The start of a new year is an important, symbolic time for most people. Many see the new year as an opportunity to make life changes, learn a new skill, or pursue some new challenges. In higher education, the new year also signals the start of a new semester and a new financial aid season. If you’re planning on attending college or if your child will soon be heading to school, it’s time to apply for financial aid.

Students and their families should be aware of the need to start as early as possible in filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which means you have to also file your taxes as soon as you can. Completing the FAFSA early opens the door to available grants and allows you to also be more competitive in applying for scholarships. At Waubonsee Community College, we want to help the maximum number of students and parents find the financial aid they deserve. In February, we’ll be increasing our assistance to help our students and members of the community understand the intricacies of the financial aid process. “Financial Aid Awareness Month” activities include a community FAFSA workshop from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. on Saturday, Feb. 19 at West Aurora High School that is free and open to the public. You will receive detailed instructions on completing the FAFSA.

Scholarships are critically important to many students and are awarded on both need-based or merit-based criteria. There are scholarships available through private organizations, non-profits and through most colleges. At Waubonsee, generous donors support our Foundation to fund scholarships that allow local residents to realize their dreams through education. Without this resource, many people would not be able to attend college — including one of our outstanding students, Trish Dixon-Kunkle.

A single mother with a disability, Trish overcame incredible obstacles just to enter Waubonsee. Her tenacity, intelligence and drive alone would likely not have made college a reality without the financial assistance provided by two Waubonsee Foundation scholarships. Now well on her way to realizing her dream of becoming an elementary school teacher, Trish’s success is directly tied to the generosity of local businesses, organizations and philanthropic individuals who understand, appreciate and support the power of education.

This year, due to a competitive grant from the National Science Foundation, students interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) can apply for a new Waubonsee scholarship that covers two years of classes at the college. Don’t delay — these scholarships, as well as the more than 150 Foundation scholarships, have an application deadline of Feb. 3, 2011.

The new year has begun and the financial aid process has started. Complete the required forms. Finish and file your taxes. Apply for scholarships. And remember, we’re always here to help. More information on Waubonsee’s financial aid resources, including required application forms, can be found at