‘A catch-22’: UC Berkeley student withdraws from college after struggling with campus bureaucracy

Matthew Gibson/File

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Less than a year after starting her studies at UC Berkeley, Anh-Vy Phan has withdrawn from the school and now faces a $24,000 debt she cannot pay.

Phan started at UC Berkeley through the 2018 Summer Bridge program; toward the end of the term, she fell off a bunk bed and found herself hospitalized. She ultimately failed one of her classes, which meant she no longer met the financial aid office’s satisfactory academic progress, or SAP, requirements. She felt as if she was “running in circles,” until she eventually took a medical withdrawal and shouldered a $24,000 debt while she was also dealing with mental health issues.

As a first-generation student and the child of a single mother, Phan said it was difficult to navigate the campus bureaucracy. Had she known how to properly appeal the SAP decision and understood where to find mental health and financial help resources, Phan said she thinks she would still be an enrolled student.

Phan is not the only one who has struggled with financial aid services, advisers or low academic performance. Many students have had to handle confusion, unexpected charges on their CalCentral accounts or long waits in front of the financial aid office. Discussions of change are underway, but students such as Phan can still fall through the cracks.

“Situations like these reiterate the need for administration to bring students into policy discussions in order to create more centralized, accessible resources/policies that support students’ various, intersectional needs and concerns,” said Katie Chiou, chair of the ASUC Mental Health Commission, in an email.

Campus spokesperson Ellen Topp said in an email that the campus has a number of resources aimed at students who are struggling, including the Center for Support and Intervention and the Basic Needs Center.

“The university places the utmost importance on the health and safety of our students, including mental health,” Topp said in the email. “We also offer a variety of direct support services to students experiencing distress whether psychological, financial, or other.”

Yet, Phan said her problems started when her adviser allegedly said “don’t worry” about the paperwork for SAP, so she did not know that she had to file paperwork for an appeal. While working with the financial aid office to submit documents correctly, she found out in November that none of her forms had been processed and her financial aid had still not been disbursed, according to Phan.

During this time, Phan was dealing with depression. After her symptoms had become “extreme,” she was put on an antidepressant that she had a bad reaction to, causing side effects such as seizures and feelings of paranoia. Phan failed to make it to class until she was prescribed a different medication.

By the time her documents were processed after finals week, she had already failed all her classes because of her poor health. Her SAP appeal was then denied. During all this, Phan had been talking with advisers, professors and financial aid officers.

After meeting with the Educational Opportunity Program, or EOP, and the financial aid office, she was informed that she could try to appeal again. Her second appeal was denied because she was not enrolled in classes, but Phan could not enroll in classes for the spring semester because of the debt she had accrued after her financial aid was not disbursed.

“It was like a catch-22,” Phan said.

Phan said she was told she could do a medical withdrawal to get that debt prorated, but after she withdrew, she found that her debt still totaled $24,000 — an amount neither she nor anybody in her family could pay.

Phan is currently taking classes at Berkeley City College and working with the Student Advocate’s Office, and she has reached out to the EOP to try and negotiate with the financial aid office and the campus.

“Campus sends out messages saying they care about our mental health … but having to navigate through Cal bureaucracy — it’s just difficult,” Phan said. “I’m applying for readmission right now.”

Contact Brennan Havens at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @BrennanHavens.