I?m currently in the midst of a traditional rite of passage for American college students: the summer internship.  Many of my peers chose to spend their summers doing grunt work at law offices, hospitals, or financial consulting groups.

I decided to do my internship as the media manager for a nonprofit called the Action Center for Undergraduate Services and Scholarships (or ACCESS for short). ACCESS provides free financial aid advice and advocacy to high students and their families in Boston and Springfield, Massachusetts, to help them overcome financial barriers to higher education.

I didn't know how much I didn't know

I?m attending college largely thanks to financial aid: Princeton, my school, was recently included on a Washington Post list of the nation?s top-12 loan-free aid policies, and I?m a grateful recipient of a yearly grant from the University.  As such, I came to ACCESS thinking that I was pretty well-versed in the financial aid process of FAFSAs, CSS profiles, and scholarship applications, but the past two months here have shown me that my experiences barely scratched the surface of higher education financing.

financial aid in a bag

Whereas I dealt with financial aid in collaboration with my parents, who guided me every step of the way, many of the students who work with ACCESS do not feel comfortable asking a parent or guardian to take out loans on their behalf.

Instead they seek to finance college entirely on their own.  In many instances students try to take on an unreasonable amount of debt that will cripple them after graduation.

Some of their paths to higher education are truly treacherous: in some cases, the students are undocumented immigrants, a huge roadblock to navigate.

[Read Sadia's story: Another Myth Dispelled: Americans Don't Have to Worry About Paying for Education]

One of the lessons that has really hit home for me is how many American students dismiss college because they cannot see how to navigate it financially.  I came from a high school background where students who did not attend college were exceptions to the rule, but that ratio is entirely inverted with the students at ACCESS.  The majority of the students working with nonprofits like ACCESS were on the fence about attending college before they met an advisor at their high school or community group.

A daunting challenge

For someone like me, who was thrown headfirst into the world of college affordability this summer, the amount that still needs to be done in this sphere is often daunting.  With so many students barred from college financially nationwide, and state university systems constantly forced by budget cuts to raise their tuition, college access is an enormous American problem with no straightforward solution in sight. However, I take comfort in the fact that, although no one can solve this national crisis overnight, there are many groups that are making a big difference for the individuals they serve right now, and I am honored and humbled to have become part of that mission.

My summer internship has also made me profoundly aware of how lucky I am to be receiving a higher education.  While at school during the year, it?s easy to see college as a given: it seems entirely natural that I?m taking classes, studying for finals, doing extracurricular activities, and living with friends.  The students I?ve met this summer have shown me that I couldn?t be more wrong.

Until American college completion becomes more widespread, college will always be an incredible honor and privilege, and my time here has been a real eye-opener.  Even my ability to do an internship instead of a typical summer job, thanks in part to a financial stipend from my college, sets me apart from many of the high school students I have met in these past months.  When I return to campus in the fall, I know that I?ll never again be tempted to take my education for granted.