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Emergency aid to students was a priority for the three rounds of federal emergency Covid relief aid. Students received various amounts depending on the college they attend.
For these California Community Colleges students, the money came at a critical time allowing some of them to even help their families through the early months of the pandemic. Of all 116 colleges, Mt. San Antonio in Los Angeles County spent the highest amount from its student aid portion, which at $48 million is the second-highest in the state.
That stems mostly from its size. The college enrolls about 30,000 students, about half of whom are recipients of the Pell Grant, the main source of federal financial aid for low-income students. The college has been awarded $115 million total in stimulus funds.
Lyda Im, Mt. San Antonio College
Lyda Im grew up in Cambodia dreaming of the day she could attend college in the United States. Her parents shared the same dream for her.
“My parents didn’t even get a chance to finish high school,” Im said. “They wanted me to get a higher education, and they thought of the U.S. as a land of opportunity that might give me a chance to grow.”
Now 21, Im is preparing to enter her fourth semester at Mt. San Antonio College. Whether she can continue to pursue her degree and dream may depend on her ability to afford it, which is why she is now preparing to apply for federal Covid aid through the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund.
For the past year, she has attended online courses while living with her aunt in San Dimas. Her current major is business administration, but she hopes to specialize in accounting and information systems after transferring to San Jose State or Cal State East Bay. “But I don’t know because of the living expenses.”
Im says her parents remain in her hometown of Phnom Penh City to run their garment supplies business and to pay for as much of Im’s college expenses as they can manage. “I want to help my parents out, even if it’s little,” Im said. “But for international students, it’s very hard to get a job because we don’t have work permits to work outside campus.” International students are eligible for the federal aid but the U.S. Department of Education encourages colleges to prioritize domestic students.
Also, the cost to attend a community college versus a four-year university can be pretty close for international students, Im said. “Mt. SAC has a high tuition fee for international students,” she said. “If I receive the HEERF aid, my first priority would be to pay tuition fees because that would help my parents a lot.”
By Emily Chung
Prinzezz Sangco, Mt. San Antonio College
After her mother, grandmother and sister lost their jobs during the pandemic, Prinzezz Sangco knew she had to work full time as a quality assurance technician at a Los Angeles bakery to help her family. She did that and completed the general education courses, so she could enroll in at Mt. San Antonio College to pursue a degree in nursing.
Her family’s ongoing financial strains are one reason she felt so relieved to receive her first federal higher education relief payment of $700 in spring 2020. She said she received her second grant of $400 this spring and used the money to help pay for rent, groceries and other living expenses.
“When my family was receiving unemployment funds, the money they received was lower than our normal expenses and responsibilities,” said the 23-year-old, who lives with four family members in West Covina. “So the emergency grants that I received were helpful.”
Sangco relies on federal student aid to pay for her courses at Mt. San Antonio. However, she sometimes struggles to pay for her textbooks and borrows books from classmates when possible.
Sangco said she is fine with having to continue working long hours while attending classes in the fall. But she believes she is putting her health at risk. On Christmas Day, a supervisor she works closely with at the bakery tested positive for Covid-19. Her entire family tested positive days later, and Sangco blames herself. “We were in quarantine for about a month because we were waiting for negative results from each family member before I could return to work,” she said. “It was pretty rough not having any money for food and not being able to go outside for weeks.”
By Briana Munoz
Naw Dwe, Mt. San Antonio College
So far for 18-year-old Naw Christina Dwe, the experience of college during the pandemic has been clouded by having to figure out how to navigate her online courses as an interior design major at Mt. San Antonio College and how to pay for books and specialized pens.
She took it as a good sign of good fortune this past spring when she suddenly received a $500 emergency higher education grant from the federal government. “I didn’t apply for it or anything,” Dwe said. “It was just automatically in my bank statement.”
Dwe said she applied for the Cal Grant last fall, and that money has helped cover her tuition costs. With the extra help from the federal grant, Dwe purchased additional basic supplies for her interior design courses.
“It was really helpful because the supplies we use for my interior design program are paid out of pocket,” Dwe said.
Dwe said she hopes to take the rest of her interior classes in person. “I don’t do well with online classes, even with general education classes,” Dwe said. “I did finish my first year with A’s and B’s, but I had to learn to stop being hard on myself when I felt overwhelmed.”
During the pandemic, Dwe’s father had to move away temporarily to keep his job and her mother became unemployed for a period of time. Today the family situation is more stable, but Dwe says the experience of watching her parents struggle with job security leaves her feeling anxious about her ability to pay for college in the future.
By Briana Munoz
Samantha Nevarez, Mt. San Antonio College
Samantha Nevarez laughed out loud with giddiness after receiving an email from Mt. San Antonio College notifying her that she was qualified to receive federal relief aid related to the pandemic.
In the spring, Nevarez was awarded $500 through the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund. “It was cool,” she said. “I’d never heard of it. I just got it.”
As a student from a low-income household, the 18-year-old has been eligible for financial aid and grants, including the Pell Grant. She is also a recipient of the Edison International STEM Scholarship. The semester was well underway when she received the extra federal money, and her tuition and textbooks had already been taken care of.
The pandemic and accompanying lockdown actually gave Nevarez more time for coursework. She joined the Summer Bridge program, Extended Opportunity Program and other honors-related programs. She plans to complete her second year of college at Mt. San Antonio and hopes to transfer to a four-year university by 2022.
“It was really helpful,” Nevarez said, referring to the federal emergency aid. “We really needed groceries at that time, so it was the perfect week to get it.”
By Bella Arnold
Saul Nieto, Cypress College
Saul Nieto, 20, was happily surprised to receive his share of Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund money from Cypress College last fall and doubly relieved when he got a second payment in the spring.
“They had just emailed me randomly,” Nieto said. The first time around he was given $247 and then an additional $800 a few months later.
Nieto’s family receives rental assistance through a federal aid program, so they put the extra emergency aid toward Nieto’s car payments and remaining living expenses. Nieto said that he lost a part-time job during the pandemic and admits that the funding helped keep him financially stable.
“Like almost everyone, I was jobless,” he said. “When the $800 came in, my unemployment payments had stopped, and I wasn’t receiving any source of income. So, the money was definitely helpful.”
Because his tuition costs are covered by financial aid assistance, Nieto said he put the leftover emergency money into his savings account. Nieto is starting this fall at California State University, Long Beach, where he will continue to study theater with an emphasis on acting.
“In a way, job loss benefited me,” he said. “Before that, I was working full time five days a week and going to school full time two days a week.” Without having to worry about a part-time job, “I was just able to focus on one thing,” he said.
By Bella Arnold
Enid Wright, Compton College
Enid Wright was taking classes at Compton College in the spring when she received a $300 payment from the federal Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund, money she used to pay for gas, food and a hotel room.
By the time she earned her associate degree in biology and physiological sciences at the end of the semester, she was chosen by Compton College to give a commencement speech to commemorate the seven-year journey it took to earn that degree.
Wright, 48, said that, on and off for the past seven years, she has slept in her car, hotel rooms and on friends’ couches as a means of survival and as a way to afford her community college courses. She has long worked in the medical field but lost her job during the pandemic and relied on family support and unemployment checks to survive. “I had no money coming in,” Wright said. “I couldn’t pay for food or get a room or anything like that.”
Wright said she splurged on food and a room because she didn’t have to use her $300 in federal emergency money toward tuition. She had qualified for the California College Promise Grant, a fee waiver that covers enrollment fees for financially eligible students at community colleges.
She hopes to transfer to Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in 2023 to continue her education and will have to rely on financial aid to cover her tuition. She recently moved into an apartment with a friend, and her job recently gave her more hours.
“It meant a lot to get HEERF funding,” Wright said. “It helped me focus on school and not worry about gas and shelter. It gave me a sense of security.”
By Iman Palm
Kimberly Cruz-Alvarado, Mt. San Antonio College
Kimberly Cruz-Alvarado, a rising sophomore studying communications at Mt. San Antonio College, said she didn’t expect to see an additional $800 in her bank account in April 2020.
“HEERF became super helpful the day it hit my bank account,” Cruz-Alvarado said, referring to the federal Higher Education Emergency Relief money. “I couldn’t complain.”
In February 2020, as the pandemic was taking root in the U.S., Cruz-Alvarado, 22, quit her job as a medical assistant in Pomona to keep herself safe.
Cruz-Alvarado was three months pregnant at the time, and while she needed the income to cover living expenses and college costs, she decided to leave her job rather than risk the health of her unborn baby. That’s why she says the HEERF money made such a big difference for her.
“Working through a pandemic while pregnant did not seem worth it to me,” she said. “I had already gone through a miscarriage and did not want to experience another.”
After making the difficult decision to leave her job of two years, Cruz-Alvarado was able to pay her bills and focus on school with support from her mother, siblings and her fiance’s family. She said she spent part of her federal emergency money to buy bottles, diapers and wipes for her now 11-month-old daughter and used the rest to pay for rent and groceries.
“It was definitely helpful,” Cruz-Alvarado said. “At the time I was a stay-at-home mom and didn’t have a source of income.”
By Mia Alva
Chloe Kim, Mt. San Antonio College
Chloe Kim was completely surprised when in March she discovered an extra $800 in her bank account, a cash infusion that she later learned came from the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund.
“I wasn’t even expecting it,” said Kim, a 19-year-old Brea native and rising sophomore at Mt. San Antonio College. “I didn’t get a notification about it before it even happened, so I’m really grateful for it.”
Kim qualified for the federal aid without having to apply and remains unaware of the exact requirements she may have met to qualify for the extra $800.
She qualifies as a low-income student and receives the federal Pell Grant and the Cal Grant. She’s also received scholarships and works part time.
“I pay little for school except for my textbooks, which are at most like $40,” Kim said. “I’m fortunate enough to say that.”
Kim said she has no immediate need for the $800 but will save it for future educational expenses. A psychology major, she hopes to transfer to a University of California campus and eventually spend a semester studying abroad.
“It definitely gives me more of a safety net.” Kim said. “Transferring will definitely be more expensive, so I’m keeping all of my options in mind when it comes to budgeting the money.”
By Emily Chung
Haley Castello, Pasadena City College
As soon as Haley Castello received an email during the spring 2021 semester notifying the Pasadena City College student that she was eligible for the CARES Act funds, she filled out the required Google Form and within a couple of months received a $500 grant.
Several months later, she did the same thing and got an additional $500.
Then Castello got the idea to forward the eligibility email to her classmates at PCC so they could apply, too. Castello says if she did not check her email regularly she probably would not have applied or known about the federal aid. “It was real easy,” she said. “The form asked ‘How has Covid-19 affected you? Check all that apply,’” Castello said. “It just asked for your student ID, it wasn’t really intrusive asking too many questions.”
The 19-year-old spent most of the $1,000 she received in combined Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund grants to help her mom pay family bills. At the time, Castello’s mother was the sole provider for Castello and her sister. “The aid has been very helpful,” Castello said. “It helped out with bills and car payments, but then that money was gone in a flash because we were so behind.”
Since then, to help make ends meet, Castello took a job at Chick-fil-A. Her sister got a part-time job, too. Having to work 30 to 35 hours a week forced Castello to delay her plans to transfer from PCC to the University of La Verne, where she hopes to double major in history and sociology. Now her plan is to graduate from PCC with an associate degree by spring 2022. She hopes to become a high school history instructor and eventually teach at a community college.
As for her family’s finances, Castello said, “We’re still trying to play catch up. It was really hard. It was a struggle to get groceries and little things like that because we didn’t really have much.”
By Taylor Helmes
Mia Alva is a sophomore at California State University, Los Angeles. Bella Arnold is a sophomore at California State University, Long Beach. Emily Chung is a junior at the University of Southern California. Taylor Helmes is a recent graduate from California State University, Dominguez Hills. Iman Palm is a recent graduate from California State University, Long Beach. Briana Munoz is a recent graduate from California State University, Los Angeles. Each was a fellow with EdSource’s California Student Journalism Corps this spring semester.
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