Sunday, March 15, 2009

First Casualty

Not actually the first, I am sure. But Friday marked the first time --- and I am sure not the last --- that a student came to talk with me about the economic crisis.

This student has been missing classes, was late turning in the various steps of the research paper I have assigned everyone in a vain attempt to force them not to start it the night before. This student came in not to offer excuses but to explain her absences, give me a little window into her life.

"How soon can you get me X and Y?" I asked. "I won't accept the paper without them. They can be late but they must come in before the paper does. Do you have a topic?"

Oh yes. And so we talked about her paper, research, the course, and how she can get it back on track. How she needs to get all of her classes back on track.

"My parents are going through foreclosure," she said. "And they got this letter ---- and I'm always the one who does the translating for them, so I've been driving home every weekend and even having to go with them to meetings on weekdays too sometimes. 'What does this form say; tell the lawyer this; what are our options; what does that mean; what is the fine print of our mortgage,' " she makes the hand motions of tossing a stack of papers off her lap, left and right. "It's been hard for me to get it through to them that I have stuff I need to deal with too. They're really worried. But I have all these deadlines too, and I keep telling them that I have to get this stuff done before I can go home for break, yew knew?"

"And," I ask gingerly, "will you be able to come back, after break?"

She blows out a long exhalation of breath. "Ffffffffffffff. I don't know. I'm still waiting on that. I've been over to financial aid and the bursar's office and the counselor's and I don't know for sure what's up. It's harder to get loans now, yew knew, and my parents have no money. But I don't qualify for much, because both of them were working double jobs, in order to pay for that damn house ---" she shakes her head. "I don't even know why they bothered with that thing," she says.

I nod sympathetically, but I think of how strong the pull of house-owning is for an immigrant family: the American Dream. I also think that I have never read a mortgage, much less worried about my parents' payments on it ---- certainly not at age 21 or so.

"So anyway, the financial aid people don't take into account bankruptcy or foreclosure, and I've been maxing out my loans already ---- I work this shit job and the loans cover tuition and my parents have been paying the rest of the rent so far --- but now --- and I work twenty hours a week in that coffee shop and see all these other peeps working there to pay for cell phones and with their beemers an' shit---"

By this time my head nodding is constant, falling into a rhythm with her litany as if backed by silent techno music. "Dood," I say, and she nods. "Ya dewd."

We are silent for a little while.

"I've been looking into getting myself declared not a dependent of my parents, so their income doesn't count against me and I could get Pell grants, but I hear that so many people are doing that right now and the state just doesn't care; you can declare all you want but that isn't going to change your aid amount. But I've been calling private lenders and no one wants to give me private loans right now."

"The thing with loans is," I say ruefully, "ya gotta pay em back." We commiserate a bit more --- my loan amount, her loan amount, the thought of looking for work in this economic climate, whether transferring to another school so she could live at home --- if it's still there --- or taking the rest of her GEs at the local community college is an option. "Whatever you do," I advise, "if they tell you the class counts, get it in writing from both ends. I'm not saying they purposefully trick people into thinking the classes will transfer, but it would really suck if you were trying to save money and then it didn't go through." By the end of the meeting, I have worked with her on her paper topic and also suggested 4 or 5 funding ideas that she hadn't come up with yet, and at last she leaves my office hours.

And when she goes I think about how she had asked permission to make anouncements in class about _____ Student Group and _____ Cultural Night, how these associations will be losing a leader and active member even if she does manage to come back next quarter under increased financial stress, about what it's like to juggle 20 hours a week at work with a full load of classes, volunteering for outreach, and running several student cultural organizations, even before someone calls to say what's this pink letter they've nailed to our door? And I think about who is last in and first squeezed out, what color our university will be, what sort of backgrounds will be left here as this recession goes on --- their cell phones and with their beemers an' shit --- how she had originally planned grad school for an MFT or MSW but with all these loans that's probably not going to happen now --- and I just think: shit.


Bardiac said...


I've had one student trying to figure out how to graduate now rather than after another semester because s/he just can't afford it.

I think you're points about the way race and immigration impacts family responsibilities and finances, and how those play into diversity at our campuses is especially important.

I hope the powers that be don't lose track of that.

Dr. Crazy said...

You might suggest to your student that she make an appointment with the Dean of Students to talk about the situation - not just with fin. aid people and advisers. This seems like an appropriate situation to get a higher-level admin perspective on, and there may be things that can be done that the lower-level peeps aren't aware of. Also, I wonder whether there are any community organizations that could be tapped for help with her parents' issues - that offer things like translators, legal advice, etc.? If there are, that would be a way to get assistance for the family and to assist your student so that the burden of the parents' difficulties aren't also entirely the student's to carry.

undine said...

Great post, and I echo your conclusion.

grumpyABDadjunct said...

Yeah, I was having what I thought was a really bad time of it this year (on strike, broke, behind with everything) and then one of my students told me that she was being deported. To a country in which she was threatened with kidnapping. Before the end of term. That kind of put a lot of things into perspective for me. Then said student scored 14/15 on her midterm and made it all even more depressing.

kfluff said...

Jeebus. this is the kind of situation I always think of when I hear faculty complain about how their students don't pay enough attention to their classes. I'd echo Dr. C, here, and see who might be willing to intervene on this student's behalf. At Askesis, we're being encouraged to send students to financial aid to negotiate---and we've adjusted our aid packages to address new kinds of economic hardship. This might be b/c we're a SLAC, but I think it's worth a phone call. And I suppose that your institution needn't be the student's only option, too.

Nevertheless, great response on your part. This situation is going to call on all of us to be humans, and that's exactly what you were.

Anonymous said...

Sigh. I'm just sad now.

Arbitrista said...

I hate to say it, but we're probably going to hear a lot of stories like this over the next year or so.