While standardized tests and college essays occupy the minds of college applicants around the world, some face the added struggle of having to explain the application process to their non-English speaking parents.

Recently, the Latino Coalition and Student Financial Services have spearheaded efforts to facilitate the financial aid application process for Spanish-speaking families.

According to SFS spokesperson Marlene Bruno, Penn has been working with student groups like the Latino Coalition to create a Spanish version of the University’s financial aid brochure — called “Just the Facts: You Can Afford Penn” — that is located on the Office of Admissions’ website.

When SFS was initially approached with the idea of translating aid materials, “the possibility of translating those sections … was costly,” Bruno wrote in an email. “In addition, it would only support one segment of the student population. Our commitment to responding to students’ concerns for translated information is paramount, but it’s equally critical that the translation be accurate and cost effective.”

For some, though, the struggle to overcome language barriers in the admissions process continues.

Looking back at her financial aid application process, Engineering freshman Karla Fausto — who is from Mexico — recalls experiencing significant amounts of stress, since her parents’ primary language is Spanish.

“A lot was lost in translation,” she said. “We counted some categories twice and could not find a place to put other pieces of information. I just couldn’t translate it to my parents.”

Fausto added that some of the financial terminology was difficult for her to understand as well.

“I remember making several international calls to SFS just to ask something which would be familiar to a native speaker, but foreign and confusing to non-domestic students,” she said.

When it began its push to lessen the burden of applying for financial aid, the Latino Coalition “saw a big gap between the students and the parents. It was hard for the parents to have a good grasp of what was going on,” said College sophomore Luis Vargas, the former chair of admissions and recruitment for the Latino Coalition.

College sophomore and Latino Coalition member Thais Lopez said she had a similar experience to Fausto when filling out her aid materials two years ago.

Although her stepfather understood the documents she had to fill out, Lopez had to overcome the language barrier to explain the application process to her mother.

Lopez, who is Cuban but was living in Miami when she applied to Penn, said it was “very difficult to explain what was going on with these documents to my mom. It was particularly difficult to explain the difference between loans and scholarships.”

While the Free Application for Federal Student Aid was generally more explicit, according to Lopez, translating and filling out the CSS Profile was difficult and stressful.

In addition to its Spanish aid materials to help students like Lopez, SFS has also compiled a list of Penn community members who can serve as “translators” for high-school students during the application process, according to Bruno.

“We currently have several translators available to help students in various languages,” she wrote.

Additionally, Lopez appreciated an information session — which was conducted in Spanish — that the Latino Coalition hosted during New Student Orientation for parents of incoming freshmen, but would like to see more of these sessions and presentations throughout the year.

As a member of the Latino Coalition, she explained that the group is working toward “updating and improving” translations on the SFS website to facilitate the experience for the parents of incoming students.

“A lot of time navigating SFS involves dealing with complicated language,” Vargas added. “I’d like to see people have access to these materials.”


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