Three elected to Onward We Learn board of directors

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (Oct. 5, 2020): The Onward We Learn of Rhode Island, the state’s largest and most comprehensive college access program, recently elected three new board members – Lisette Gomes, Mary Halpin and Ken Wagner.

Lisette Gomes of Rumford, a College Crusade alumna, has served as East Providence Municipal Court judge since 2019; Pawtucket’s assistant solicitor, where she prosecutes criminal violations, defends the city against civil claims and assists with labor arbitration, since 2015; and Central Falls’ housing prosecutor, where she oversees housing code violations, since 2013. She launched her own practice in 2012 to focus on personal injury, landlord-tenant and criminal defense matters. She earned her Juris Doctor from the University of Toledo and a Bachelor of Arts in psychology from Salve Regina University.

Mary Halpin of Providence is a senior vice president of human resources at Centreville Bank, where she directs all human resources initiatives at the bank including employee growth, performance management, engagement, recruitment and compensation. Halpin has more than 25 years’ experience in human resources. Prior to joining Centreville in 2019, she was vice president, human resources at Fidelity Investments in Smithfield and assistant vice president, human resources at State Street Corp. in Quincy, Massachusetts. Halpin earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology from College of the Holy Cross and a certificate in compensation and benefits from Bentley University. She is also a certified executive coach, having completed her training at the iPEC executive coaching certification program.

Ken Wagner of Cumberland is strategic adviser at kmkwagner Advisory and served as the Rhode Island commissioner of elementary and secondary education from 2015 to 2019. He previously served at the New York State Department of Education from 2009 to 2015, ultimately serving as senior deputy commissioner for education policy. His career in education began when he was elected to his local school board as an 18-year-old high school senior, and he since has served in various roles at the national, state and local levels, including school psychologist and middle school principal. He holds a doctoral degree in clinical and school psychology from Hofstra University.

Also at the meeting, board members Adi Goldstein of Barrington and Eric Shorter of Riverside were elected to a second three-year term, and the board elected Meg Geoghegan of North Kingstown as treasurer.

The Onward We Learn supports more than 4,000 students in middle school, high school and college each year with one-on-one advising and year-round programs that focus on academic enrichment, social and emotional development, career education, and postsecondary preparation to help them become the first in their families to earn a college degree. Sixth-graders who attend traditional public schools and select public charter schools and independent schools in Providence, Cranston, Pawtucket, Central Falls, Woonsocket and West Warwick are eligible to enroll in the Onward We Learn.

Onward We Learn hosting outdoor event open to any R.I. high school senior for completing financial aid application

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (Oct. 1, 2020): The Onward We Learn of Rhode Island will host a Fall FAFSA Fest this month to help Rhode Island high school seniors apply for federal financial aid.

The free event will be held from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 17, under tents at the BankNewport City Center – Providence Rink at 2 Kennedy Plaza, Providence. Seniors from any Rhode Island high school are welcome and must make an appointment online at bit.ly/2Rw9GUd. This event will comply with all state COVID-19 safety guidance and all participants must wear masks and social distance. Appointments will last 30 to 45 minutes.

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, for 2021-22 opens today, and completing FAFSA is the first step in applying for financial aid. Students also must complete the form to qualify for state and institutional funding, as well as some scholarships. The Onward We Learn helps nearly 400 seniors enrolled in its program complete their FAFSA form annually. 

“Every year, millions of eligible students who do not complete FAFSA miss out on receiving Pell Grants, subsidized student loans, work-study, and other aid that can help them afford college. This year, it’s more important than ever that we all work together to ensure students get the aid they qualify for,” said Andrew Bramson, the Onward We Learn’s president and CEO. “This event could bring more than a half-million dollars in financial aid to Rhode Island students.”

The organization typically holds FAFSA completion nights for Onward We Learnrs in its office but had to change tack this fall because of COVID-19. “We don’t want to lose momentum because FAFSA completion is too important. Governor Raimondo has encouraged us all to be creative with the ‘Take It Outside’ campaign and doing so has given us the opportunity to open our event to all Rhode Island high school seniors,” he said.

The state has set a goal of 70 percent FAFSA completion at every public high school. Rhode Island ranks sixth in the nation for 2020-21 FAFSA completion, tied with Connecticut at 70.6 percent.

Studies show that students who could most benefit from financial aid are less likely to apply. A 2017 paper commissioned by the National College Attainment Network found that that high school seniors in higher-poverty school districts in most states are less likely to complete the FAFSA than students in wealthier districts.

“This fall, low-income students have been more likely to drop out of college, take a reduced course load or not enroll at all. This jeopardizes their futures and, potentially, the long-term economic well-being of our state,” Bramson said. “Students who complete FAFSA are far more likely to enroll in college immediately after high school graduation, and their rate of persistence increases with every additional $1,000 in grant aid they receive. So there are real consequences when students don’t complete FAFSA.”

The event is made possible in part through contributions from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Rhode Island, Cox Charities and the City of Providence, which donated the space.

Students attending the Onward We Learn’s Fall FAFSA Fest should bring only one parent or guardian and:

  • Their FSA ID, which they and one parent or guardian can create at fsaid.ed.gov.
  • Their Social Security number and driver’s license and/or alien registration number.
  • Their 2019 federal income tax returns, W-2 forms and other records of earnings, if applicable.
  • Their parents’ or guardians’ 2019 income tax returns and W-2 forms.


Participants should dress for the weather, as the event will be outdoors. Restrooms will be available. Students or parents with questions should contact Sarah Lessard at slessard@onwardwelearn.org.

The Onward We Learn supports more than 4,000 students in middle school, high school and college each year with one-on-one advising and year-round programs that focus on academic enrichment, social and emotional development, career education, and postsecondary preparation to help them become the first in their families to earn a college degree.

#DoublePell stories: Gael Sosa

Gael Sosa, a junior business accounting major at the University of Rhode Island, said he wouldn’t be able to attend college without his maximum Pell Grant award.

“Essentially it was my only reason to go to college,” he said.

But even with his Pell Grant, plus subsidized and unsubsidized loans, he still has a $2,000 gap to pay. He covers it by working at a campus dining hall, but he lost that job when campus closed because of COVID-19 this spring. Now he works third shift at Honeywell.

“If I don’t receive the grant, I’m not going to college because it’s just way too expensive. The only reason I’m even allowed to go is the Pell Grant,” he said. “It’s been such a great thing for me to have this grant.”

The Onward We Learn is a member of the National College Attainment Network, which is advocating that Congress double the amount of the maximum Pell award to $12,690 per year in the next COVID relief package. This would cover about 50 percent of the cost of attending a public four-year college like URI.

The maximum Pell Grant right now covers roughly 28% of the average cost of tuition, fees and living expenses for a four-year public university versus 79% at its historic high in 1975-76. That doesn’t surprise Sosa. “From what I’ve read, like 15 years ago the price of college wasn’t as expensive but when you look at the percentage of how much tuition has increased, it’s just amazing. It’s limiting students from going to college. If their parents don’t earn enough, they’ll have to get a job or find another way.”

He spoke about a friend who attended URI for two semesters before something happened with his financial aid that left him with a $20,000 bill. “He had to drop out entirely because he couldn’t afford to keep going,” he said. “You’d have to have a full-time job just to pay that tuition.”

Doubling Pell is necessary, he said, because of what it could mean for many students. “If more people had access to it, you’d see more people go to college and graduating with a degree,” he said. “We’d see a lot more students entering college because they’re getting such a decent amount of money. And that would better the future of the United States.”

Even before the COVID crisis, college affordability has significantly declined in recent years, according to NCAN’s research.

The Classical High School graduate said the rising cost made him reconsider attending. “When you look at the college prices, you’re like how am I ever going to pay that? Especially when you take out a lot of loans and the interest rate is so high,” he said. “As a business major, I think about the numbers and it’s going to be way too much. You hear stories about people spending the rest of their lives paying student loans.”

Sosa estimates he will graduate with about $24,000 of college debt. He said doubling the amount of the maximum Pell award would relieve a lot of his stress surrounding paying for college.

“I wouldn’t need to be working all semester. I’d be able to put more time into my studies and not worry about that overlooming thought of debt after college,” he said. “I’d have so many more options – maybe not even use any loans entirely and not have to rack up my bill so much.”

#DoublePell stories: Kemi Bankole

Even after receiving the maximum Pell Grant award and her Onward We Learn scholarship, University of Rhode Island junior Kemi Bankole found herself with a tuition bill last year. She was working, but it wasn’t enough.

“I had a gap and had to take a parent PLUS loan at a really high interest rate,” she said. “It stressed me out. I didn’t really want to take it, but I didn’t have much choice.”

The health studies major who is minoring in psychology and planning a health career working with children said the cost of college is a source of stress for her and many of her peers.

“I basically rely on the Pell Grant to go to college. Without that and the Crusade scholarship, I don’t know how I’d afford college,” she said. “When you’re looking at the cost of college, you’re like, ‘Oh, my gosh; this is so much money to do this.’ But just so you can have a better life in the future, yes, you have to continue going.”

She estimates her debt after graduation is more than $20,000 and said college debt weighs heavily on students today and influences their decisions. “I have a couple of friends that don’t have anyone to support them for college payments. Some took a gap year, some never came back, some went to CCRI. Debt was on a lot on people’s minds,” she said.

The Onward We Learn is a member of the National College Attainment Network, which is advocating that Congress double the amount of the maximum Pell award to $12,690 per year in the next COVID relief package. This would cover about 50 percent of the cost of attending a public four-year college like URI. The maximum Pell Grant right now covers roughly 28% of the average cost of tuition, fees and living expenses for a four-year public university versus 79% at its historic high in 1975-76.

Doubling Pell “would be amazing,” she said.  “I think it would help us a lot because being in college is already stressful and then we also have to worry about going to work to be able to provide for ourselves and live on campus. A lot more students would be able to pay for their books. They wouldn’t need to work so much and could focus on their studies. There’d be fewer loans to take out and less stress all around.”

“If Pell Grant was increased, it would mean more money to help provide meals and be closer to campus.” This fall, as part of URI’s response to COVID-19, she recently learned she couldn’t get on-campus housing, so she and some friends are trying to find something near campus. “I’d have an hour and 30-minute bus ride from my home in Providence,” she said. Because she’s a science major, she’ll have in-person labs that will require her to go to campus.

“Honestly, it’s very stressful because I feel like we shouldn’t really have to pay this amount of money to have to go to school, so if the government could help and increase Pell it would be a huge benefit on our part.”

#DoublePell stories: Christopher Germosen

Christopher Germosen will be a sophomore this fall at the University of Rhode Island, where he’s on track to complete the final courses he needs to get into the College of Engineering. By spring, he will be a mechanical engineering major with a focus in robotics – an interest sparked when he was a student at Providence Career and Technical Academy.

But getting to college involved sacrifices. “Receiving the Pell Grant is the reason that I attend college,” he said. “At first college was a reach for me. My parents weren’t too sure that they would be able to send me to college because of the cost. I am the first from my immediate family to attend college. My parents and I carefully looked over all the grants and scholarships I received and decided that we would sacrifice what we had to in order for me to attend college. College is so important to me because without it I can’t pursue the career I wish to have.”

Even with his maximum Pell award and other scholarships, he will graduate with $24,000 in debt plus interest.

“There is a big gap between my financial aid and the rest of my tuition. I have earned some scholarships to help close that gap but still have a good amount of money to pay,” he said. “The way my family helps me cover that is by taking out loans. I am obligated to take out $6,000 in loans each year.”

The Onward We Learn is a member of the National College Attainment Network, which is advocating that Congress double the amount of the maximum Pell award to $12,690 per year in the next COVID relief package. This would cover about 50 percent of the cost of attending a public four-year college like URI.

The maximum Pell Grant right now covers roughly 28% of the average cost of tuition, fees and living expenses for a four-year public university versus 79% at its historic high in 1975-76. Germosen said he thinks this is unfair.

“It’s set up for us to not pursue a higher education when we all should. Pursuing a higher education opens up doors we thought couldn’t be opened; it puts us in a great position to be successful,” he said.

He said the fear of debt has a huge impact on students’ college choices. “Speaking from experience, the debt is on my mind every day, especially when I receive my E-bill for the semester,” he said. “I have a few friends that don’t attend college because of the cost. Instead, they stopped their education after high school and got a full-time job.”

If Congress doubled the maximum Pell award, Germosen thinks more students would attend college. “The reason people set out to do other things, for example find a full-time job after high school, is because they can’t afford to go to college. Doubling the Pell Grant would change a lot of lives for the better. It would give a choice to people that they thought they never had.”

Crusader accepted to 14 colleges

One night, Carla Cabrera was home and feeling a little stressed out about applying to college – as many high school seniors do at some point in the process.

“So I stayed up until like midnight and applied to 20 schools,” she said. “I wanted to see how many schools I would get into.” The answer was 14. “I just started getting a lot of acceptances out of nowhere.”

Continue reading

Brianna Andrade ’20 is salutatorian at Shea

A Onward We Learn college visit and tour helped Brianna Andrade, Class of 2020 salutatorian at Shea High School in Pawtucket, decide on her future.

“I didn’t even think beyond Rhode Island until I went on some college visits with the College Crusade. They gave me college experiences I could never have had otherwise,” she said. “Before we took the trip to Trinity and Yale, I didn’t even know Trinity was a thing, and now it’s my top school.”

Continue reading

Onward We Learn will offer FAFSA help to all R.I. seniors

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (April 21, 2020): The Onward We Learn of Rhode Island is expanding its role to help more graduating high school seniors apply for federal financial aid during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, is the first step in applying for financial aid. Eligible students can receive up to $6,345 per year in federal Pell grants during the 2020-21 cycle. Students also must complete the form to qualify for state and institutional funding, as well as some scholarships.

The Onward We Learn, whose mission is to prepare and inspire young people to become the first in their families to attend and complete college, is well positioned to help more Rhode Island seniors complete the form and become eligible for aid. Each year, the nonprofit organization helps nearly 400 seniors enrolled in its program complete their FAFSA form. 

Starting April 27, Onward We Learn staff will begin assisting seniors who are not enrolled in its program but who attend its partner high schools in Providence, Central Falls, Pawtucket and Woonsocket, as well as Cranston High School East and William M. Davies Jr. Career and Technical High School.

In mid-May, the organization will open its FAFSA completion assistance to any high school senior in the state. All appointments will take place virtually.

“The biggest barrier to students attending college is cost and, during this time of economic uncertainty, it’s more important than ever that every student who qualifies for college aid receives it,” said Andrew Bramson, president and CEO of the College Crusade. “Our advisers have expertise in FAFSA completion, so it is a natural fit for us to serve more of our state’s students and help them get the funding they need.”

The expansion of services also will help the state meet its goal for FAFSA completion. Rhode Island is ranked first in the nation for year-over-year improvement in FAFSA completion rates and has set a goal of 70 percent completion at every public high school. In 2019, 66 percent of seniors completed the FAFSA.

“The Onward We Learn is providing a valuable service to students across the state – putting them one step closer to their dream to attend college affordably and stay on a path to career success,” said Angélica Infante-Green, commissioner of elementary and secondary education. “During this time of unprecedented challenges for Rhode Island students, I am extremely grateful that we will keep many of our most qualified and motivated students moving forward. I encourage every senior to complete their FAFSA form and keep as many doors open as possible.”

“School staff and students are being pulled in many different directions during this unprecedented time, and it’s understandable that FAFSA completion might not be top of mind, but last year $4 million was left on the table in federal Pell Grants. We know that missing out on free financial aid means students could be taking on more college debt or maybe not going to college at all,” Bramson said.

To schedule an appointment with a Onward We Learn adviser, email fafsa@onwardwelearn.org or text the word FAFSA to 95577.

For more information on the Rhode Island FAFSA Initiative, including a toolkit with screenshots to help families complete the form and a dashboard showing completion rates at high schools across the state, visit www.prepare-ri.org/fafsa.

The Onward We Learn supports more than 4,000 students in middle school, high school and college each year with one-on-one advising and year-round programs that focus on academic enrichment, social and emotional development, career education, and postsecondary preparation to help them become the first in their families to earn a college degree. Sixth-graders who attend traditional public schools and select public charter schools and independent schools in Providence, Cranston, Pawtucket, Central Falls, Woonsocket and West Warwick are eligible to enroll in the Onward We Learn.