I Didn’t Know How Much Help I Really Needed to Get to College

I Didn’t Know How Much Help I Really Needed to Get to College

Tony Ismalaj’s incredible journey from Albania to the U.S. to a college degree is a testament to the willpower and drive of students in the CollegeTracks program.  He’ll graduate from UMD in the spring with a degree in kinesiology. The National College Access Network recently profiled his journey on their blog site.
January 26, 2018 | Kim Szarmach, Communications Intern

For students underrepresented in higher education, every dollar counts when piecing together a financial aid package. And their ability to obtain those dollars and succeed in college depends on policymakers establishing a Streamlined FAFSA and approving increased, sustainable funding for need-based aid like Pell Grants and Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, as well as programs like Federal Work-Study, AmeriCorps, and Public Service Loan Forgiveness.

Senior year of high school wasn't easy for Tony Ismalaj. For one thing, he had just moved from Albania with his family and barely knew enough English to get by.

"When I came to the U.S. I couldn't even have a conversation,” he said. "It was depressing the first two years. But, I gave myself two options — one, I can sit here and cry. Or two, I can learn the language."

Tony Ismalaj

Tony stuck with option two. He spent hours locked in his bedroom Google-Translating history lessons word by word until he understood. A year and a half later, he was fluent. 

But hard work isn't the only thing that got Tony through senior year. When the Washington, D.C.-area college access and success program CollegeTracks came to his school, he signed up to be matched with a coach who would help him apply to college and stay on top of his work once he got in. 

"In the beginning I didn't see the value of it as much, to be honest," Tony said. "It's not that I thought it wouldn't help me, I just didn't know how much help I really needed to get to college."

Now Tony is in his senior year of college at the University of Maryland. He still meets with his coach, Courtney, two or three times a semester. As a kinesiology major and part-time athletic trainer, Tony firmly believes in the importance of having someone to support you through the challenges college presents. 

"Just like I am a coach for my clients, I really believe that you've got to have someone to keep you accountable,” he said. “It doesn't matter how good you are.”

Even though he has his job as a trainer, Tony wishes he could earn more money to support himself while in school. His tuition is paid for by federal financial aid and a grant from the university, but he had to take out a small loan to cover living expenses.

"The system is created in a way where you don't really have time to work if you go to school,” he said. "It's almost impossible. But my grant relieves so much stress."

While financial aid has made Tony's years in college a lot easier, he's had to work hard not to lose sight of his goals when challenging academic work made things difficult. 

"There have been points when I've felt like, 'oh my god, I don't want to do this’," he said. "I think every student goes through that, but I got out of it. It's just about the goal of why you're going to college and what you want to get out of it."

For Tony, the goal is to one day open his own gym or develop and sell a line of athletic clothing. He's spent five years working toward his degree, but after this semester, he'll graduate and can finally make his dreams a reality.