We honor the memory of Jay Cortez and are grateful to him for sharing his story, which represents the experiences of many students across California.
Many community college students in California live financially precarious existences. Work is a matter of survival, and study is a luxury. Community colleges enroll the state’s lowest-income students with full-time students having an annual median income of $16,223, with one-fourth having incomes of less than $5,544 per year.1 The annual federal poverty threshold for an individual is $10,830.
An annual income of $16,223 translates to about $44.45 per day, a painfully meager sum when one factors in the cost of tuition at $26 per unit (soon to increase to $36 per unit), books, transportation, rent, and groceries. Nearly nine in ten of all community college students work. Balancing the immediate rewards of working—namely a paycheck—with the long-term rewards of completing some level of higher education very often presents a conflict to community college students.
“I thought I would go to an Ivy League school,” says Jay Cortez. The twenty-five year old grew up among an extended Salvadoran family in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley and was always the bright star—an honor roll student, an academic decathlon competitor, and a talented musician on the clarinet and saxophone. The eldest of two siblings, Jay’s mom was a homemaker, and his father owned an automobile repair shop. He seemed destined for greatness. Toward the end of his education at Grant High School, however, the teenager lost interest in school and found his inner rebel instead. His grades plunged as a result, eclipsing his chance to be the star student from Grant High School. Community college became his chance to start again.
Since graduating from high school in 2004, Jay has attended, intermittently, a quintet of community education very often presents a conflict to community colleges throughout the Los Angeles region: Los Angeles Community College, Valley Community College, Pierce Community College, Santa Monica City College, and Antelope Valley College. In the seven years since high school, he has not yet transferred to a four-year institution nor has he earned an associate’s degree or trade certification. He is typical of many hard-working community college students whose academic goals are deferred by the lack of financial support and the need to work.
Following a two-year hiatus from school, in the fall of 2009, Jay returned full-time to Los Angeles City College (LACC).
A student’s need to work magnifies the impact of every budget cut. In the fall of 2010, Jay was elected LACC’s Associated Student Body President. He recalls a budget meeting with the student government, faculty, and top brass where cost-cutting measures were being sought.
Eliminating Saturday hours at the school’s library was proposed. Many students do not have computers at home, and their only access to computers is at school. The student body responded with outrage to what would be yet another obstacle to their academic goals. Many explained that Saturdays are the only days they have available to work on the computer; during the week, they work days and attend school at night. By the time they get out of class, the library is closed. Their protests worked, and the library remains open on Saturdays for four hours, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
At LACC, the financial aid department is understaffed. “When you say financial aid to a student who goes to community college,” Jay says, “it’s like you’re saying ‘DMV.’ It’s a pain in the butt, and you don’t want to go unless you absolutely have to. It’s tedious, it’s long, it’s drawn out, it’s confusing.” Jay’s first experience with the financial aid department was contentious and frustrating. He had little money to begin with and was counting on the disbursement of an AmeriCorps scholarship in the amount of $4,325 to survive the four-month semester. Following the proper procedures, he applied for the disbursal of the scholarship in the summer, and when school started in September he expected disbursement. It wasn’t available, nor was it available the next week or the week after. “I didn’t get that money until the end of the semester—December,” said Jay
Jay said. “It’s just a mess. They are expected to do a 10-person job with only three people.” He gained a better understanding of the impact the budget cuts have upon staffing. Ultimately the students’ needs go unmet.
“Being in community college feels like everyone starts out on the mainland and you want to get to this island paradise,” he says. “A lot of times it feels like the kids that go to four-year institutions have their nice cruise liners and their yachts—and, yes, it’s expensive and all, but it gets them there in comfort. And we’re here in a rickety little boat, a little rowboat with holes that we have to patch up and row our way out there. We’re all crowded on this boat, trying to stay on so we don’t fall off, trying to make it out to this same place, to get a degree, to get an education, to get a solid career and job. A lot of times, that’s exactly what it feels like.”
Part of the issue with students being able to help themselves is that they are unaware of resources like emergency loans, or the Extended Opportunities Programs and Services (EOPS), which provide for book vouchers. “It’s like the Animal Burger on the In-N-Out menu,” Jay says. “It’s available, but if you don’t know about it, you can’t ask for it.” He says that mandatory orientation would help inform students of resources and demystify the college experience overall, but student government has not yet reached a consensus on how to enforce attendance.
In the most dire financial cases, students are homeless. Jay explains that because of this they often sleep on bus benches or couch surf, moving from one friend’s couch to another’s. In an attempt to do what it could, the student government organized hygiene donation drives, collecting toiletries and assembling kits from the donations for distribution to those in need. The kits were distributed at the student government offices. Jay says that students would linger around the office before mustering the courage to ask for a kit.
“It’s a difficult topic because they feel so ashamed of it,” Jay said. “It’s hard to get it out in the open. When you can’t communicate, it really breaks down building any real lines to reach out to people.”
During last year’s Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons, LACC President Dr. Jamillah Moore’s office coordinated food drives for the preparation of holiday meals for hungry or homeless students and for the students with nowhere to go. The donations were turned over to Jay, then student body president, and he opened up his home to host the students’ holiday meals. “At LACC, the administration is very compassionate and tries to connect with students. There is very little that they don’t know about,” Jay says.
After the fall 2010 semester, Jay again withdrew from school so that he could work to earn some money. Despite his continued need to work, he will return to LACC in the spring of 2011 to complete the transfer curriculum in public policy for the University of Southern California or Tufts University by the fall of 2012. He needs just two classes to fulfill the transfer requirements.