This piece is part of a series of financial aid-focused student profiles. These student stories are part of our ongoing reporting on financial aid. You can also read our analysis of a student survey about financial aid and our reports on the financial aid Day of Action and subsequent town hall.

Giovanna Chaves (M’20) is from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. She joined Minerva as a transfer student from a Brazillian university. She explained to the Quest that most Brazillian university students live at home with their parents and it’s unusual for students to work part-time in the semester or during the summer. Before attending Minerva, she was living with her parents and her only expenses were transportation, not tuition or food.

Chaves wanted to study in the US and knew that the cost of attending a US university would be high. She explained that it’s not common in Brazil for parents to save for college, so she knew she would have to take out loans to attend a US college and felt like she knew what she was getting into. She was happy with her university in Brazil, but wanted to meet people from all over the world. She ultimately made the decision to enroll at Minerva after going to Ascent.

Finances were a big part of her decision to attend Minerva. The scholarship she was offered for her first year was very good — the cost was nearly the same as the cost of her attending university while living at home. She didn’t consider flights, visas, or health insurance, but she said even with those additional costs the first year was affordable. Chaves explained that while these costs aren’t hidden, “you don’t really take them into account when you do the calculation.”

Some parts of the financial aid application were difficult for Chaves and her family to fill out accurately. It was easier to complete her first-year application when she was living at home and it was more difficult when applying in later years because she had to talk with her parents online. Her parents are separated but not legally divorced, so they have separate incomes but share some assets. Mortgages are not common in Brazil, so it was confusing to translate those types of concepts to accurately convey her family’s finances. It was difficult to communicate that complexity in the forms but Chaves directly reached out to the financial aid office and found that they were helpful and understanding.

Chaves felt like it was clear what she had to do to apply for financial aid. “For me the thing that isn’t clear is how Minerva takes that into account,” she told the Quest. “For example, do they take assets into account? Do they say ‘they can pay because they can sell their car?’” Some things, like selling a car or taking out a loan against a house, might be more common in the US but not in a different context.

Chaves said that her first year “was a learning experience.” It was her first time budgeting on her own: “I was pretty used to my parents paying for everything and not really thinking about what that money meant,” she told the Quest. “This became very different when I was the one having to save to pay for visas, health insurance, and flights.” She was able to afford her day-to-day expenses with her work-study earnings and also saved enough to travel.

When the financial aid packages were released for her second year, “I think it shocked everyone,” Chaves said. Like some of her classmates, her family contribution increased by over $1,000 and her work-study decreased. During the 2016-17 school year, students could work up to 12 hours per week at $15/hour which was decreased to 10 hours per week (still at $15/hour) for the 2017-18 school year. Chaves didn’t get any explanation for the increased family contribution. She told the Quest, “Some people questioned it and went to ask for a better package. At the end of the day, I knew that my family could afford it so it didn’t feel right for me to ask for something less, even if that meant struggling a little bit more.”

“They want you to come to Minerva for a year so they give you a good [enough] financial aid package to do so. Once you’re there for a year, you’re in the community, you’re into the classes that you’re doing, and you’re a lot less likely to leave.”

– Giovanna Chaves

After the packages were released, an idea circulated amongst M’20s that “they want you to come to Minerva for a year so they give you a good [enough] financial aid package to do so. Once you’re there for a year, you’re in the community, you’re into the classes that you’re doing, and you’re a lot less likely to leave.”  An anonymous M’20 student also mentioned that she thought Minerva was using this sunk cost fallacy.

But only Chaves’ second year had a higher family contribution; it decreased again in her third year. Chaves said she didn’t understand why her family contribution changed because nothing changed with her family’s finances.

Chaves lived at home and worked for Minerva the summer after her first year because she wanted to save up money. But she used most of that money in her first month in Seoul because it took a month to get her first work-study paycheck.  She started work-study in the middle of September instead of the beginning of the semester, and it took an additional three weeks to log her hours and get her first paycheck. Her birthday is in the first week of the semester and her dad would usually give her some money which she would always end up spending on food: “I don’t think I actually bought myself any birthday gift for four years,” Chaves told the Quest.

In her second year, it was harder for Chaves to save money because she paid for her flight to Seoul and her entire winter break including her flight from Seoul to Hyderabad. She ate out more in Seoul than in San Francisco because the residence building didn’t have full kitchens, and around the middle of the semester she had to call home and ask her parents for $100 to help with her expenses. In Hyderabad, she was able to live much more comfortably because of the lower cost of living. The scholarship tax and the expense of moving twice also added to her increased spending in the second year.

Since flights are a big expense, Chaves would usually try to save up throughout the semester to buy her ticket. But she usually wasn’t able to save quickly enough and ended up booking her flight near the end of the semester when they were more expensive.

Chaves acknowledged that she could have saved more by always eating in and never traveling during the semester. When she tried that, however, she felt that she wasn’t having “the Minerva global rotation experience.”

Looking back, Chaves wishes Minerva had given her more support starting in Foundation Week to learn how to budget. For her and many other students, starting at Minerva was the first time she had to manage her own money. She now tracks all of her purchases and expenses in a spreadsheet so she can see what she’s spending her money on.

She also doesn’t think it’s clear how Minerva accounts for exchange rate fluctuations. Sometimes the exchange rate when students pay the November term bill is completely different than when they submitted the financial aid forms in January or February. Chaves submitted most of her forms in USD and specified the exchange rate she used but she mentioned that some students send their forms both in USD and in their home country’s currency. She has talked to some Brazillian underclassmen who were worried about their Fall 2020 term bill because the Brazillian real has devalued dramatically in the past few months. If Chaves had to pay for her first year in 2020, it would be almost double what she actually paid in 2016.

Chaves has been frustrated that Minerva hasn’t sent emails informing students of deadlines. For many students, a few weeks isn’t enough time to make sure they have the money to pay term bills or other large payments such as the scholarship tax

Additionally, Chaves said that when she’s had confusions about financial aid she’s been reluctant to email Minerva. Since there is only one full-time staff member handling financial aid, she doesn’t want to overwhelm them.

She advises current and incoming students to consider how much they will need to be earning after graduation to pay off their loans and how that will impact their post-graduation plans. “I know that right now working in Brazil is not going [to allow me] to pay back all my loans,” Chaves told the Quest. “Working in the US might, if I save enough money.”

“I know that right now working in Brazil is not going [to allow me] to pay back all my loans. Working in the US might, if I save enough money.”

Giovanna Chaves

From her first-year financial aid package, Chaves estimated that she would end up with $10,000-$12,000 in loans for her whole time at Minerva, which she thought she would be able to pay off with whatever job she got post-graduation. She mentioned that she didn’t realize at the time that Climb loans have a 6.5% annual interest rate which is higher than US federal loans and a few private loans. She also didn’t consider that loan payments continue over the summer, so she had to make sure she had a stable enough income to pay them.

When looking for summer internships in her first two years, Chaves found it frustrating to see her classmates getting “amazing internships in the US” that were great work experience to have on their resumes. For her, it was cheaper to stay at home and work for Minerva, which was important for her to pay off her loans and be financially comfortable during the school year. In her last summer she had a great internship but spent most of the money she saved in the month in between the end of her internship and the start of the new semester because it would have been too expensive to fly home. She said that she felt like Minerva and the CTD team wanted students to get these opportunities but weren’t considering that a lot of students can’t afford to take them.

“Financial aid is a very sore topic for a lot of people who struggle to pay [for Minerva],” Chaves said. She acknowledges that sometimes the complaints about finances are not rational: “Scholarship tax is not Minerva’s fault, it’s the US government’s fault, but it’s still frustrating […] for those of us who have to work to pay it. It’s still frustrating for people who didn’t know this was a thing before [they] signed up for it.” She felt that sometimes students ask their peers to assume best intent from Minerva without addressing these emotions.

When asked if she would enroll in Minerva again, knowing what she knows now, Chaves answered, “Yes, which sucks.” She elaborated that even though Minerva ended up costing more than she had expected, she would still enroll.

If you are interested in sharing your experiences with money and financial aid at Minerva with the Quest, please reach out to Emma Stiefel ([email protected]), Erin Paglione ([email protected]) or any Quest editor.