UC Berkeley financial aid bureaucracy threatens students’ education, mental health

My whole struggle with the financial aid department at UC Berkeley started with me falling from my bunk bed two weeks before finals. Math isn’t my specialty, but missing out on final review sessions due to being half-blind and sustaining a concussion definitely didn’t help. I failed the final. As a first-generation, low-income college student and someone who was determined to succeed, just like every other doe-eyed freshman, I was shattered.

I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t know where to go, and I didn’t know how to fix it. I didn’t even know failing the final would have implications for my financial aid or that I was supposed to file any type of form — until the financial aid office reached out to me well after the deadline for Satisfactory Academic Progress, or SAP, appeals. My adviser told me to not worry about it. In retrospect, I should have researched on my own and not blindly trusted someone. But why wouldn’t I have trusted my adviser?

After a whole month of not attending class because of seizures from my newly prescribed antidepressants, I realized very quickly that my balance on CalCentral was not clearing up. I met with the financial aid office in person and discussed this with an adviser; he said he’d run my case through the committee and that it should be approved within the next couple of days.

It never was. As a result, I was left struggling to solidify student loans because I wasn’t offered financial aid and I didn’t have anyone who was willing to co-sign a massive $18,000 private loan — a daunting financial task to take on for anyone, especially for immigrant families.

I met with every bureaucratic agency I could think of: financial aid, Cal Student Central, Letters & Science advising, the Educational Opportunity Program, or EOP. And every time, I was redirected: Talk to financial aid, talk to EOP, or get a job to pay it off yourself. I was panicking at this point. I submitted a second SAP appeal because the financial aid office said it might be able to offer me funding for the year, but that appeal was denied because I wasn’t enrolled in classes. But I couldn’t enroll in classes because I had a hold from the summer for failing my math class, which I failed because of medical reasons. It was becoming a vicious cycle.

I talked to the assistant dean, Chancellor Carol Christ, my college adviser and EOP. The last resort, which everyone was pushing me toward, was pursuing a medical withdrawal. I was being told that it would help with my financial situation. For the first time in a long time, I felt relieved and thought that maybe this could end. So, I gathered documentation and sent the application in. One month later, it was approved. But my fees weren’t prorated. I had sought treatment for depression too late into the semester.

My debt had accumulated to $24,000 at this point because of late fees and spring housing fees. My depression got worse, I was nearly forced into homelessness, and my basic needs were compromised.

Still, I kept pushing. I went back to my EOP adviser, and she was able to escalate my case to an assistant vice chancellor for equity and inclusion. And just like that, it was over. Financial aid gave me the funding I needed to clear my debt. The Daily Californian had published an article on me, shedding light on my story, which drew attention to my GoFundMe. People were finally listening.

This experience really highlighted the bureaucracy of UC Berkeley and the importance of mental health for me. The campus sends out messages saying it cares about us, but it seems to have a culture of normalizing mental health issues. It almost feels like stress is a requirement. The campus sends out llamas and dogs, and the chancellor has open conversations with students about the campus environment — and then it ends there.

Care for mental health is not as accessible as it should be, and when you reach out to professors about your struggles, you may be shrugged off (at least in my experience). When students need help navigating the financial aid system while struggling with basic needs, mental health and physical health, we’re sent around in circles.

I am an extremely lucky student, and the fact that this statement is true is disappointing. I know so many other students who weren’t lucky enough to find solutions to their financial aid struggles and dropped out for good. I know so many others who are still fighting battles they shouldn’t have to fight. So, to the administration: If you’re reading this, you need to do better. If you’re ever willing to have an open conversation, I’m willing to meet with you. This shouldn’t happen ever again, to anyone. Especially at one of the top universities in the world.

Anh-vy Pash is a sophomore at UC Berkeley.