Breaking Barriers with Education and FAFSA Specialist

From left to right, Gabby (she/her), Chris (he/him) and Masa (he/him).

At the heart of our mission at United Way of Thurston County (UWTC) lies the commitment to remove barriers that hinder the path to education and opportunity. Meet Masa Kawamura, our Outreach and Admissions Specialist and Navigator at South Puget Sound Community College, whose tireless efforts are helping high school students navigate the complexities of post-secondary education.

A Day in the Life of Masa:

Masa splits his time between Timberline High School and North Thurston High School, with Wednesdays dedicated to South Puget Sound Community College. It's a dynamic routine that keeps him engaged and always ready to assist students. The college and career center is his playground, where he tackles the critical issue of improving completion rates of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), a significant barrier for students continuing their education beyond high school.

First, some background information:

The Education to Financial Stability Task Force (EFSTF), convened by United Way of Thurston County (UWTC), is a group of experts in different fields who are working together to help break the cycle of poverty in Thurston County.

They have identified a gap in high school seniors pursuing continuing education and found that the difference in earnings between a non-skilled job and one requiring a technical certificate can be as much as $750,000 over a working career. They also noticed that, even with financial aid available, fewer than 50% of Thurston County students completed the FAFSA application, which ensures anyone who wants to pursue further education can do so, regardless of family, household or individual income. They also learned most barriers to pursuing continuing education were related to a lack of information, trust and direct connections.

The Task Force funded Navigator positions hosted through partnerships with North Thurston Public Schools and Yelm Community Schools to address these issues. The Navigators focus on supporting vulnerable student populations who continue to be underrepresented in dual credit and post K-12 educational opportunities. The goal is to expand the pilot into permanent Navigator placements at all Thurston County high schools.

Breaking Down Barriers, One FAFSA at a Time:

For Masa, the magic happens in the college and career center, where students share their aspirations and seek guidance on their post-high school journey. Conversations range from college choices and career paths to the daunting FAFSA process. Timberline High School saw completion rates reach an impressive 60% last year, which Masa believes is due, in part, to staying in touch with students to temper fears and emphasize the invaluable benefits of completing FAFSA.

Fostering Dreams and Creating Opportunities:

Masa's work goes beyond completing forms. He engages students in conversations about their continuing education choices, helping them clarify their vision and explore various options. The delayed FAFSA process (due to a new application) has only increased the need for Masa's expertise, and he is unwavering in his commitment to providing information that students might not have easy access to, such as grants and other essential resources.

A Navigator's Wish:

While Masa's impact is undeniable, he dreams of a world in which more navigators join the cause. “With a wave of my magic wand, what I’d love to see is a consistent presence on campuses, eliminating the challenge of having to split my time between schools. I know that having more navigators means creating more opportunities and breaking down barriers with even greater efficiency,” he said.

Masa Kawamura is not just a navigator; he's a beacon of hope, guiding students through the maze of possibilities and empowering them to embrace the promise of post-secondary education. We are proud to support Masa and others like him who are making a tangible difference in the lives of our youth. Together, we continue to break barriers and pave the way for a brighter future.