Newswise — While Nia Wilson earned an international baccalaureate certificate and college credits at Rufus King International High School, her father completed his college journey. “Seeing him finish his senior year as a nontraditional student prepared me to navigate the college application process, especially as a person of color,” Nia explained.

The father/daughter duo graduated within one week of each other in May 2015. Nia Wilson earned her high school diploma. Jon Wilson earned a degree in film from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

“I didn’t think about setting the example for Nia. I set the bar,” Jon Wilson said of his daughter. “The bachelor’s degree was the bar for me. Now Nia’s got to clear it by getting her master’s.”

Now a UWM sophomore pursuing degrees in art and journalism, Nia Wilson has some advice for Milwaukee-area high-schoolers applying for college. Her dad might jump in, too.

Between junior and senior years of high school, Nia looked for schools with arts and media programs, visiting five campuses. She noted their average class size. She met every single college recruiter who came to Rufus King. By the beginning of senior year, UWM had moved to the top of Nia’s short list of colleges and universities. Location, affordability, diversity and degree opportunities made UWM a practical choice, though it wasn’t her first choice.

With the college selection process behind her, there was more work to be done. Applying to college is a marathon, not a sprint. From taking the ACT exam to ordering transcripts, from applying for financial aid to writing essays, students do best when family and school support systems help them stay organized and motivated.

“Keep in contact with your guidance counselor,” Nia advised. “My counselor at King navigated me on very realistic terms. We reviewed my grades, ACT scores and admissions standards to determine what colleges were best for me. Don’t wait until your senior year to get to know your counselor, or you could be really lost.”

Parent-to-parent, Jon Wilson offers this essential advice: Complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) online and on time. All students applying for college must complete the FAFSA online to be eligible for federal loans or grants. High-school seniors can file their completed FAFSAs as early as Oct. 1, 2016.

University financial aid experts encourage any high-school seniors who want to attend UWM as freshman in fall 2017 to submit the FAFSA by December 1, 2016 at the latest. Financial documents from prospective students and their parents or guardians are needed to complete the FAFSA.

“Make arrangements to sit down with your child,” Jon said. “Have all the necessary financial paperwork ready. Do the FAFSA as soon as possible to get the full benefits.”

“We did my FAFSA kind of late,” Nia added. “So make it a priority, and if you’re committed to it, it shouldn’t take more than a day once you have all the documents together. If you don’t have a computer, take one of your parents to the library and just get it done.”

Nia spent her freshman year at UWM in the newest university residence, Cambridge Commons. A favorite professor mentored her and connected her to a campus job. She joined the Black Student Union and African American Student Association and interned for Artists Working in Education. Fall of 2016, she’ll expand her circle as a peer mentor to 25 UWM art students.

“Getting to know other people of color helps me feel connected and learn more about myself,” Nia explained. “It wasn’t until I committed to staying in this city and getting involved that I really began to understand how many opportunities there are for me at UWM.”

Jon stays focused on the home front for now. He’s a stay-at-home dad to his three sons. His second-oldest child, Nia’s sister, will soon apply to UWM.

His final advice for parents getting their kids ready for college is simple but specific. “Your kid might miss a few appointments along the way,” Jon said. “Identify the critical places they need to be – financial aid, bursar’s office, academic adviser. Help them get there if they need it.”