Maria was supposed to be a UC Davis student right now, attending online classes, balancing the stresses of being a freshman and worrying about exams. Instead, she’s babysitting and cat-sitting in Marin County, so she can earn money to help support her family.

When her dad’s two cleaning jobs shut down through the spring and most of the summer, her mom’s job as a nanny was the only stable source of income. Her dad qualified for state unemployment benefits but it wasn’t enough. So, Maria, 19, helped pay for the family’s bills with her summer internship stipend and when they couldn’t make rent, she called their landlord to request additional time to pull the money together.

Her last move was to put off going to college, so she could continue working.

Deferring wasn’t an easy choice. Maria and her parents worked for years to get her to college. It’s the reason they migrated from Queretaro in Mexico to Marin County in Northern California, where they now live with undocumented status.

My family very much migrated in order to ensure that I had a better future, and part of that is ensuring that I get my own education and that I use that education to do whatever I love but also make sure that I have a secure financial future,” said Maria, who agreed to tell her story as long as she and her family were not identified.

This year has been long and tumultuous for students like Maria, a generation of incoming college freshmen pulled between starting their college careers and helping their families. And while the pandemic-induced financial upheaval continues nationwide, this generation of freshmen is facing deep uncertainty.

The pandemic has also altered the college plans of many others, including Jesus Garibay who in March was on a path to attend his dream school, CSU Northridge, to become a civil engineer; and Edward Enciso, who last spring locked up a scholarship and financial aid to attend UC Riverside.

Students headed to college are among those most affected by the pandemic, new data show. The number of students who enrolled in college immediately after graduating from high school this year declined by nearly 21.7% compared to 2.8% last year, according to a study released Thursday by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. The decline was even greater in urban high schools among low income and Latino and Black students.

In California, Latino college freshmen typically face a higher risk of dropping compared to all students – 16% at California State University and 11% at University of California.

Making ends meet

This year, Maria reached two milestones: She became the first person in her family to graduate from high school and the first to be accepted into a university.

Maria’s mom had a plan: “We can help you with half of your tuition if you need it.” That was before Covid-19. Now, the pressure of paying for college is entirely on Maria.

With her dad working again at one of his jobs, her family can pay the bills without her income as long as they aren’t laid off again as they were in March. But if she had enrolled in classes this fall, Maria knew her parents, who are in their late fifties and have pre-existing conditions, would be working overtime right now and exposing themselves further to Covid-19. It’s a risk she wasn’t willing to take.

“I don’t think that taking on extra shifts during a global pandemic would be a productive way of ensuring that I get my education,” she said. “If one of them gets sick and then I have to come back, or if…if anything happens, or if I get sick. It was something very nerve wracking.”

As Covid-19 surges in Northern California, the family remains hopeful that the parents can continue working. The money Maria is saving now will help them get by if the worsening infection rate sidelines both of her parents again. She could have taken community college courses this semester but she wanted to earn as much as she could. Since UC Davis is on the quarter system her classes don’t start until March when she hopes to get a job on campus.

“I would rather spend the time from here to late March saving up money, just making sure my family has some money to fall back on again if anything goes south,” said Maria, who plans to major in Chicana/Chicano Studies after taking a course during high school on the history of Latinos in the United States.

“In this classroom I was being represented, and …we were talking about my ancestors and my roots. And I definitely didn’t recognize how much that was missing in my life,” she said. She hasn’t yet decided her career path.

Help from scholars’ group

Maria first set her sights on college in middle school, when she applied to Next Generation Scholars, an organization based in the San Francisco Bay Area city of San Rafael that helps underrepresented students go to college. It supports middle and high school students with access to an after-school college preparation program, leadership training and other social services. Once students enroll in college, they continue receiving counseling and support from the organization.

During the pandemic, Next Generation raised an emergency $100,000 to give extra help to students like Maria who needed financial support, so they wouldn’t have to give up their college-going dreams. All 141 of their students were offered gift cards to purchase food, gas and other necessities, which helped Maria and her parents through the summer. And when nine of their 12 graduating high school seniors lost their summer internships, Next Generation offered them paid internships.

“We’re a smaller program because we really try to customize and provide high-touch services,” said Nghiem Bui, the organization’s director of college and career counseling. “You can’t scale this type of work, at least in a way that’s thoughtful and sensitive to each family’s circumstances.”

Maria’s ability to delay for less than a school year is a victory for her and for Next Generation Scholars, whose goal is to work with students and their families to keep students’ pre-Covid plans as intact as possible, said Jeff Escabar, executive director of the nonprofit.

“But that’s not the case with all students,” he said. “I’m sure there are some kids who had to abandon their plans.”

“I had to make money.”

That’s the situation Garibay found himself in this past spring.

By mid-March, he’d already been accepted into his dream school, CSU Northridge, to study civil engineering. He’d seen his future in that field after taking odd jobs in construction, welding, painting and landscaping since middle school and throughout high school.

Credit: Jennifer Molina/EdSource

Jesus Garibay, 18, increased his work hours during the spring and changed his college plans to help his parents continue paying the mortgage and bills.

That same month, his mother’s job as a caregiver was reduced to only three days per week, and his older sister was working only about eight hours per week at her receptionist job near their home in Maywood, a neighborhood in Southeast Los Angeles. His father, a butcher at a meat company, was temporarily laid off. With a long-time heart condition, he’s at high risk for contracting the coronavirus, so the family discouraged him from seeking another job.

But the mortgage, food and bills still needed to be paid at home, where he lives with his two grandparents, his parents, his older sister and two younger brothers.

“They’ve never asked me for money for rent, but I don’t want them to be struggling either,” said Garibay, who worked part-time and helped pay for rent, food and other expenses. “And sometimes when I see there’s no eggs, milk, I go buy stuff like that.”

In March, he increased his hours to full-time at Wingstop, a chicken wing chain. Since then, his job has been the only steady stream of income for the family of eight. Making that decision unraveled his college plans and altered the next few years of his life.

To attend CSU Northridge, there was one condition: He had to make up an English class from his high school freshman year to raise the grade from a D. But by the time he realized he had to make up the class, he was already working full-time. He could have made up the class by attending summer school, but his family needed his income. Left with no other option to make up the course, his acceptance letter was revoked, he said.

Out of frustration and anger over his situation, he nearly postponed college altogether.

“I was at the point where I wanted to give up on school,” Garibay said. “I had to make money.”

With the CSU Northridge path closed, he decided that if he couldn’t pursue becoming a civil engineer, the practical choice would be to pivot to learning the skills of an electrician.

In August, he enrolled in an electrician program at Long Beach City College. “I don’t want to be in a restaurant my whole life cooking wings,” he said.

His focus is on making money and helping his family. His goal, one largely formed by his experiences both before and during the pandemic, is to provide his parents, his siblings and his future children with a life he hasn’t been able to enjoy: one of financial stability. That’s why he’s becoming an electrician, a field he can begin working in sooner than if he pursued civil engineering.

To make as much as he can, Garibay added weekend gigs playing music in a regional Mexican band. But to maintain that work schedule he’s taking only two classes this semester. “I want to go full-time [to school], but then I will only be working three days,” said Garibay. “So how will the money be made? How is the house gonna get paid?”

It’s far from what he imagined his college days would look like.

My first year as a college student, it’s kind of weird…I didn’t expect it like this. And the fact that everybody talks about the college experience, I wanted to be able to talk like that,” he said. “But I mean, this is a circumstantial situation I’m in and, honestly, I have to just do my best with it.”

Father stricken with Covid-19

Nearby in Mid-City, a neighborhood in central Los Angeles, Edward Enciso is also trying to make the best of his situation.

Credit: Jennifer Molina/EdSource

Edward Enciso, 17, has worked at a Five Guys burger location throughout the pandemic to help his family pay the bills.

In March, Enciso was as carefree as any 17-year-old, planning what he called a “senior summer” of going to parties, playing video games and hanging out with friends. He felt secure in his decision to study film production and business at UC Riverside, knowing he would rely on a scholarship and federal financial aid. But by the end of the month, he realized that that help just wasn’t enough.

Shortly after shelter-in-place orders were enforced in Los Angeles, most of his mother’s clients stopped booking her to clean their homes and offices. His father, a gardener, lost a significant amount of business.

“I would’ve probably reached out for more scholarships, but I thought, ‘I need money now,’” he said. “I got in a survival mode in my head. I was very anxious, stressed, overwhelmed.”

He started working overtime at Five Guys, a national burger chain, through the spring and summer, and then working full-time while attending virtual classes at UC Riverside that started in October.

“I work full-time and do some overtime because I’m trying to prepare for college and save up for that,” said Enciso, who is paying his college costs of a few thousand each semester to avoid debt. “I have to make up that money that I don’t have…No matter how tired I get, that student debt will still be there. I can never be tired because I have a lot of responsibilities that were forced upon me now.”

But four weeks into the semester, he cut his time at work from an average of 45 hours per week to about 15 hours. He just couldn’t keep up with school. He worked with a tighter budget after cutting his hours, but he was getting by.

Then, about two weeks ago, his family got sick with Covid-19. His father was admitted to the hospital a few days later and, while still sick with the virus, he suffered a stroke.

It’s a tough situation compounded into an already difficult year, but Enciso has no time to dwell on it. The stroke has left his father paralyzed and, as a gardener, that means the family has lost a main source of income.

“It isn’t really a choice for me.”

Enciso is left with having to provide more money for his family. “We need to be realistic and prepare ourselves,” he said about the rent and bills that need to be paid. “It isn’t really a choice for me.”

He’s working part-time at Five Guys to meet the work limits of his scholarship, but with his father recovering in the hospital, he knows his family needs more help paying for essentials.

“I just really wanted to quit this semester,” said Enciso. He considered taking a gap year, but he knows it would be difficult returning to school after taking time off. Plus, the connections he makes in college will serve him well in the long run, he said.

“Even before Covid, I always felt a responsibility of paying them back through my education, and then eventually being in a position where I can take care of them,” said Enciso, referring to his parents. “But especially now with Covid, it’s a priority. I have to get myself through college and it’s a hustle, but I’m down for it.”

His drive to graduate from college means he must now balance his full-time school schedule and his family’s financial needs.

It’s a balance he’s thinking about this week as he picks his new classes for the spring semester. His ideal schedule, he said, would include taking morning classes that he can finish by 1 p.m., so he can study and complete school work and then work during evenings, nights and weekends.

“I’m super stressed, but I don’t really have time to be complaining about it. I’ll be okay,” he said. “The world keeps moving, and so will I.”

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