Student designs app to match students with financial aidLast month we wrote about the Get Schooled College Affordability Challenge, a national competition organized by MTV, the College Board, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to re-imagine and simplify the college financial-aid process by using digital tools. The submissions were winnowed down to three finalists. People voted for their favorite, and the winner was announced by former President Bill Clinton at his annual Clinton Global Initiative University conference on April 2.

Devin Valencia, a 24-year-old recent graduate from the University of Nevada, got the most votes for Connect Fund, a Facebook app that she created. It lets prospective college students interact, ask questions and get tips and info on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) process, scholarships and grants. Valencia receives $10,000 in prize money and her Connect Fund idea will be turned into reality by MTV and the College Board. Money College got to talk to Valencia about her big win.Money College: Describe what Connect Fund is all about.

Valencia
: It's a Facebook app that connects students with all the grants, scholarships and loans that are available to them. Specifically, it matches students with these things based on demographic information already provided on Facebook -- your age, gender, what school you're going to, your interests. You can also enter more information to narrow it down. Say you want to major in journalism, you can input that information and Connect Fund will connect you directly to opportunities in that field. It will also explain how grants work, how to apply for and repay loans, etc., so students have an idea of how to apply and get funded.

MC: How did this idea come to you?

Valencia:
I'm a first-generation college attendee. My parents had no idea how financial aid worked, and I had no clue where to go find it. I was watching a John Legend special on MTV when he announced the "Get Schooled" challenge, so I decided to enter. I remember applying for student loans, how complicated it was, and I wanted to do something to make the process easier. Facebook is someplace where people feel okay sharing information about themselves, and it's easy and comfortable to use, so I thought it was a good starting point -- guiding someone through this process. I wish I had something like this when I was applying to college!

MC: What was the process for turning it from dream into reality?

Valencia: When I got picked as a finalist, I worked with a design firm called Frog Design in an intense, week-long session. We did a lot of brainstorming, talked about concepts, and made it come to life. The first day I got there, I had an idea on paper, and on the seventh day, I had a prototype on PowerPoint. The next step is MTV, and the College Board will pick an interactive agency to build out the tool over the summer. Then Connect Fund will be launched this fall, by January 1 at the latest, when it's time for students to start applying for financial aid.

MC: And what are your future plans?

Valencia:
I graduated with a degree in psychology; now I'm looking to go back to graduate school. It's so expensive, so this $10,000 prize money will definitely go a long way toward helping with that.

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