How My Financial Aid Story Led to Meeting Bill Gates

I’ve learned that the power of storytelling is an incredible thing  that can lead to major impact.

This past summer, I wrote a short article for Young Invincibles on why there is room for improvement to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Young Invincibles is an advocacy group focused on representing the millennial voice in the political process and on issues relevant to us. One of the most important issues in higher education is student affordability, so FAFSA simplification is one of Young Invincibles’ key focuses.

As a first-generation college student from a lower-income family, I depend on financial assistance to get through college. It was extremely difficult the first time I went through the FAFSA process, and I wasn’t sure I’d completed it right.

Kevion Ellis with Bill Gates

Kevion Ellis (left) met with fellow Young Invincibles students and Bill Gates (center) to talk about improving the FAFSA.

I first attended Paris Junior College, in my hometown of Paris, Texas. My brother was at UNC, so I transferred here my sophomore year. I worked at UNC catering and the rec center, and to my benefit, in the financial aid office. There, I learned how to understand and work through the financial aid process, and now I help students and families navigate through it every day.

Through my own FAFSA experience, while working at the financial aid office and with Young Invincibles, I got the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet Bill Gates. Three other students from around the country and I attended a meeting in Washington, D.C., as student representatives for Young Invincibles. There, we sat down with Mr. Gates to share our stories and discuss financial aid process challenges.

Originally, we thought we’d just be meeting with the team members at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. A week out, we learned we’d be meeting with Bill Gates himself. Imagine how astonished I was after getting that call!

I’m extremely passionate about policy work, and to have the opportunity to sit down with such a powerful and influential person to discuss the barriers that hinder students from securing critical aid was incredible.

In the meeting room, the three students and I sat anxiously waiting. We thought we’d be in a big meeting room with lots of people and distance between Mr. Gates and us. To our amazement, we sat at a small lunch table in the breakroom. We learned the meeting was going to include just Mr. Gates, the four of us, and the deputy director of Young Invincibles, who facilitated the conversation.

This opportunity was like no other, and I didn’t take it for granted. I knew being one of four students in that meeting was important: We represented the voices of millions of students who utilize financial aid, and we didn’t take that opportunity lightly.

Before I got to sit down with Mr. Gates, I asked people in the foundation who knew him what he was like. They all talked about how he was a computer guy, so he liked to understand processes and the root of problems. This proved true in our meeting. He was very receptive and intentional in asking each  of us questions about our stories, experiences and the financial aid process.

I shared my story with him, telling him about problems I’ve seen students encounter every school year.

When students complete the application, it’s easy to get confused, send the wrong documents and not complete the documents fully. They may enter in the wrong data or information just because they didn’t understand the questions. When that happens, the federal government contacts the institution to try to clear up the wrong information. The government asks for follow-up documents, and it can be a long, tedious process — leaving students waiting long into the semester for aid, well after they need books and school supplies.

When I told Mr. Gates my parents didn’t help me fill out the FAFSA, I saw him nod, maybe understanding that with first-generation college students it’s not just a process for them. It’s also a process for their parents because they’re learning how to do these things, too.

By the end of the meeting I was confident that Mr. Gates, his team and Young Invincibles would work diligently to enact change to make the financial aid process simpler for future students. I’m honored to have had a role in that.

–Kevion Ellis is UNC’s student body president. He graduates this spring with a degree in International Affairs with a Political Economy emphasis, and minors in Africana Studies and Economics.