As the California State University puts the pedal to the metal to press federal lawmakers into changing their course about year-round Pell Grants, it is important to know how this access to financial aid is to students and alumni alike. Think about it: students from low-income and disadvantaged homes must struggle to get into college and find available funding to pay for tuition fees, books and daily living costs. You will meet a current CSU student and a recent alumnus that have lived through the struggles and are succeeding, thanks in large part to their Pell Grant assistance. They hope their stories will inspire U.S. lawmakers to reverse their decision and allow students to access the federal student financial aid program whenever they need it.

Matt Walsh: 2014 Graduate, CSU San Marcos

When Matt left college with his bachelor’s degree in social sciences and a minor in history, he immediately went to work in his hometown of Escondido, California, where he became the campaign coordinator for the city’s mayor. After working on other electoral campaigns, he now is a full-time political consultant with a firm in nearby Vista. He is achieving his career goals.

However, Matt’s unique journey is one of hardship that could easily derail any hopes of achieving those goals.

“I was born into the foster care system, but was adopted at age two and spent the next 12 years in an abusive household with drugs and alcohol,” he said. “I was homeless for much of my youth. The day after my 14th birthday, the state took me away from my adopted mother and put me back in the ‘system’. I remained a ward of the court until I turned 18 and graduated high school.”

Matt’s potential for success became obvious in high school where his strong work ethic, determination and academic achievement led to his graduation with honors, “something half of my fellow foster youth cannot do.” Before graduating, however, he successfully managed to qualify for the CHAFFEE Grant for foster youth, a combination of private and public scholarships and financial assistance, and the Pell Grant.

“The financial aid covered my books and tuition, and even my housing. I was able to move onto campus where I flourished and excelled in student leadership. Eventually, the Pell Grant went away, but I was able to utilize other financial aid and continue attending CSUSM.”

A sign of things to come became clear when Matt was elected student body president in his senior year.

“The Pell Grant was critical,” he added, “because without it I may not have been able to afford on campus housing.” After enduring an abusive and unstable home life in his childhood, Matt credits his on-campus living experience for his ability to make valuable friendships, find opportunities to grow and develop, and prepare for his future.

“Attending college is expensive and becomes more expensive every year,” he said, justifying the need for Pell Grants and all student financial aid. “An educated workforce is critical to this country, and we should be doing everything we can to make college easier to attend or more affordable.”

Agatha Gucyski: Student, CSU Long Beach

Like Matt, Agatha has overcome personal challenges to fulfill her dreams. She too grew up in an abusive and dysfunctional home environment in Huntington Beach where her parents discouraged her from pursuing academic or extra-curricular activities. Instead, they wanted her to spend more time at home where “I had to do chores, defend myself against their physical and emotional abuse and support my younger brother.”

“Though my life at home didn’t provide much security,” she said, “my parents still expected me to be well-educated. During middle school I was in the Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) program and took most of the Advanced Placement/Honors classes offered in high school.”

Luckily, Agatha was surrounded by her peers – fellow students who knew they were going to college. Because of this, she says she couldn’t even imagine not going to college. Despite her parent’s negative attitude about her desire to focus on studying and in-school activities, she became further motivated by her peers, her supportive teachers, her aspiration to achieve more, and eventually move away from her family. Through it all, she managed to earn a near-perfect 3.96 grade point average.

Once accepted into CSU Long Beach where she majors in both business finance and human resources management, Agatha had to rely fully on a temporary Cal Grant, scholarships, loans and part-time work income during her most of her college years. She applied for a Pell Grant but was refused because her family income did not meet the Free Application for Federal Student Aid requirements. At the time, Agatha was not aware of the Pell Grant’s “dependency override” provision, which allows students who face family abuse and/or are homeless or at risk of being homeless to receive the financial aid.

“Although I lived in an unsettling household my first couple years of college, I stayed with my parents because I couldn’t afford living on my own,” she said. “Had I known that I could do a dependency override from the beginning, I would have been living on my own since my freshman year. I worked hard to finance my cost of living, regardless of the expense of my third and fourth years. It was incredibly challenging to live purely on loans and scholarships but no grants.”

When she learned about the dependency override policy, Agatha appealed the original decision and won, just in time for her fourth and final year.

“Now that I am a Pell Grant recipient, I have a much healthier lifestyle while continuing to keep my budget tight,” she said. “I don’t work nearly as many hours, I can afford to eat if I forget to pack a lunch, and I now have time to focus on graduate school applications and my future employment.”

Upon graduation in May, Agatha plans to earn a master’s degree and Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and join Teach for America, a program that seeks to resolve education inequity by recruiting, training and sending teachers into schools in low-income areas across the country.

What is her ultimate career ambition?

“I want to work in education policy as a researcher and possibly an advocate. I have been involved in student advocacy since my freshman year of college and realized that K-12 education inequity and higher education policy are the two things that drive me most.”

”My own experience of living through struggles, hearing other students’ struggles and observing systems that help alleviate those challenges have inspired me to seek ways to improve education policy,” she added “I think it’s important for people in the field to have passion and empathy in the work they do.”