For this first-generation college student, “VSAC is very close to my heart”

Written by
Sabina Haskell

Date
April 17, 2020

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Cassandra Bittner

Cassandra Bittner knows she overcame some tough odds to be able to go to college at all. Neither of her parents had gone to college; in fact, her mother never even finished high school. And in St. Albans, where she grew up, she was definitely not alone in that, a factor that made for some low expectations. According to Cassandra, “The unspoken culture of my town led most to believe we had an even smaller chance of getting into our dream college.”

Ironically, that statement was part of an essay assignment for a freshman-year communications class at her top school, Champlain College. Looking back at the highs and lows of her college admissions process, Cassandra says she gets a little emotional, “especially thinking about how much VSAC helped me get here. VSAC is very close to my heart.”

Cassandra, the oldest of four children in a blended family, was introduced to VSAC early in her senior year at Bellows Free Academy in St. Albans, when her graphic design teacher had students choose three colleges and explain why they wanted to go there. “My top choice was Champlain, and then I was told I wouldn't be able to go, purely because of finances, which is the heartbreaking thing, because I met all the other requirements.”

In fact, on a campus tour earlier that year, when Cassandra had an opportunity to have her portfolio looked at by the director of Champlain’s graphic design program, she received a glowing review. “The director said my work was among some of the best she'd seen,” Cassandra recalls. “She gave me her contact information, told me to tweak a handful of things, and to send it to her again once I’d made those corrections. She told me ‘I want you to come here.’”

But reality set in when her college counselor pointed out that Champlain’s tuition was $50,000 to $60,000 per year – something that was out of the question for Cassandra and her family. 

“Then I got in touch with Ellen Wright, an outreach counselor from VSAC. When I told her I wouldn't be able to go to Champlain, Ellen told me I could definitely be going there. She explained that VSAC offers a lot of scholarships for first-generation students like myself.”

Cassandra applied for, and was awarded, the Vermont First Scholarship, which reduced her annual tuition from tens of thousands to just $2,000.

“As soon as I heard I could actually go to Champlain for that amount of money, I applied right away,” Cassandra said, using the Early Decision program, which requires accepted students to attend. “It was Champlain all the way,” she said.

Then, it was a matter of waiting for the letter to arrive in the mail – something VSAC also gave Cassandra an edge on, she recalls. “Ellen had put me in touch with Howie LeBlanco, the Assistant Director of Admissions at Champlain, early in the process, and I’d kept in close touch with him.”

One day, Cassandra got a call from him during class. “I remember, it was funny, I ran to my advisor’s room, ran into the closet, shut the door and answered the phone. He said, ‘first of all, I'd like to congratulate you on being accepted to Champlain College…’ and that’s when the emotions hit. I was tearing up, sitting there in the closet. He told me I should get the letter in the mail in a few days. I'm sure they don’t do that with everyone” – call with their acceptance notification – “so it felt like a special connection.”

The connection between Cassandra and Champlain is something others can see, too. “Every time my family visits me at school, they tell me, ‘this is your college. It couldn’t be a better fit. Even if it were halfway across the world, this is your college.”

Cassandra especially likes the freedom and independence that college affords. “You’re managing your time and learning to communicate just as you would as an adult,” she says. She also cites the example of her typography class, which is scheduled once a week and models a real work day. “You start around 8, it ends at 3, and you get about an hour for lunch. I like it because it's so realistic to how the job world is. I really like sitting down and doing what I'm going to do in the future for six hours, and getting used to that.”

As for what she might say to students now at BFA, Cassandra says, “If you’re comfortable with going straight into the workforce, go for it. But if you’re teetering on the idea of college, then go visit some campuses. And I cannot emphasize this enough – you should call VSAC. VSAC is really good about helping students figure out what’s best for them, giving them the best opportunities possible, and helping them make connections. A lot of kids can miss that, and just not know the right people.”

“College is amazing, and I am very thankful for VSAC for helping me get here,” she says.

Need help with pursuing your career goals and education needs? VSAC is here to help you. Serving our community is at the heart of all we do. During this ever-changing time, we remain available and committed to help you navigate all your career and education needs and manage your student loans. We are ready to work with you, whatever your needs. No question or worry is too small or too big to reach out to us and ask for help.

For information on college and career planning go to www.vsac.org and also check out our online workshops and resources and online events. For an update of how we can help during the COVID-19 crisis, click here. You can also give us a call at 800-642-3177, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday and online at info@vsac.org. Stay safe. Stay healthy. Stay in touch. We’re here for you.