Why Cal Grant must be expanded: Hard realities of juggling community college, work and family

TreShawn Weatherspoon, Special to CALmatters

My story is not especially unique, and that is what makes it especially troubling.

I am one of 2.1 million students attending a California Community College, working on my general science associates degree toward a BA in chemistry to realize my dream of working in orthopedic surgery.

I am a father to two daughters, and, like many other community college students, I juggle work, school and family responsibilities every day.

I also happen to be one of the 84 percent of black students who did not receive a Cal Grant award to support my education due to California’s inadequate financial aid system.

That is why I’m standing up to call for expanded financial aid opportunities for community college students now.

We need access to financial aid that accounts for the true cost of college.

And so I went to the Capitol to support Sen. Connie Leyva’s Senate Bill 291. If the bill becomes law, it would be an incredible blessing to me, my family and the thousands of other community college students struggling to afford their education.

Similar to many of my classmates, I put off college for years so that I could work. I had to provide for my children. I finally reached a point where I knew continuing my education was the only way to build a better life for my kids and myself. Yet after my first semester at American River College in Sacramento, struggling grades left me unable to access the financial support I needed to achieve success in the here and now.

Without access to critical need-based financial aid, I was paying for classes, books, meals and other necessities with my credit card, piling up debt. Working as a security guard helped me to make ends meet, barely. I went to class during the day and studied at night while I sat in my patrol car monitoring local motel parking lots.

The barriers I have faced in my academic journey are familiar across California. Too many community college students struggle to advance due to a lack of support for our success.

Despite serving low-income students, California Community College students receive just 7% percent of funds available through the Cal Grant program.

This is especially concerning when considering that the cost to attend a California Community College over the University of California or a California State University is exponentially higher for low-income students.

The consequences that result from this inequitable system are felt far beyond the classroom. A recent survey conducted by the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice revealed that 60 percent of California Community College students experience housing insecurity and 50% are food insecure.

Of the students who report being employed, the majority still experience food and housing insecurity and 20% experience homelessness.

That is not right. Inadequate financial aid has left community college students fighting for a place to call home and food on our tables, while trying to stay afloat in class. Some are forced to drop out.

I’m lucky to have found a job that allows me to keep up with my education, while feeding my family and keeping a roof over our heads. But I battle for it every day. I chose to attend college to better my life, but I’m also doing this for my daughters. Like many of my classmates, my biggest hope is to be an example of the possibilities that come from hard work and a quality education.

This hope is not unique. My story is shared by many other community college students living this reality. We do everything we can to show up to class and make ends meet each day in our quest for more.

But we need support to ease the financial burdens we face and to provide access to success for all students.

We need more than bandage fixes and quick remedies in the short term. We need a hand being offered by Sen. Leyva’s SB 291. Then one day not too far from now, I will have my degree and begin my career in orthopedic surgery and start giving back.

TreShawn Weatherspoon is a student at American River College in Sacramento, [email protected]. He wrote this commentary for CALmatters.

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