Back to School: Standing in Line Again

Back to School: Standing in Line Again

By Suzette Randolph Hinton

It had been 20 years since I last stood in a line on a college campus. I was an undergraduate freshman waiting in the admission’s line to register. I swear that line was two blocks long! Yet, here I was back at school again – this time with a few strands of gray hair and joints that ached every time the wind gusted between the buildings.

I’d thought I had chosen a time when nobody at the college would be in line. It was one hour from closing, for goodness sakes. Nonetheless, here I stood with textbook bag in tow, slung over one arm and bouncing against an aching back. Giggly kids laughing with each other and talking on their cell phones surrounded me, not the least bit concerned about how slowly we were moving. I braced myself as another gust of wind chilled me to the bone.

What had brought me back to school? I had been severed from my job and my counselor felt returning to college would improve my marketability for re-employment. I didn’t have anything else to do. Besides, I preferred continued education over rejection letters from employers. So I chose the associate degree program at my local community college.

Prior to returning to campus, I had worked for almost five years with my husband. I remember how good it felt to leave the corporate world to join my husband in a business venture. Initially, I provided administrative/clerical help as a subcontractor. We were pioneering a nonprofit company that would aid previously institutionalized individuals with mental deficiencies. With staff available 24/7, these individuals would secure housing and learn to function more independently in society.

Who would have thought that after helping to build a business, being promoted to financial controller, going from a solitary five-figure salary to a combined six figures, and moving to a prominent neighborhood, I would be penniless and standing in line as a college student again? Only a few months ago, I had a career and a marriage. But with the marital separation came job severance and unemployment. I had nothing but piecemeal furniture, my clothes and my son, at least for now. I was facing a custody battle. I didn’t even have a car of my own.

Fortunately for me, my counselor informed me of the availability of financial aid: grant money that I was eligible to receive. It was called a WIA grant which stands for Workforce Investment Act. This act was an initiative on the federal and state level to assist adults and dislocated workers with finding and securing viable employment. As part of that initiative, unemployed individuals were offered training. My counselor informed me of two opportunities: computer training or substance abuse counseling. I told her I preferred substance abuse counseling.

You see, my counselor didn’t know that only a year prior I had inquired about the master’s program for counseling at a local four-year college. I spoke with the dean who informed me that my college transcripts were no longer viable as they exceeded their 10-year window. He said that I’d have to get another undergraduate degree in order to pursue a master’s degree with their university. Disheartened, I gave up.

At the age of 40 something, I wanted my work to have meaning. When my counselor said the words “counseling,” it was as if time stopped and everything else faded into the background. I heard the hallelujah chorus in five-part harmony. It was my moment – my opportunity to get into counseling.

Having gotten this tidbit from my counselor, I was inclined to share. Money woes were common among returning students. Surprisingly, many of my peers had never heard of the WIA grant. In fact, they said they too were drawing unemployment and their counselors had failed to mention this source of aid. The WIA grant not only paid for my tuition and fees, but it also covered my books, school supplies and mileage to and from campus.

The Workforce Investment Act determines eligibility based on the following criteria:

• First and foremost, you must be able, available and actively looking for work • Receiving unemployment compensation on a weekly basis; • Severed from work due to company closing or layoff; or

• Have exhausted unemployment insurance benefits within a 6-month period and have not worked full-time since

At the time of our conversation, I had no idea of the eligibility requirements or what was covered by the WIA grant. My peers were unanimous, however, in endorsing the Pell Grant. They shared that the financial awards often exceeded the cost of college. Moreover, since no repayment was necessary, it was left up to their discretion how they chose to use the remaining balance. At their urging, I dropped by the Financial Aid office and picked up an application.

The Pell Grant is a type of federal student aid. Unlike a loan, you don’t have to repay the money. It can be directly applied to your student account or paid to you directly in the form of a check. Even if you are receiving other assistance, you can still apply for the grant. It might be adjusted somewhat, but your eligibility is not compromised.

I figured it would benefit me to apply. After all, I was unemployed so the more money I received, the better. The FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) application was long and tedious, much like applying for a car loan. Rather than manually completing the form, I opted to fill out the online version and submitted it electronically. By doing so, I could get a quicker response.

I was declined. Perplexed about the reason, I decided to inquire further online. How could I have been turned down? I’m drawing unemployment, and I met the financial need criteria. Perhaps I missed something. I kept reading, and learned that the grants “…are awarded only to undergraduate students – those who haven’t earned a bachelor’s or graduate degree.” This was the reason – I already had a bachelor’s degree.

C’mon line, move! The attendant was opening the door again, and we were moving. Once inside, I began the search for the books on my list. What a maze! Students swarming like bees and gray-haired ladies in blue smocks searching the rows and stocking the shelves. “Pardon me. Excuse me. Oops, sorry!” I meandered through crowded rows unavoidably bumping others in passing, and found that one of my books was temporarily out of stock. Seeing my frustration, one of the ladies asked if I could use some assistance. I asked her when my book would be in. As she went to check, I overheard some disgruntled students complaining about the cost of their books. One of them suggested that they purchase their textbooks from He explained how overpriced the textbooks were at the campus book store and how much he had saved shopping online.

The store employee returned. It would be a week before the book was in stock. I explained that I had financial aid and asked how I should proceed. She advised me to have the cost of the book deducted from my financial aid and pointed to the large sign over the checkout area: Financial Aid Ending Tomorrow. I asked feebly, “Will I have to stand in the line again?” “Yes darling,” she replied, giving me an I’m-so-sorry look. I took a deep breath and stood in yet another long line at the checkout counter, stopping ever so often to rest my books and school supplies on a surrounding row of books.

Oh well, I thought to myself, at least it’s warm in here and the line is moving more quickly. Welcome back to college!

Suzette Hinton is a writer, life coach, substance abuse counselor and musician. She is the founder of Purposeful Connections, a coaching and consulting agency in Raleigh, North Carolina, where she resides, and the proud mother of a 16 year old son, Derrien, whom she has coached for over 16 years.