will have specific criteria that the student must meet in order to receive the grant. Persistence pays off. You have to stay on the path of pursuit. It may be necessary to speak to more than one person over a period of time to get the correct information.
HL: In your book you mentioned you were able to propose a work-study job in college and got it approved. How did you do it?
Ra’oof: I didn’t actually know I could propose my own work-study job. What I found out was that when you are doing something you are passionate about, opportunities will show-up when you least expect them. I was always working on projects in the video production lab and I became really proficient at working with software and hardware. Things were really clicking for me. Other students in the lab would routinely have trouble with their video files and other challenges with their software. I found myself working on my projects and constantly helping other students. I really enjoyed it. What I didn’t know was, my professor was observing me and saw the potential in me. At one point, she asked me if I wanted a job in the media lab? I said sure, but there are no jobs available in the media lab. So my professor gave me instructions on how to write a job description. She told me it should include the job role, it’s benefits, hourly rate, and how it was related to my field of study.
In my job description I said that I wanted to earn $10 per hour and I wanted to work in the lab assisting students with their projects and trouble shooting the computers. All that was required for the position to be created was approval from my professor and the department head. The job was approved and I began working the next semester. I got paid $10 per hour. Students are awarded a specific amount of money each semester. I was awarded $1,200 in work-study aid, and had to adjust my work schedule to cover the entire semester.
HBCU Lifestyle: What are the best practices for applying for student loans?
Ra’oof: For years, many students have supported their college careers with student loans. So it is not a bad thing, the best part is the fact that they are available. So many people would not have a college education if it were not for student loans. The problem comes when students borrow more than they actually need. Parents are generally are not involved in the decision making process, and students will sometimes take the extra money and spend it on things not related to their education. Adding unnecessary debt in the process. What students don’t realize is that 10 years later, when they are trying to buy a car or a house their credit score will have been negatively impacted, making it difficult to make a major purchase. Creditors will analyze your debt to income ratio to determine if you qualify for a major loan.
If you are planning to take out a student loan, make sure you ask your financial aid advisor about workshops and seminars you can attend on-campus. Educate yourself about the financial responsibilities of taking out a loan. The borrowed money will have to be paid back with interest. It is not intended for you to go to the mall and get new school clothes for the semester. You have to be smart with your financial aid. The decision you make will impact your life long after you graduate.
HBCU Lifestyle: What general rules should students be aware of each semester?
Ra’oof: One of the most important rules is the 150 Percent Rule. This rule states: “Financial Aid recipient will be terminated upon reaching 150 percent of the number of credits needed to complete their degree or certificate program.” So if you take too many credits hours outside of your degree plan, you may not have enough remaining money to graduate using financial aid. This rule was put in place to discourage students from abusing federal funds. Be sure to keep track of your credit hours and make sure they are correctly calculated.
Another rule is that in order for dependent students to receive Federal Student Aid, the U.S. Department of Education requires that information from your parent’s tax return, and your tax return (if applicable), be submitted with your application.
If you’re an independent student you are only required to file information from your tax return. If married, information from your spouse’s tax return must be submitted with your application.
You must submit a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) each year after January 1st. Annual audits by the federal government are randomly conducted to verify a student’s eligibility for financial aid.
The Student Aid Report (SAR), which a student receives after submitting their FAFSA should be updated as often as a student’s personal and financial status changes. This will help you significantly increase your chances for eligibility. Also, stay in touch with your financial aid officer/counselor on the status of your grant or loan as often as necessary. Doing so will ensure you receive you financial aid money on time.[/toggle]
Jameelah Ra’oof is currently working as an IT professor and an information systems specialist for the Dallas County Community College District. This is the largest undergraduate institution in the state of Texas. She has sent a copy of her latest book ‘How to Survive Financial Aid’ to almost every HBCU across America. If you don’t have access to her book at your school, it is available at Barnes & Noble. You can purchase the How to Survive Financial Aid book online at Amazon.com. It is also available in paperback or in the Kindle edition (eBook format).
For more information you can connect with Jameelah online at the following locations:
Photos Courtesy of BIGSTOCK and Jamra Books.