Power of One iconPower of One
Brianna Fenske

“You’re such a smart kid!” “You have so much potential.” “You’ll do great things one day.” All the things that adults told me when I was growing up now swirl in my head, along with the echoes of my old hopes and dreams. What I wanted to become changed often. I wanted to be a pastry chef — no, a veterinarian! Maybe I wanted to be a scientist with my name on the project that saves the oceans. Now? Now I just want to make sure no one else goes through what I had to.


As a high school senior in kinship care (and unsafe care at that), I felt extra pressure to figure out my next move. There’s an assumption that the only way to get a good secondary education is to attend a four-year university. It seemed like a dream when Washington State University (WSU) offered me early acceptance. I could study and be away from home — in my own dorm — for the next four years? It sounded like the perfect plan! I had no idea at the time that there was a huge catch: The Free Application for Student Aid (FAFSA).

Brianna Fenske Reporter Photo Q4 Tacoma.adjThe FAFSA uses your parent’s income (until age 24) as a baseline for determining how much financial aid you deserve. Most people don’t know how hard this process is if you are in care; it’s even harder when you’re an unaccompanied minor. In 2014, I was introduced to the McKinney-Vento program, when the liaison informed me that I was deemed an unaccompanied minor by their standards. To officially complete my FAFSA filing as an unaccompanied minor, I had to reach out to my chosen school and turn in the documents they required before finding out how much financial aid I would be eligible for. Upon arriving to Welcome Week at WSU, I immediately visited the financial aid office. I needed three letters to verify my situation. Easy, right? I soon found I was wrong.

Unfortunately, my status as an unaccompanied minor was not officially noted, and the liaisons were the only “qualified” persons to speak on my new status. I made many attempts to reach out for a letter from them, along with many other counselors and teachers in the high school that knew of my situation. I received no responses.

My time at WSU was nothing if not embarrassing. Practically begging, I took in the two letters I was able to gather and brought my kinship care court documents as backup to the financial aid office. I was told that there was nothing I could do unless I got the third letter. That was the end of the conversation. Without the option to apply for a student loan, I was unable to buy books. Without books, I couldn’t fully participate in my classes. I spiraled into a long depression and eventually stopped reaching out for help, because it seemed like it was nowhere to be found. I eventually went back home to a guest bedroom, ashamed and $12,066.41 in debt to a state university.

Since I had no plan or any idea how to fix the situation, I left it alone for years. This month, I received a letter stating that a collection agency gave the debt back to WSU, and I had ONE last chance to address it before legal action was taken. I knew this debt would keep me from going back to school and would damage my credit, but I had no idea I would owe nearly $6k on top of the original $12k debt. While I can’t speak on what’s going to happen next, I can tell you that because of my time at Mockingbird, I was finally able to make the first step. The contacts I’ve made and the advice I’ve received, paired with the leadership and advocacy skills I’ve learned, have given me the courage to — for the first time — reach out and ask for help. The Mockingbird Society has given me the knowledge, courage, and confidence I need to address some of the largest obstacles in my life. I hope to help carry that on.

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