The Beautiful Struggle: Too Broke To Learn (part 3)

Against all odds

Part three in a series about how being raised in poverty affects a student’s ability to go to college and graduate on time

Over the summer leading into what should have been my freshman year of college, my situation had not changed. I continued to stay with friends, watching them prepare to go off to college with the help of their parents while I struggled to barely make it by. This was a reminder of two things: the first was that my path to success would never be as well-paved as most of my peers’. The second was that I would continue to conquer any obstacles in my way, against all odds.

After building the courage to apply for college with the help of my mentor, my biggest barrier was now affordability. You must submit a FAFSA to receive the all-encompassing grant that would likely help me the most — the Pell Grant. Without my estranged parents’ tax information, I couldn’t complete the FAFSA.

I felt I was being punished for having the audacity to want to learn and the daring to want better for myself. Even worse, I started to doubt myself, and I slowly stopped communicating with my mentor.

I continued to work as a home health aide and took a second job. I worked as many shifts as possible to save money in hopes of returning to school and to forget my feelings of inadequacy. I felt like the loneliest soul on earth.

At my loneliest place, I met the man who would help me refocus and see my potential. He helped me apply to Santa Monica Community College, a nine-hour drive from the Bay Area. He knew not only of my goal to attend college, but also all of the challenges I had been presented. He was determined to help me succeed, even if it meant the end of our relationship.

His love and support influenced me to do something that I never thought I’d have the strength to do: move to Houston, Texas, and try to start a new life there. In Houston, I got a job as a tax preparer and volunteered my time at the local library. But I wasn’t working toward my true goals, and I felt unfulfilled.

I knew there was a slim chance of success for me in life without a college education, so I worked full-time to save enough money for community college courses.

Although I could not afford to attend classes, I wanted to be prepared to start as soon as I had saved enough. I picked up a Houston Community College catalogue and rode the city bus to the Northside campus closest to me. I highlighted the courses I planned to take, then walked through campus searching for the classrooms the courses would be held in.

I felt prepared until I learned I was pregnant.

I began to question my decision to go back to school. I thought there was no way I could work, raise a child, and attend classes.

But how could I teach my child to value education when I was using his existence as an excuse not to obtain mine? How could I raise a child to stand tall in front of any obstacles when I had let them stop me? I made the decision to continue to pursue my education not just for myself, but for my son’s future.

I returned to the financial aid department at HCC to see if there were any scholarships that wouldn’t require my parents’ information. I found out I could provide my own tax documentation because my pregnancy allowed me to be considered independent.

What I had considered a barrier ended up helping me. At five months pregnant, I completed my first semester with a 3.7 GPA.

When my son was born, I wanted to be there physically for him when he cried, when he was hungry, and when he took his first steps. Stability and security were two things that were nonexistent in my early years, and I was determined to provide them for my child.

I took a year off of school and became Mom. I loved it. We moved into a new home where my son was able to have something I never did — his own room. I even made contact with my parents again, and we worked to rebuild our relationship.

I went back to school in the fall of 2011, ready to take charge of my future. But on September 27, after finishing my first midterm, I received a text message from my little sister in California.

Three words on a tiny screen sucked the air from my lungs and I floated out of the room. “Daddy is dead!”

I was on a plane to California the next day. My mother only took a week away from her job as an elementary school lunch lady, but through her polite grins, I could see that she was hurting. She found happiness in spending time with her firstborn grandson, and she begged us to extend our stay in California.

Even during this difficult time, I hadn’t forgotten about school. I contacted HCC about my absence and was told that as long as I returned by November 7, I would be able to make up any missed class work and not have to repay financial aid. On November 4, my bags were packed for Houston. I was going to miss my mom and siblings, but it was time for me to focus on school again.

That evening, the unthinkable happened. My mother passed away in her sleep.

Six years later, I still have no words to describe the pain I felt. I did not return to Houston before HCC’s deadline. I spent three months handling the affairs of both of my parents. And at the age of 23, I became the legal guardian of my 16-year-old sister.

I didn’t forget about my educational aspirations, but my sense of urgency to return to school wavered while weeks turned into months and months turned into years. But, as with my son, I needed my sister to know that education was key to her success. I realized I couldn’t just tell them how important education was, I had to show them through my own actions.

Next post: Experience. My best teacher.