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Graduating debt-free from college

Jason Lum, a counselor from Minneapolis, Minn., talks about how he graduated from Harvard Law debt-free - and how your students can do the same.

Graduating debt-free from college

While many people switch careers in their lifetimes, it is not often that you see a practicing lawer get into a career such as school counseling, but that is exactly what Jason Lum, now a counselor from Minneapolis, Minn., did.

“I always missed working with young people [during my time as an attorney],” Lum explains, “and as I gave presentations about the college process...parents and students spread the word that I had won $250,000 in scholarship money. They began asking for individual help with the college process...I said ‘yes’ and I’ve never looked back since.”


Paying his way through college

It is clear why students and parents became so enraptured by Lum’s scholarship success, especially in the current environment where college causes an enormous amount of economic strain for so many families. Lum’s experience was no different when he was applying to college.

“My parents told me I had a choice [when it came to paying for college]...either I borrow money or find people who would pay for it. It was a very easy decision,” he explains.

However, even though Lum made the choice to not take out any loans for school, figuring out where to find that money was a challenge. “No one seemed to know anything about [finding scholarships],” Lum recounts. It was then that Lum took matters into his own hands, checking bookstores and public libraries and borrowing every possible book he could find about scholarships.

At the end of his scholarship search, Lum ended up earning over 40 scholarships from the federal government, companies, labor unions, non-profit organizations and the schools that he attended.


What’s the secret to his success?

While he admits that he was searching for scholarships before Google and other online search engines were prevalent, Lum’s experience and advice is still effective, even in this technological age.

“I was able to find money through a lot of blood, sweat and tears and I applied for everything that I was remotely eligible for,” Lum explains, “I learned pretty quickly what worked and what didn’t work.”

That scholarship experience is still the same today, according to Lum. Even though scholarship opportunities are much more accessible with the age of the Internet search, Lum insists that the secret to finding success in the scholarship hunt is simple: know what the scholarship council wants and apply to anything and everything that is remotely relevant to you.

“The learning curve was fairly steep [when it came to winning scholarships],” Lum admits, “but once I figured out what they were looking for, they started to hit one after another.”


Using his knowledge to help others

While Lum’s most prominent area of expertise could arguably be his experience and knowledge surrounding the scholarship search process, Lum is also passionate about helping students in all other areas of the college planning process. 

In particular, something that Lum does that is rather unique as a counselor is partake in extensive interviewing preparation with this students. “Even though most highly selective schools will not interview students on campus, they will usually have an alumni organization that does interviews in most major cities.” he explains, “I am always shocked by how few students take advantage of this opportunity.” 

Lum insists that preparing for possible interviews is so important because, frankly, many students do not interview well. “It’s not because they aren’t interesting people,” Lum clarifies, “However, no one has ever taught them how to respond to questions under pressure.” In that way it’s essential for these students to be prepared when the time comes for them to be peppered with questions from the schools they seek to be admitted to.


Combating anxiety

Lum declares that undoubtedly his biggest challenge as a counselor is easing the anxiety of his students. “The pressure on high school kids today is simply unbelievable,” he insists, “social media, some parents, and the general economy are creating pressures on students that are crushing.”

To combat these anxieties, Lum does his best to remind his students that there are many quality schools that exist in the United States and abroad. He stresses that every student will get into some college or university — “so long as the college bears some resemblance to reality.”


Finding ways to stay relevant

In a world of constant change, Lum knows the importance of staying up-to-date in the field of education. In that way, he makes an effort to constantly visit schools; from local campuses in the state of Minnesota, to distant schools from coast to coast. 

Additionally, Lum belongs to a number of education counseling organizations and works closely with the counselors who service his students in school. “College admissions today is changing rapidly,” he stresses, “Our kids are too important to not be at the top of our game and to equip ourselves to give them wise advice and counsel.”


Reaping the rewards

At the end of the day, Lum insists that “nothing brings me greater joy than working with idealistic and intelligent young people. By far the biggest reward [from this profession] is working with the kids.” While Lum knows he is only able to work with his students for a short time, he is fortunate for that time he gets to help and change those students’ lives. 

Laura Sestito is the editor of LINK Magazine.


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