Unlocking the American Dream for First-Generation College Students

By: Juliette Cho, Senior Director of Philanthropy

At Benefits Data Trust, we build bridges to safety and opportunity by connecting people to programs that provide financial resources at critical periods in their lives. Many safety net programs help people manage through difficult situations, while others provide opportunity and lead to new paths.  

Federal financial aid for college is one example. Today is the seventh annual First-Generation College Celebration Day, and I’ve been reflecting on my own experience as the first in my family to go to college.  

As the daughter of driven Korean immigrants, going to college was never a question for me – where and how we were going to afford it was an entirely different matter. The luck of my life is having parents like mine who accorded me the privilege of focusing on schoolwork and striving and achieving academic excellence.  

Looking back now and as a mother myself, I am in awe of all the pavement pounding and information gathering my parents did to learn about and support my college admissions while I was blissfully buried in my books.  

My mom, who still struggles with English, read in the Korean newspaper about guides who organized college tours and would close her businesses down over weekends to take me on them. She attended group meetings for mothers at our church to learn about the SATs and what she could do to support me. She would ask her customers where they and their kids went to college and pass the notes onto me. My parents took turns shifting their business responsibilities to drive me to SAT prep and enrichment courses after school hours. When it came time to apply for college, they even scraped the money together to pay a “financial aid consultant” to review my FAFSA – the Free Application for Federal Student Aid – to ensure that the fields and questions were answered correctly.  

I think back to all my parents learned through sheer effort, against all odds, and cannot help but marvel. Believing in the power of education to unlock upward economic mobility is a key part of the American dream, but we often gloss over all the things that must be given and learned by those who are new to our culture – or new to higher education in America – to participate in that dream. 

"We can make it considerably less difficult for children of immigrants and first-generation college students – like me – to access financial aid for higher education."

Juliette Cho
Senior Director of Philanthropy

I am so proud to be working for BDT where we are building and offering tools like Wyatt, a digital FAFSA advisor, to help students complete their FAFSA form so they can secure federal Pell Grants and other forms of assistance to help them pay for college. Federal financial aid to help students pay for college is out there, yet millions of eligible students don’t receive it. Last year, students who didn’t complete the FAFSA left nearly $3.6 billion on the table.  

We live in an exciting time when advances in technology can help move the needle towards greater educational equity. We can make it considerably less difficult for children of immigrants and first-generation college students – like me – to access financial aid for higher education.  

The Class of 2024 – today’s high school seniors – will be the first to experience the newly updated FAFSA, which incorporates the most significant update in decades to the form, submission processes, and eligibility formula.  The changes are expected to expand eligibility for aid and create an easier application process – but students will have less time to complete the all-new FAFSA this year.  

Wyatt is the trusted digital advisor that I wish I had on call to be able to ask my college affordability and financial aid questions in a confidential, secure way. Wyatt is just a text message away with reliable, accurate answers to questions, like: 

Who should start my FAFSA, me or my parent?  

How do I know if my application has been submitted?  

Who should I name as a “contributor”?  

How should I list my schools? 

And because Wyatt is powered by a branch of artificial intelligence known as natural language processing, Wyatt understands what students are asking, no matter how they might phrase it in a text message.  

That’s meeting students where they are.