Earlier this year, a group of 13 dynamic student advocates from the Florida College Access Network (FCAN) participated in two days of advocacy at Florida’s State Capitol on Jan. 16 and 17.  The students were led by FCAN’s community coalitions across Florida known as Local College Access Networks (LCANs).

LEAP Tampa Bay’s Director Chuck Tiernan mentored students Diana Garcia-Ramos and Arisa Nakamichi.

“Any interaction with a student’s personal experience enriches the perspectives we have as LCAN leaders.  For the students, I think the benefit lies in seeing how we, as professionals, craft their experiences into the bigger picture, taking their grass roots story and elevating it to the 30,000-foot level. Suddenly, they see themselves in policy language and data that they didn’t realize applied to them,” Tiernan said.

Both students were encouraged to use their own experiences to talk about how education policy has impacted them. Garcia-Ramos and Nakamichi focused on Universal FAFSA, a completion policy that ensures students complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form (FAFSA) or opt out of completing the financial aid application.

As a first-generation student and native-Floridian, Garcia-Ramos had to navigate the FAFSA completion process on her own. While she eventually found scholarships, Garcia-Ramos is concerned about how the form may discourage other students from pursuing college.

“Neither of my parents had any idea about college—they didn’t finish high school. I had to figure everything out on my own. By senior year, I still didn’t know if college was possible,” said Garcia-Ramos. Her parents, Mexican migrant workers, lacked the necessary social security numbers for FAFSA. “Even though I applied, I didn’t know what I was doing. Unable to verify my parents’ identity, I had to seek outside scholarships to attend HCC. Thankfully, I won several, but it left me wondering how many students like me have no guidance at all.”

LEAP’s second student, Akira Nakamichi, also advocated for implementing Universal FAFSA throughout the state.

“I have seen how much of an impact high schools can make on their graduates’ futures,” Nakamichi said.

With the support of multiple services, Nakamichi was able to find the financial aid she needed to attend a private university. Her aspiration to become a special agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) led her to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, the only institution offering a major in Homeland Security and Intelligence. Despite the high cost, she was able to secure scholarships and grants to overcome the financial challenges of paying for college.

“Many Florida highschoolers do not know how to apply for FAFSA, or even what it is. The fact that many high school graduates miss out on this assistance and look for loans or may not even be able to afford postsecondary education is completely unacceptable,” Nakamichi said. “These people are part of the future of America, and without support, may lose the opportunity to achieve their goals.”

Led by Tiernan, both students learned to draw from their own experiences to engage with education policy.

“The most rewarding aspect of being a mentor is watching the students’ uncertainty about how they are going to address these big issues with these important people simply melt away over time.  When the Tallahassee trip comes, they really understand how to tell their story and then their confidence grows EXPONENTIALLY from one meeting to the next.”

 LEAP Tampa Bay is a network of 17 founding partners from across the sectors of business, education, government, and philanthropy, with another 50-plus supporting organizations across Hillsborough and Pinellas Counties. The network is committed to changing lives by connecting residents to education and training beyond high school through its mission to “transform lives by leveraging the power of community collaboration to accelerate personal, workforce, and community prosperity through education.”

LEAP creates systemic change around postsecondary attainment and is building an ecosystem of partnerships to impact student’s postsecondary journey through a collection of initiatives aimed at expanding access and success in postsecondary education particularly among adults, low-income students, students of color, and first-generation college students.

LEAP is working to achieve its goal of having 60% of working-age Tampa Bay adults hold a postsecondary degree or credential by 2025. As of the most recent measurements (2021), they are now at an overall attainment rate of 56+% having gained more than a full percentage point toward their goal since their launch in 2016.



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