I was raised by a single father in Dallas, Texas. My dad came from Nigeria to provide better opportunities for our family. Education has always been the foundation of our family. He impressed upon us at a very young age how important school and our grades would be in the future. He was the first reason I wanted to do well in school. I wanted him to be proud of me. As a result of his influence, I am a huge nerd. I love school and I love learning.
My father is a real estate agent and the Great Recession crushed us. I did not know how bad it was because I was in middle school at the time, but I knew we were struggling. The only way I could think to console my father was to offer to go to college with scholarships. In the 8th grade, I made a promise to my dad that I would pay college with scholarships.
I kept my promise.
I started applying for scholarships when I was 16 years old and ironically enough I never considered student loans. I barely knew they existed. In my mind, the only way to pay for college was with scholarships. No other option was valid or feasible in my young mind. It took four years, but I was able to earn $80,000 in scholarships to graduate from the Honors College at the University of Houston.
It wasn’t until I started my career as a Higher Education Consultant that I started to educate myself about student loans. Honestly, I didn’t even know how to apply for a student loan until fairly recently. I lived my academic life and professional career teaching myself and other people how to earn scholarships to go to college. In my mind, student loans were not relevant. Therefore, it took me a while to learn about the burdens of student loans on our economy and in our personal lives.
It was around 2018 when I sat down to write my book on scholarships and financial aid that I truly learned the economic burden student loans have on us as a country and as individuals. I was shocked and disheartened because I know from personal experience there is a plethora of resources available to make college affordable. The difference is access and knowledge.
Now as a grad school student and a Higher Education Consultant, I vehemently oppose the student loan system, but not because they are a form of debt. It’s important to realize that people take on debt to make large investments all the time. Whenever you purchase a car or a home or decide to start a new business, more than likely you are borrowing money. Student loans can and should be an investment that helps you gain a positive return.
However, unlike borrowing money to buy a car or a home, the system of financing an education is corrupt. There is a lack of transparency and education about student loans. Obviously, there are many student borrowers who borrow money without educating themselves about the risk. Be that as it may, student borrowers are not the reason our nation owes over a trillion dollars in student loans. The system is designed to trap student in a perpetual cycle of debt. Oftentimes, students don’t realize they’re trapped until it’s too late. The lack of transparency and oversight is what makes the student loan crisis a crisis. The system is broken and it would be unfair and irresponsible for me as a professional give all the blame to student borrowers.
Like I mentioned earlier, I did not learn the extent of how bad student loans were until much later in my academic career. My life has revolved around scholarships for a very long time. When I was in high school, I would wake up early, around 5 am, to apply for scholarships before school. This wasn’t too problematic because I was a morning person anyway. When I was in school, I’d try to get ahead of my assignments while I was in school so I can dedicate more time after school to applying for scholarships. On Saturday morning, I would wake up at 5 am again and apply for scholarships until about noon or 1 pm, take a lunch break, and continue applying for scholarships until around 5 pm. I took Sundays off.
I started applying for scholarships when I was 16 but I did not win my first scholarship until the last semester of my senior year of high school. When I was in high school, I participated in the International Baccalaureate program. It is a rigorous college-prep program recognized internationally. I essentially sacrificed my social life to IB and scholarships. It was worth it in the end and I don’t regret a thing, but it was challenging. If I wasn’t wholeheartedly dedicated to my education and keeping the promise I made to my father, I probably would have given up.
When it comes to applying for scholarships, it has to be the child’s idea. You as a parent cannot will your child to want to apply for scholarships. If they are serious about their education, they have to be willing to put the time in on their own to make it happen. You can encourage them by giving them the resources they need to be successful. You can have open and honest conversations about financing. You can even have a professional like me talk to them about the reality of higher education and financial aid if you know that they won’t listen to you, but at the end of the day, they have to be the one to put the work in. It won’t work any other way.
Everyone deserves access to a quality higher education – whether it be college, grad school or trade school. Education has the power to transform people’s lives. Scholarships and student loans are a tool that can help you attain that transformation. Although I am biased toward scholarships, take the time to educate yourself and your child about the different ways to obtain a quality higher education. If you need additional guidance and resources, do not hesitate to ask for help.
Nnenna Umelloh started her career as a Higher Education Consultant to help students go to college, grad school or trade school with scholarships. In August 2019, a year after publishing her second book entitled The Scholarship Starter Guide for New College Students, she created an online course to teach students how to go to college with scholarships. She shares all her scholarship secrets and know-how in the Online Scholarship and Student Loan Workshop. In June 2019, she started teaching other entrepreneurs how to start their own business in the higher education or public education industry. To learn more about Nnenna and these resources, please visit nnennaumelloh.thinkific.com.