The college climb steepens

For many of today’s students, pursuing higher education was a struggle even before the pandemic. Today, as shown in this candid, close-up look at the lives of five low-income students, the college challenge is immense.

Arrow Down Next Section Photos and text by RACHEL BUJALSKI.
Design by SARAH HERBERT.

Balanced between two worlds

Karen, 24, is one of the nation's roughly 700,000 Dreamers, undocumented residents brought to this country as children. She is studying animal science and public health at the University of California-Davis.

Karen gives her mom, Maria Meza, a Mother's Day hug. The springtime visit wasn't exactly planned; it was forced. The pandemic closed the Davis campus and sent Karen home to Orange County, some 400 miles south.

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Though she enjoys spending time at her childhood home with her wife, Alex Peinado (center), and sister, Michelle Meza (right), Karen says her schoolwork has suffered. She misses consulting directly with her professors, and she's had to drop courses because she had trouble keeping up online.

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Karen and Alex, newly married last year, share a moment in Karen's room on the UC-Davis campus. Such moments were limited to weekends for many months, with Alex forced to live seven hours away to attend community college in Orange County.

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Notes and photos from her wife and family help Karen keep her spirits up during the long hours she spends in her room on campus.

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Karen travels by bicycle to work at an on-campus support center that helps undocumented students.

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The family home in Orange County, though long on love and togetherness, comes up short as far as school work. “I don’t have my quiet space where I can study or just make food for myself,” Karen says.

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Once a refugee,
now a rock

Okello Charles, 37, lives in San Diego with his two children while pursuing a bachelor’s degree in financial management at National University. He got here the hard way, fleeing war-torn Sudan with his mother and siblings and living as a refugee in Kenya for five years before coming to the United States in 2006.

Okello's life revolves around his children, Emily (10) and Ezekiel (3). His goal is to earn his degree and make enough to put them through college someday.

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Okello and his kids shop for groceries during a break in Okello's schedule. He recently earned a certificate in business intelligence analysis from
UC-San Diego—while working as a city bus driver and also driving for Uber.

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Okello and his kids sit down to dinner at his apartment, a relatively quiet moment in what has become troubling time for the family. With the pandemic curtailing in-town travel, Okello was laid off recently from his bus driving job, and driving for Uber was put on hold.

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Traditional Sudanese fare is a favorite with Okello's family, and fortunately, it's relatively inexpensive. With employment uncertain, Okello has made major cuts to stay in school and keep his apartment—including canceling internet service and taking in two roommates.

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Despite his financial woes and the pressure of schoolwork, Okello finds time for a little horseplay with Ezekiel.

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Okello pauses at the end of a long day—knowing many similar days are in store. “The coronavirus made me shift my schedule around and delayed my graduation by five months,” he says.

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Forged by adversity, steeled for service

Miguel Contreras has seen more trouble in his 22 years than most people see in a lifetime. He's a cancer survivor, an amputee, and he grew up in foster care. He's also an inspiration. Miguel works full time as a hospital aide and takes a full load of classes at College of the Sequoias in Visalia, California to train for a nursing career—all while preparing for fatherhood.

Miguel studies for midterm exams with a little “help” from Jonathan Gonzalez, his girlfriend’s brother. Miguel's classes at College of the Sequoias have all moved online because of COVID-19, and he says the work has become much harder without in-person help.

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Miguel and his girlfriend, Alexis Gonzalez, share a tender
touch that includes their unborn daughter—another factor
driving Miguel to succeed.

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Alexis and Miguel join Alexis’s mother, Yvette Chavez, to open baby gifts. There's little time for such family get-togethers because of Miguel's studies, his work schedule, and his hourlong commute to work.

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Still in his nursing scrubs after getting home from his shift at Kaweah Delta Medical Center, Miguel awaits dinner with Alexis.

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Miguel studies at his computer in his living room. His right leg was amputated below the knee after a cancer diagnosis at age 18. The care Miguel received from his nurses inspired him to become a nurse himself.

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Miguel and Alexis, who is five months' pregnant, sit
together in the newly decorated nursery.

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Teetering
on the edge

Zaq Woodward, a 33-year-old electrical engineering student at Pasadena City College, lives on Social Security in a single-resident apartment in Los Angeles' Little Tokyo. It's a tiny flat—with a shared bath in the hall, but it’s still a step up. He's no longer homeless, living in his car.

Zaq takes the LA Metro after studying all day on the PCC campus. Zaq, who moved to California after financial trouble forced him to drop out of college in Florida, is ineligible for financial aid because of his previous loan status. But PCC granted him a tuition waiver.

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Zaq studies on campus most days, using his cell phone to gain access to high-speed internet. With help from the college, he was able to get a voucher for his books and a Metro pass to get him back and forth from Little Tokyo.

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Zaq studies in his room as a neighbor waits in the hallway for access to the shared bathroom. Lacking wifi and unable to afford a laptop, Zaq was forced to drop classes for a full semester when the pandemic forced PCC to shift to online instruction. “It’s like hitting a roadblock just overnight," he says.

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Zaq shops in the market across the street from his apartment. With only Social Security to cover food, rent, and living expenses, meals are meager.

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A music student while in Florida, Zaq still finds comfort with his guitar.

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Zaq is unsure what's on the horizon, thanks to the resurgence of the pandemic. “It sucks, honestly," he says. "I don’t want to lose momentum and drop out of school again."

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A warrior
for her tribe

Denia Beck, 24, has lived her whole life on the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation in northern California. The first in her family to attend college, she's attended the College of the Redwoods for six years, earning just two years' worth of credit. College is important to Denia, but as legal guardian to four children, family must come first.

Denia and her niece Evelyn wear traditional Hupa regalia at one of their favorite spots on the reservation. Denia, a member of the Yurok Tribe and a Hupa and Karuk descendant, has been her family’s main support system since her parents died a few years ago. Last year, she won legal guardianship of her brother’s four children after his drug addiction made him unable to care for them.

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Hupa baby baskets hang in the home of Denia’s uncle. Before her death, Denia’s mother taught Denia and her sister how to collect willow reeds and make the traditional baskets.

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Because of the pandemic, Denia is now homeschooling the children and has again paused her own schooling to focus on her family’s needs. Here, she watches as her cousin, Jimmy Sanders, teaches her nephew, Carter Beck, how to fillet an eel they caught for dinner.

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Denia—here watching as her sister, Katherine Beck , plays with their niece Evelyn—is determined to get a degree in child psychology. Denia wants not only to help Evelyn and her siblings overcome past trauma, but also to understand the larger picture of child development.

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To cook the eel, a grate is placed over a fire of manzanita branches in the family's yard.

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With her uncle, Lawrence Taylor, at the wheel, Denia and the children go out on the river to check the fishing nets after dinner. Thoughts of college, though ever-present for Denia, aren't always top of mind. "I put my four children first," she says. "I need to figure out their needs before I commit to a semester of class.”

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