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College is back in session, and there has been no lack of stories documenting an unusual year for young students living in dorms across the US.
But many of today’s students don’t fit that profile: they work full-time, they’re parents, and they come from low-income households. During the pandemic, life got even harder for these students – many of them lost access to campus-based healthcare, faced unexpected living expenses, and struggled with the sudden shift to online studies.
US census survey data indicates that amid the Covid-19 crisis, low-income students are dropping out of college rapidly, when enrollment has typically jumped in times of economic downturns. As a nation, we need them to re-enroll and finish – so they can develop the skills they need to build a better life and help rebuild the struggling economy.
Over the past few months, with support from the Lumina Foundation, the photographer Rachel Bujalski has traveled across California to offer a candid window into the reality of non-traditional students amid the pandemic. They’re a diverse and driven group, with goals forged in hard times, odd jobs, false starts and course corrections.
Miguel Contreras, 22, grew up in foster care and lives in Clovis, California with his fiancee, Alexis, who is five months pregnant with their daughter. He attends college full-time at the College of the Sequoias to become a nurse, while working full-time as a nurse’s assistant at Kaweah Hospital, requiring an hour-long commute.
Miguel decided to go to school to become a nurse after he was diagnosed with cancer at 18, which required the amputation of one of his legs below the knee. Alexis also works as a nurse’s assistant and is saving up for her own college plans after they have their baby and Miguel graduates.
“Growing up in foster care, you already have the cards stacked against you and there’s a stereotype that you’re already going to fail,” said Miguel. “People expect you to fail because of your background and I feel like I have succeeded by getting on the dean’s list every semester.”
Miguel’s classes have all moved online, and without in-person help, his work has become much harder – but he still goes into the hospital for work.
Karen, 24, is a second-year undocumented transfer student at the University of California, Davis, majoring in animal science and minoring in public health. She moved to the US with her mom and sister from Mexico when she was three years old. She is part of the Daca program at her school and has wanted to be a veterinarian ever since falling in love with animals as a young girl in Mexico.
She works at the front desk at the AB540 & Undocumented Student Center. Being a part of the center makes her feel less alone, she says. Last year, she married her wife, Alex, who is also a college student.
Karen has transitioned to taking all her classes online and moved back home since she no longer needed to be on campus. At home, “I don’t have my quiet space where I can study or just make food for myself,” she said. “So it’s really fast and easier for me [on campus] versus here being at home. I don’t mind being home. I love to be with my family. It’s just there’s more responsibility.”
That responsibility includes driving her mom to and from work every day, so she doesn’t have to take public transportation; assisting with chores around the house; and helping to buy and make meals for the family. Meanwhile, she struggles to keep up at school without the ability to talk to professors and ask questions in person, and she was forced to drop classes that she couldn’t keep up with online.
Okello Charles, 37, lives in San Diego with his two kids while pursuing his bachelor’s degree in financial management at National University. He just finished his business intelligence analysis certificate at UC San Diego Extension. Okello is originally from Sudan and lived as a refugee in Kenya for five years with his mother and siblings.
In 2006, he and his family were selected to move to the US. Now, Okello’s goal is to get his degree so he can reduce his hours working in transportation and put his two kids through college.
“The coronavirus made me shift my schedule around,” Okello said. “I was supposed to graduate in July but will now graduate in November because all of the shuffling of things.”
Okello was laid off from his job as a metro city bus driver and driving for Uber was put on hold as fewer people were using the service at the beginning of the pandemic. He had to make major cuts at home to stay in school and keep his apartment, including canceling his internet and getting two roommates.
Denia Beck, 24, is a Native American first-generation college student from Hoopa, California, where she has lived her whole life. She has taken six years to complete two credit years’ worth of education at the College of the Redwoods. Denia has been the main support system for her family since her parents passed away a few years ago. Last year, she fought for and won legal guardianship of her brother’s four children since he couldn’t take care of them due to drug addiction.
Denia is determined to get a degree in child psychology, not only to help her own children overcome past trauma, but also to understand the larger picture of child development. Her education is taking much longer than most traditional students’ would, since she has had to take on serious responsibilities much earlier.
“The biggest challenge for me going to college is scheduling issues with my classes and taking care of my children,” said Denia. “Because I put my four children first and I need to figure out their needs before I commit to a semester of class.”
Denia is homeschooling her children now that they are not in school. She has paused her own schooling, once again, to focus on her family’s needs.
Zaq Woodward, 33, lives in a single resident occupancy (SRO) in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles, and is attending his first year of school for electrical engineering at Pasadena City College (PCC). Zaq started going to college for music in Florida but ran out of money and started working instead. He moved to California to find other opportunities but found himself homeless and living in his car.
Since he doesn’t qualify for financial aid because of his previous loan status, he was able to secure a tuition wavier at PCC. He currently lives off social security to afford his rent and pay for meals. With help from his school, he was able to get a voucher for his books and a metro pass that helps him get back and forth from campus since he sold his car to help pay rent.
“It’s like hitting a roadblock just overnight and everything being uncertain and just wondering,” said Woodward. “Are my grades going to fail from this or am I going to lose financial aid because of this?”
Zaq had to drop out of school for the full semester after his classes went online, since he doesn’t own a laptop or have wifi. “It sucks, honestly – I don’t want to lose momentum and drop out of school again. It took me so long to get to this point and enroll at the beginning of this year.”
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: ‘Like hitting a roadblock’: five college students face the pandemic – a photo essay | California