Commentary: Nontraditional students like me face enormous challenges

By An Garagiola-Bernier

A community college student overcomes barriers to completion.

I’m one of millions of nontraditional low-income college students who have faced serious financial worries on top of the usual student concerns about tests, term papers and picking the right major.

Just 5 percent of students in college today graduated from high school and began college within a year at a four-year school and live on campus, according to a recent article in The Atlantic. It also noted that “the bulk of students today are in their mid-20s or older, enrolled at a community or commuter school, and working towards a degree they will take too long to complete.”

We “nontrads” are usually older and poorer than the 18-year-olds who go straight from high school to college. Instead of getting financial support from our parents, many of us are parents ourselves. And we often begin our post-high school educations at nearby community colleges while holding down jobs.

One of the biggest barriers we face is that colleges are underestimating our cost of attendance when calculating financial aid.

We have to come up with the money to pay for much more than tuition, books and a dorm room. We struggle to put food on the table, get a decent place to live, pay our medical bills and find affordable child care while we are in class or at work, along with numerous other expenses.

And we have to juggle our studies around the demands of jobs and parenting, making it impossible to devote all the time we would like to do our best in our classes.

According to a report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, only 15.1 percent of students who began community college in 2009 graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree within six years, even though 80 percent of community college students said this was their goal. This is a tragic waste of talent.

Colleges, universities, government and the private sector need to do a better job providing us with need-based scholarships, along with assistance and supportive services to increase our chances of overcoming the enormous challenges we face inside and outside the classroom, so more of us can graduate. Doing so is in America’s national interest.

Opening opportunities

I’m far from the stereotypical college student. I’m a 35-year-old mother of three who dropped out of high school to work at a low-wage job so I could help my mom pay the bills. I received a GED and then an associate degree from a community college, and am now in my first year at a four-year college.

Along the way I had to deal with an incurable illness, originally misdiagnosed, called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. The disease, which my 9-year-old son inherited, causes weak and unstable joints and other body structures, and has forced me to undergo 12 surgeries. I was unable to work for seven years and I continue to receive physical therapy to relearn how to walk. I was hit with enormous medical bills, paid off only with the help of a charity.

My life changed remarkably earlier this year when I received an Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which provides scholarship assistance of up to $40,000 per year to high-achieving students with low incomes. Thanks to the scholarship, I am now a sophomore at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, studying sociology and focusing on the intersection of poverty and gender.

My husband, Jacob, 34, is beginning his junior year at the nearby University of Minnesota. He grew up as the son of a migrant laborer, was homeless for a time as a boy, and worked as a carpenter for years until he hurt his back. We both graduated this year from Century College, a community college in White Bear Lake, Minnesota.

The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation is accepting applications for its Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship, which are worth up to $40,000 per year. The deadline is October 25.

This commentary was originally published in Community College Daily. Read the full article here.

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An Garagiola-Bernier is a graduate of Century College (Minnesota) and a student at Hamline University.
An Garagiola-Bernier

 is a graduate of Century College (Minnesota) and a student at Hamline University.