As a kid, Antonio Acuña was fascinated by rockets, fighter jets and spaceships.

He dreamed of exploring space, making discoveries and someday even setting foot on Mars.

By the time he was a student at Westwood High School in Mesa, he had made up his mind he wanted to study aerospace engineering, but he wasn’t sure how he would get to college or how he would pay for it. The first in his family to consider pursuing higher education, Antonio knew his parents would be unable to help him financially or advise him about scholarships.

He applied for federal student aid and discovered it would cover only about a third of his tuition. He had a job at an after-school program for children, but no savings. “I couldn’t keep track of my money,” Antonio says.

Enrolling in Earn to Learn as a senior in high school showed Antonio that saving and financing his college experience wasn’t, well, rocket science.

“The personal finance training required at the beginning of the application process was incredibly helpful,” Antonio says. “They taught me things that high school didn’t, like how to open a back account, appropriately budget so I could save money, apply for a credit card — basically all the things you need to know to be a functioning adult.”

Through the program, Antonio saved $500 each year. This was matched 8:1 by Arizona State University and federal funding, making a total of $4,500 per academic year available for use toward tuition and related expenses. (The program, for low- to moderate-income students who qualify and are eligible for in-state tuition, is also available at Northern Arizona University and the University of Arizona.)

Today, Antonio is a junior at Arizona State University studying aerospace engineering and astronomy. He continues to work and save each month, and with the help of a few other academic grants he secured, is on track to graduate with no student debt. After graduation, he wants to get a job, save more money, and pursue a graduate degree.

Although he was the first in his family to go to college, Antonio probably won’t be the last. His younger brother is enrolled in Earn to Learn and preparing to go to college, too. Antonio feels his experience has opened a window for his younger siblings, and for the children he works with. “They can see it’s not impossible to save income and go to college,” he says. “If I can do it, they can do it.”

Posted 11.1.17