By Carm Saimbre
on August 11, 2020
Elsa Martinez-Pimentel’s journey with uAspire (formerly known as ACCESS) began with her own ACCESS adviser and the ACCESS Last Dollar Scholarship, which helped support Elsa’s way to a college degree. Thirteen years ago, Elsa joined the uAspire team as a financial aid adviser, moving up the ladder to where she now works as uAspire’s Massachusetts regional director, overseeing the organization's largest regional office.
Elsa has also represented uAspire in Washington, D.C., on numerous occasions, to share her own college experience and those of the students supported by uAspire. During the Obama Administration, Elsa partnered with the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics to host webinars for Hispanic students and their families about paying for college.
Her passion for and experience in college access and success run deep – read more about Elsa’s story below.
Note: the responses below have been lightly copy edited for clarity.
Tell us a story of how a mentor or counselor helped you on your journey to earn your postsecondary degree/credential.
During my journey to earn a postsecondary degree, I had two mentors who were pivotal in the process. One of my mentors was a program coordinator from an organization called Teen Empowerment that I was involved in while I was in high school. She really supported me emotionally and mentally. She was also the person I leaned on when I had doubts about having the skills to succeed in college. The other person was my uAspire college affordability adviser.
My junior year in college, I decided to study for a semester at American University at the Washington semester program. This program also included a study abroad component. I decided to consult my uAspire adviser to make sure that I was making the right financial decision at the time, and after receiving a scholarship from American it all seemed to line up.
After wrapping up the semester, I had an outstanding bill and the school would not release my transcript to my home school until I paid the outstanding bill at American. My uAspire adviser rallied to increase my uAspire scholarship and granted me an emergency scholarship to cover the outstanding bill. Without this kind of support, I would have had to take a semester off from college to work and pay off the outstanding bill.
As a student, what hurdles did you face while getting your postsecondary degree/credential?
As a student, three of the hurdles that I faced while getting my postsecondary degree include: financial hardship, not being prepared for the academic rigors of college, and having to work while also pursuing college full time.
Why was it important for you to get your postsecondary degree/credential?
My parents immigrated from the Dominican Republic in pursuit of a better life for their family. One of the reasons why they left their home country was because of the lack of opportunities back home and the limited financial resources that they had. My mother always emphasized the importance of education, and growing up she taught us that education would be the only way out of poverty. So, it wasn’t just my mother's dream – attending college became my No. 1 priority.
As I got older and closer to applying to college, I realized how important it was that I was going to be a first-generation college student. I also started to realize the importance of breaking generational cycles, and I was fixed on breaking the cycle of poverty that my family had been carrying for decades.
What inspires you to work in your field?
There are so many things that inspire me to work in the college affordability space. But the biggest one is the students and families that we serve. We have so many talented and capable young people in this nation who put off college for financial reasons. Second to purchasing a home, college is the biggest financial decision that our young people will ever have to make. So many first-generation college students are making this decision on their own.
My students who have been able to pursue college with limited debt and fulfill their dreams are the biggest inspiration to continue to change the lives of so many more students.
In light of COVID-19, it’s important for students to hear words of encouragement from those who were in their shoes not long ago. What advice would you give to students right now?
Although there is so much uncertainty during this time and the image of what college is supposed to be is distorted, I urge students to not give up. Step into that discomfort! A college degree has never been more important. COVID has amplified the need for a college degree. There are currently massive unemployment rates, and a large amount of the people who were able to keep their jobs and work remotely are people who have careers.
My biggest recommendation is to use your support network to get through this time, but don’t give up on the idea of college. College will be all about stepping into your discomfort and exploring new things. With that said, I do urge you to seek support and to make sure that you’re not overborrowing to get a degree, in particular during this time.
A handful of the alumni nominations we received are for people who currently work at the organization that supported them when they were in high school or college! What drew you back to uAspire?
The kind of support that I received from uAspire was invaluable. Mostly because I was able to gain my degree without accumulating a lot of debt.
Immediately when I saw the job opening for the college affordability adviser role, I thought, “I need to go back and help more people realize their potential, similar to how someone once helped me.” I also wanted to make sure that more students of color saw representation. I wanted them to see messages of hope and encouragement come from people who look like them.
How have you seen the college access and success fields change?
In the past 13 years I have seen: community college and public higher ed institutions become less affordable; FAFSA simplified, but the verification process increased and overcomplicated; public four-year institutions less accessible; and most of the challenges that students face with college access in high school seem to be some of the same barriers keeping students from completing their postsecondary education.
Why is it important to you to give back to uAspire?
uAspire is a one-of-a-kind organization. It’s laser focused on college affordability because we know how many barriers exist for first-generation, low-income students. I’ve been working at the organization for almost 13 years now, and I see the impact that we have had on students’ lives. This alone makes me want to continue to give so that more students can benefit from an organization like ours.
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