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How I Graduated from an Ivy League School and Received My Ph.D.—Debt-Free

This week I’m running a guest post by Dr. Shirag Shemmassian, who is a college consultant with experience helping high-achieving students get into top schools, and helping them and their parents navigate the financial aid process. You can get the following FREE guide by following this link:

Niche Scholarship Finder: The system Dr. Shemmassian used to graduate from college and graduate school debt-free

Get the FREE guide by clicking here.


The Accomplishments

I’m proud to have gained acceptance into Cornell University for undergrad and into the nation’s top-ranked clinical psychology Ph.D. program (UCLA). Moreover, I’m thrilled to have graduated from both debt-free.

That’s the neatly packaged version of my foray into higher education. I know some of you might think I had wealthy parents foot the bill, or perhaps attended a private school with a guarantee of an Ivy League education. Between us, at times I wish that were true!

I want to tell you how it really happened to empower you to make college an affordable reality for you and your family.

The Pre-College Years

Growing up in a middle-class family in Los Angeles, I was quite the troublemaker. My immigrant Armenian parents, both educators, remind me how I used to wreak havoc in and out of the house, hiding or misplacing important bills and cookware and often playing in the dirt.  However, their concern grew when I was eight years old; I could not control my facial and bodily tics, which made me the target of ridicule from my peers and impacted my focus on schoolwork. Two years later, a child neurologist diagnosed me with Tourette Syndrome (TS), which I knew would significantly shape my future goals.

Along with my brother, we lived in small apartments all but two years of our lives in the United States. We attended Armenian private schools from preschool through 12th grade on need-based tuition reductions, despite tuition never exceeding $5,000. We couldn’t afford an SAT course, and we certainly didn’t hire private SAT tutors or admissions consultants. I didn’t receive a dime from my parents for college—and I never asked.

Freshman Applications

When it came time to apply to college, I was set to be one of the roughly 4 out of 60 graduating seniors (~7%; much less than UCLA’s 23% acceptance rate in 2004) from my high school who matriculated into UCLA every year. Feeling confident, I only applied to FIVE schools: California State University, Northridge (CSUN; my local state university), UNC Chapel Hill (I’ve been a huge fan of their basketball team since my parents bought me a mug with their emblem at a young age), UCLA (my Ph.D. alum dad planted the Bruin seeds early, and my brother was a student there), UC Berkeley, and Stanford (my pipe dream).

While driving home after seeing a friend one night in March 2004, my brother called to notify me that I had been rejected from UCLA; I cried during the entire 30-minute drive. Fortunately, within the next few weeks, I found out about my acceptance to UC Berkeley but decided to write an appeal to UCLA anyway. Besides their less-than-1% appeal acceptance rate, why not? I was playing with house money.

I reread my original UC application and realized how boring it was. As a student diagnosed with TS, I had a lot of deeper life experiences to share about my social and academic struggles and about how I wanted to translate these into positive work in the medical or mental health field. Some experts claim students should never disclose disabilities or mental health conditions because admissions committees don’t want to take the “risk” in admitting individuals with such conditions. The true risk? Me initially writing bland admissions essays rather than describing my true feelings, perspectives, and barriers to succeeding in school. I took the plunge and wrote about my TS. It worked.

My Financial Solution: Freshman & Sophomore Year

I’ll start by sharing share some actual numbers: UCLA’s tuition during the 2004-2005 academic year when I enrolled as a freshman was $6,575.52. That’s a far cry from the 2015-2016 academic year’s tuition of $13,521.

While I received around $3,000 in grant money during my freshman and sophomore years, I had to somehow supplement my tuition costs.

So, I got creative.

I applied to several local and niche scholarships that I found through Google searches. The Raoul Teilhet Scholarships for dependents of California Federation of Teachers members? $3,000. The Armenian Educational Foundation Richard R. Tufenkian Scholarship? $2,500. The William Ervant Docter Educational Fund Scholarship? ANOTHER $3,000. I can list others, but the important thing is that I was able to accumulate enough money from multiple smaller scholarships to not only pay my entire tuition, but also be refunded the several-thousand-dollar difference every quarter.

And here’s the thing: anyone can do it.

First, list everything you can about your background and activities. Are you part of an ethnic minority group (e.g., Korean American)? Do you belong to any religious (Jewish students, click here), volunteer, social, or athletic organizations (bowlers, I haven’t forgotten about you)? How about your parents? Are you a female? What city and state do you live in? Do you have cerebral palsy or another disability? Are you vegetarian? Left-handed (I’m not kidding!)? Second, speak with your high school college counselor and check local high schools’ websites for a list of scholarships based on your background. And of course, use Google! I just searched for “Armenian Student Scholarships” on Google and found this incredible pdf that lists 40(!) different scholarships that Armenian students may be eligible for.

I encourage all my students to apply for niche scholarships in addition to well-known national scholarships for the following two reasons: 1) lesser known scholarships have significantly less competition, and 2) many niche scholarships provide as much money, if not more, than national scholarships do.

Transfer Applications

I felt fortunate to attend UCLA for my first two college years and didn’t need to leave. Nevertheless, I wanted to experience college and diversity far removed from what I had known my whole life. Still, if I was going to transfer out of UCLA, I wanted a great deal. Therefore, I sent transfer applications to 6 Ivy League schools and Stanford because my research indicated that, while these schools have high sticker prices, they meet some of the highest need percentages across all American universities. Therefore, they can offer some of the greatest educational values. I wrote another personal admissions essay highlighting my reasons for transferring. It worked again, and I chose to attend my beloved Cornell (Go Big Red!), which received a 96 Earnings and 97 Loan repayment score on the Brookings Institute’s value-added college ranking system.

My Financial Solution: Junior & Senior Year

To illustrate how well-endowed colleges provide incredible grant funding, I’ve highlighted Cornell’s Financial Aid Initiatives page, which lists the following current caps for need-based aid based on your family’s total income:

  • Under $60,000 annually: $0
  • Between $60,000 and $75,000 annually: $2,500
  • Between $75,000 and $120,000 annually: $5,000
  • Above $120,000 annually: $75,000

They even match other Ivy League schools’ financial aid offers, as well as those from Stanford, Duke, and MIT (shout-out to Jessica)!

Cornell’s tuition during the 2006-2007 academic year when I enrolled as a junior was $31,881. There was no way I could afford that without taking massive loans. Fortunately, I didn’t have to. Cornell offered more than $29,000 in grant funding, and I supplemented the remainder of my tuition and living expenses with niche scholarships (e.g., $2,000 from the Armenian Students’ Association’s Gold Medal Award in 2007), similar to my time at UCLA.

Graduate School Applications

Upon graduating college, I worked for a year at an autism research lab at UCLA and applied for Ph.D. programs in clinical psychology. I used my personal statement to discuss how living with TS cultivated in me a passion for mental health research and practice that led me to study developmental psychology and pursue various research and volunteering experiences. Furthermore, I wrote about my realization that the psychological healing process requires a deeper understanding of patients’ struggles beyond symptoms and about how I could channel my own experiences with TS to empathize with others’ challenges. My empathy would in turn allow me to conduct high-quality research and provide excellent care. Again, it worked.

My Financial Solution: Graduate School

While UCLA’s Clinical Psychology Ph.D. program covered tuition and guaranteed first-year funding and teaching assistantships thereafter for basic expenses, I sought more time and research flexibility afforded by outside funding. This time, in addition to smaller-scale university fellowships (e.g, around $5,000 from the Graduate Summer Research Mentorship Fellowship), I applied for and received a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship and the niche, yet national Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans. Between these two, I was able to earn an average stipend close to $30,000 per year, in addition to full tuition coverage, and to graduate without loans.

Your Financial Solution

I recognize that your or your child’s financial, academic, and personal situations may be very different from mine when I applied to college. Yet, as the average student loan debt for the Class of 2015 exceeded $35,000, my goal is to provide a real-world example of navigating the complex financial aid system. It’s a glimpse into the guidance I offer to the families I am fortunate to work with.

As my story demonstrates, I didn’t have many social and economic advantages, nor did I know more than the average student, at first. To make up the knowledge and financial difference, I reflected on who I uniquely am ─ an Armenian American with Tourette Syndrome and immigrant educator parents ─ to fund my higher education through the generosity of various colleges, government programs, and niche scholarships and to graduate as a Big Red Bruin … debt-free.

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