I knew I was helpless when my mom put her glasses down.
“I don’t know what this means,” she said, staring wide-eyed at my CSS document, a financial aid form required by many colleges. “Do you know what a Schedule 1 is?”
I didn’t. Seconds blurred into minutes as I realized my mother couldn’t help me with my college applications.
Though I eventually completed the complicated documents with the help of my bookkeeping aunt, I learned at that moment that the process of applying to college isn’t fair to those without resources, like me.
Despite submitting the financial aid form, I still don’t know how I’m going to pay for college, which can cost up to $200,000 for four years. That’s why this nation has a student debt crisis.
So when I read recent comments from Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos that she thinks plans for free college amount to a “socialist takeover of higher education,” I cringed. As a low-income high school senior, I know free college would actually be a lifeline for the underprivileged.
My family moved from Mexico to find a better life when I entered the first grade. Yet once we settled in California, my mother’s employer abandoned her and my father struggled to find stable employment, plunging us into poverty.
For years, we moved from apartment to apartment, relying on family members to stay afloat. I was 9 when my father lost a job and we first moved into a motel. Not long after, my mom was diagnosed with cancer.
I’ll never forget the quiet visits with my relatives to the hospital. Seeing my mother made me feel closer to her, yet I felt powerless amid her illness. Some days she came home and others she didn’t. All I could do was wait and hope that her condition improved.
In the following years, my family moved repeatedly due to rising rent costs and my father’s unsteady employment. School friends laughed when I told them where I lived; I didn’t know what to say. My family lived on potatoes and groceries from the dollar store, our only means of survival.
In elementary school, I had a teacher who often shared her own financial struggles, telling the class how much she had “hated being the poor kid.”
Hearing this, I felt understood. But later, when I paid a school fee and asked her for my remaining change of $5, which my mom needed for laundry, she smirked at me and I felt betrayed.
I was lucky that my parents instilled in me the transformative value of education, what they believed was the gateway to success. They had gone to college, and though they were unable to use their degrees in the United States, they witnessed firsthand the opportunities that arise from a university diploma.
With my parents’ anecdotes in mind, I committed myself to my studies. And as the years passed, life began to look up. By mid-2015, my mother had survived cancer and my father was able to secure stable employment. In high school, I was praised by teachers for my writing and became an editor for my school’s newspaper.
The pandemic, however, has been a period of reckoning for my family. Remote learning is difficult in a two-bedroom apartment, where I share one of those bedrooms with my two brothers. Suddenly I had to struggle to stay motivated in school.
Worse, my uncle came down with the coronavirus. I was speechless the night I learned he had passed away. At 17, I didn’t know how to respond to death. But stepping outside my apartment, I’m reminded that San Diego County, where I live, recently moved to California’s most restrictive purple tier due to rising COVID-19 infections, which have disproportionately affected Latinos like me.
My parents are essential workers without the privilege of working from home, raising our risk for infection. Where in my 920-square-foot apartment would I isolate if my mom or dad fell ill? What would I do if my dad could no longer work? How would we pay our monthly rent?
I don’t have the answers to these questions. But my mother’s words reminded me, once again, that education could be my ticket to a prosperous future.
“Have you submitted your FAFSA application?” she asked me last week. (That’s the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form.)
“Yes,” I said.
“Have you checked the scholarship bulletin?”
“Why do you have three missing assignments?” she pressed.
I couldn’t answer that one. It’s true I’ve turned in papers late, struggling with remote learning and bouts of “senioritis.” But I have not given up on my dreams of getting into college and becoming an agent of change in my community.
Earlier this month, when I submitted my University of California applications, the online submission page displayed a yellow banner reading “Good Job!” next to an oversized checkmark. I am certainly proud to have applied to college ― one step toward success.
Yet the bittersweet question remains: How will I pay for college?
I know many colleges offer generous financial aid and scholarship opportunities, but this worry still clings to me. A college degree could offer me equal footing in a world that too often denies students like me the opportunity to pursue higher education. Studies even show that those from lower-income households benefit most from a university degree when compared to students from middle- and upper-class households.
I’m grateful for my loving family and supportive high school, but college holds the real promise for socioeconomic mobility. One day I’d like to live in a home with clean-cut grass and a garage. I’d like to travel to Europe and go on vacations I’ve never been able to take.
The secretary of education might not be by my side. In fact, she has even funneled millions in coronavirus relief funds away from public schools and toward religious and private schools.
But I know I have my family behind me. And I know I’m not the only one struggling through the pandemic, which has exacerbated the hardships for over 12 million low-income students bearing the brunt of remote learning difficulties.
They, too, deserve a chance at college, a prospect that remains ever so elusive as tuition rates soar. In America, the high cost of higher education makes economic mobility impossible for millions of underprivileged students.
Despite what DeVos said, debt-free college wouldn’t be a socialist takeover. It would be a gesture of moral clarity and a step toward justice for working-class families like mine.
Isaac Lozano is a senior at Bonita Vista High in Chula Vista, California. He is working on a children’s book and his writing has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Guardian and San Diego Union-Tribune. Twitter: @ilozanocrusader