Meet Sancia Celestin, a senior at George Mason University. Raised by her mother, a Haitian immigrant who works 12-hour shifts as a nursing assistant to support her two kids, Sancia is all too familiar with the challenges first-generation students face in pursuit of a college degree. She considers herself fortunate to have come this far with less than $20,000 in student loans, though the fear of debt was a driving factor in her decisions to attend Mason and switch majors (from pre-med to psychology), and it may well determine whether she goes to graduate school. A new Ed Trust analysis suggests her fears are valid: Public four-year colleges are virtually unaffordable for students from low-income backgrounds in every state, and the student debt crisis is hitting Black students particularly hard, thanks, in large part, to racism and the racial wealth gap. Sancia opens up about her financial struggles, how she’s dealt with them, and what she’s learned in the process.

On getting to college:

I’m from Chesapeake, Virginia. I got free lunch all my life, but because I was in honors classes, I could apply for the Science and Medicine Academy at Deep Creek High School, which was outside my school zone. It was still a Title I school, but there were more resources and opportunities because a lot of money was pumped money into this academy. It also had advisers from the Access College Foundation, which is a member of NCAN (the National College Access Network), and as one of their scholarship recipients, I was fortunate to have an adviser to help me apply to scholarships and get free application waivers.

In my junior and senior years of high school, I mostly followed in the footsteps of my peers. When I noticed that they were preparing for the SATs, I talked with my adviser about signing up for the SATs and getting that payment waived. When I saw my friends writing application essays, I did that too. I knew many of them were going to go to good colleges, so I followed their lead.

I originally wanted to go to University of Virginia, but was waitlisted. I decided on George Mason University because it gave me the most money, was in state and not too far from home.

On filling out FAFSA:

My adviser set up my FSA ID account, so I could complete the FAFSA. I’d heard that if you didn’t apply on the first day you wouldn’t get as many grants or as much aid. Our appointment wasn’t until a few days later, so I decided not to wait and completed the form myself. Unfortunately, I misread one of the numbers on my Social Security card — it was a faded eight, but looked like a three — and wrote it wrong on my FAFSA application documentation, as well as my taxes, so that was a nightmare.

I had to call the IRS over and over, praying for someone to pick up, so I could get my documents corrected.

On taking out loans to cover housing and meals:

I got my package and grant letter just weeks before the semester started and found that I was going to owe more than expected. I thought I’d only have to pay about $3,000, but I hadn’t realized that my housing and meal plan weren’t covered by grants, but by loans. That doubled what I had to pay. Then I got an email saying, “Your tuition is due on the first day of classes,” which really threw me.

My financial adviser said, “Just take out a loan. You only owe about $5,000.” But I remember thinking, I don’t have anywhere near $5,000 in my bank account now. How am I going to pay this back? As someone from a low-income background, I’m thankful for loans — yay, Stafford Loans! — but the idea of being in debt was scary for me. I’m also extremely grateful for Pell Grants, because it covers a lot of my tuition and fees, but at the same time, it doesn’t cover enough.

I became a resident adviser (RA) my sophomore year, which saved me. It eliminated my housing costs, and I got a stipend for my meal plan, so, financially, things were better after that. Because I was an RA, I got a reimbursement check for the first time, which transformed my life. The amount wasn’t much — maybe $1,000. But that $1,000 made a difference. I used that, and some work and fellowship money, to save for a down payment on a car and to buy a parking pass. Having a car my junior year helped with my RA job, because I was required to get supplies from Wal-Mart or Party City for our student programs and events. Having a car also made it easier to get better-paying jobs and paid internships off campus at the Center for American Progress and at NCAN.

On the college transition:

Before my freshman year, I took part in a summer program out of George Mason’s Office of Diversity, Inclusion, and Multicultural Education called STEP (the Student Transition Empowerment Program). Mason had sent me a letter saying, “Hey, you can take six credits, and get housing and meals free for six weeks, so come do it!” So, I did. There were 30 first-generation students from different schools, and we lived on campus, took two classes, and attended workshops, so we could get a taste of college life. They told us about all the offices and departments on campus, so when I started my freshman year, I was already over the initial shock of being at a university for the first time. I’m extremely grateful for that program.

Students at Mason are pretty diverse — about 36% are first gen and more than 50% are minorities — partly because there’s a good Northern Virginia community college to Mason pipeline. Many of those students come from low-income backgrounds or are adult students, so I’m not alone. I’m president of the first-gen student organization, so I’m surrounded by people who are experiencing similar struggles. It’s comforting to have other people to talk to, who say, ‘Yeah, I get it.’

But it took time to adjust. I was pre-med my first two years and I felt more alone in that program. Many of my peers had someone in their family who was a doctor, so they knew the ropes and weren’t as nervous about things like whether they’d have to take a gap year before med school. I didn’t have anyone to ask those kinds of questions. I had a student mentor in the program, and some of the mentors were first gen, but they were juniors when I was a freshman, so they were still figuring things out.

On the high cost of being a pre-med student:

The pre-med track was expensive. I didn’t take chemistry until spring semester of freshman year, but there are all these hidden costs, and they add up. You’re given a lab coat, but you have to buy goggles. You also have to dress a certain way for lab: You have to wear wide-legged pants — which I had to buy — and high-knee socks.

On top of that, I had to buy a lab book that I wrote in, and another lab book that I read from. That’s not counting the required textbook and access code for the lecture class. A new chemistry book with an access code is over $300 — that’s for one book that you’re using for one semester. Used textbooks are $180 to $200. My lab books were $50 each, so not cheap. And you can’t pass without one, because you have to turn in the worksheets. If you don’t have that money on the first day of lab, you’ve missed a week’s worth of material because lab is only once a week. Bio wasn’t much better, and if you were taking both at the same time, oh, my gosh! The cost of science courses is absurd.

I thought to myself, Why am I on this track? I was paying so much more money than my liberal arts peers, even though my pre-med peers and I shared materials and books whenever possible. But, honestly, I stopped buying textbooks after freshman year. I looked for professors who didn’t require them. Many of my peers did the same.

I told my mom last semester that I’m not pre-med anymore, and she almost had a heart attack. Her hopes of me becoming a doctor were crushed, like I’m going to be poor forever! I’m a psychology major now, so I still sometimes have to take science classes, but it’s cheaper than being a bio major.

On what’s next:

This is my last year at George Mason and, right now, I’m into education policy. When I’m done, it might be nice to go straight into the workforce at an ed-policy organization or a think tank in D.C. But I’m also thinking about grad school, because I want to earn as many degrees as possible, and it would defer my loans. But I’ll only go to grad school if I get a paid graduate assistantship. That’s my rule. If it’s not paid for, I’m not going.