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FAFSA Day provides support as students navigate new form

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Tina Chavis is both a student and a parent of students at Robeson Community College (RCC), which is why she decided to attend FAFSA Day at RCC. 

“I just need to make sure they’re covered and I’m covered and we can get on with the future,” Chavis said.

Chavis is one of around 100 students who attended FAFSA Day at RCC and one of many who attended at dozens of locations across North Carolina.

“There are people here at the community college that can help you along the way and get you in to get the financial aid services that you need,” said RCC vice president for instruction and student support Dr. Johnny Smith. “And the other piece is that we’re excited here at Robeson Community College that we meet students where they are, and take them as far as they can go.”

FAFSA Day is hosted at colleges and universities like RCC each year to help students and families as they fill out the Free Application For Student Aid (FAFSA), but this year a new updated FAFSA means new questions to be answered.

The update to the FAFSA comes after the FAFSA Simplification Act passed to streamline the often lengthy and daunting process. The form, which usually becomes available in October, was delayed until Dec. 31 this year.

At the FAFSA Day, college staff and volunteers provide support and answer questions as students complete the form. At RCC, a Spanish interpreter was present to provide translation assistance. 

Roberto Castro, a student at RCC, attended the FAFSA Day event to get his questions answered. Castro said he liked the updated application better than the former FAFSA, calling it more user-friendly. 

“Don’t stress it as much,” Castro said he would tell other students filling out the new FAFSA. “Go ahead for it and try it out. And it’ll be easier than you thought it would be.”

Students and families gather for FAFSA Day at Robeson Community College. Laura Browne/EducationNC

Melissa Singler, president of RCC, said the college celebrates FAFSA day year-round, and as a Tier 1 county with a high number of adult learners, works to help students secure the aid they need to attend college. 

“We do everything we can to make education affordable for our students and that starts with the FAFSA,” Singler said.

FAFSA is a critical step for many students seeking to continue their education. Federal and state financial aid is available, but students cannot get the aid they need without first completing the FAFSA.

Zilma Lopes, director of financial aid at RCC, said the new FAFSA is more interactive, colorful, and vibrant, and students can fill it out quicker; some can finish in as little as 15 to 20 minutes, she said.

Smith said when he applied for college as a first-generation student, he didn’t know about aid opportunities. He said he hoped first-generation college students at the event can get the support to get the aid they need.

Singler said she hoped the event demystified the FAFSA experience for families, adding that once the stigma about FAFSA is flipped, completion rates will rise and more students will attend college. 

“I hope that the take away today is you don’t have to be afraid,” Singler said.