Since becoming financially independent, sophomore Anthony Abril immersed himself in a number of public-service activities on campus. He works at the Graduate School of Education, after working at the Cal Calling Center for a year. Outside of his jobs, he also works at the student advocate’s office as well as in the office of ASUC Senator Briana Mullen, who is also a financially independent student.
In Mullen’s office, Abril works on the very projects that would have helped him throughout his appeal to be considered financially independent to the university, mainly on making financial aid an approachable and easily understandable topic. He briefly sat on the financial aid advisory committee, where he was able to get a new perspective on the complicated bureaucracy of financial aid and grants.
“I know other financially independent students who lost a year of school here, just because they couldn’t get aid,” Abril said. “There needs to be a certain degree of outreach for financially independent students.”
Though he is thankful for the appeal, Abril has criticized the process as not being transparent enough, though he understands the university must hold the students accountable. He eventually hopes to go into education policy and look at the ways education can be made more accessible for students.
“I know other financially independent students who lost a year of school here, just because they couldn’t get aid. There needs to be a certain degree of outreach for financially independent students.”
Abril emphasized the importance of his support network — such as his cousin, friends, colleagues and boyfriend, who helped him through the hard times. Yet, he understands many financially independent students must strongly advocate on their own behalf.
“No one is ever going to hold your hand,” he said. “Becoming financially independent requires a persistent amount of advocacy from the student. Students have to be checking on things to make sure all the gaps are covered. It’s tough to pay attention to things that you don’t know you’re looking for.”
When her peers were busy working on college applications, Diamond Jerry was caring for her mother who was rapidly succumbing to cancer.
As her classmates wrote essays and pitched their extracurriculars, Jerry drove her mother to the hospital and took care of her two younger sisters.
Her mother’s mind was quickly deteriorating. On Oct. 26, 2010, Jerry had her last conversation with her mother.
“I promised her I would spend the rest of my life making her proud,” Jerry said. “A few days later, my mother wasn’t even the same person. She wasn’t even in the same frame of mind.”
Making her mother proud meant many things, but for Jerry, one of the most important was to go to college. When her mother passed away, it became all the more important to attend college and show her siblings that even when things were falling apart, they didn’t have to let tragedy shape their futures.
“Something terrible like that can happen to you, and I wanted to be an example that you can really overcome that,” she said. “This shouldn’t be the time for us to give up on our ambitions or dreams or anything that our mom had supported us for.”
At UC Berkeley, she said it took her about a year to balance working with classes, without having to take out too many loans. She tries to avoid getting financial help from her family — her dad is out of the picture — unless it’s necessary.
“Getting more financial aid is not really the biggest part about being an independent student. It’s something more than just paying your bills or having free tuition; it’s about being responsible for yourself.”
She worries today about other things, such as paying back her debt from a few loans she borrowed in her freshman year and what she’ll do after graduation — hopefully working in some field of public and nutritional health.
In between jobs and class, Jerry focuses on scheduling time to see friends, spending time with her boyfriend and going to church on Sundays. Time is valuable, and even more so because she works for it, she says.
“Getting more financial aid is not really the biggest part about being an independent student,” Jerry said. “It’s something more than just paying your bills or having free tuition; it’s about being responsible for yourself.”
Junior/Legal studies and psychology
A native of San Diego, junior Jamie Martinez was first placed in foster care with his elder brother after his mother was arrested on suspicion of drug and alcohol possession. He was 4 years old at the time.
“That’s the prime age for when you set your comfort zone, where you establish who and where you’re going to go back to for the rest of your life,” Martinez said. “I had that all taken away.”
That lack of a comfort zone followed Martinez to his next stop: a family home headed by acquaintances of his parents with multiple other foster youth. At his home, he said there were many instances of sexual, drug and physical abuse that went completely unnoticed by his foster parents. At a young age, survival in this familiar battleground took precedence over school.
Social workers would periodically check in on him, but he gave up trying to explain both his home situation and his growing emotional problems when he realized the same worker would never visit twice.
“That’s the prime age for when you set your comfort zone, where you establish who and where you’re going to go back to for the rest of your life. “I had that all taken away.”
His foster mother contracted cancer when he was in his senior year of high school. At that point, familiar feelings of abandonment resurfaced, and he began to act out more. They fought; she kicked him out of the house and the foster system.
Things began to turn around after he began working, while living at his grandmother’s home. Though he was skeptical about community college, Martinez’ elder brother had been able to build relationships with multiple administrators at community college, mentorships that Martinez had never been able to foster.
Attending a six-week intensive program before beginning community college was a pivot point. Surrounded by helpful administrators, Martinez succeeded academically for the first time while sharing his story with fellow students.
He graduated with an associate’s degree from Grossmont College after three years. Now, a recent fall transfer to UC Berkeley, Martinez intends to double major in psychology and legal studies and later pursue law school. Unlike in the past, he refrains from working and focuses on adjusting to campus instead.
“I’m really trying not to focus on money. Education is an investment, and it does suck to owe money,” Martinez said. “But I think I’m going to do really well with whatever I pursue. As long as I do what I want and am helping people, it’ll be fine.”
Ask sophomore Jason Fauss about his financial insecurities, and he’ll list them without a pause. What comes to mind first when he thinks of finances is the in-between moments of his days, little things that he believes other students tend to look over.
There are the times in which he’ll copy hundreds of fliers to promote an event for the Office of External Affairs Vice President, where he currently works as the unpaid deputy of international affairs. Sometimes, the bill racks up to $150, and though he knows he’ll be reimbursed a week later, waiting for that check can be torturous.
As he points out, not everybody has that money on hand in their bank accounts.
“It might seem a little overdramatic, but for someone who constantly controls their finances and who doesn’t have a lot at one time, you kind of live on that scare every day,” Fauss said.
Control is something Fauss cherishes. Along with his work at the ASUC, Fauss also works at the Berkeley Wireless Research Center, holds an executive position in his fraternity, is involved with the campus debate team and is taking 20 units of classes. He works 15 hours per week, a relatively light load, considering he worked 30 hours per week last year.
“It might seem a little overdramatic, but for someone who constantly controls their finances and who doesn’t have a lot at one time, you kind of live on that scare every day.”
Like many UC Berkeley students, Fauss has a packed schedule. Hours between courses are crammed with shifts at work, and when he’s finished for the day, he heads straight to meetings, which on his busiest days could last until 9 p.m. Sometimes, he’ll fit in a couple hours of bible study if there’s room. But going through these often 12-plus-hour days can be a little more worrisome without some extra cash in his pockets, Fauss says, especially when it comes to loans.
The amount of unpaid extracurriculars he participates in and the sheer size of his student debt starkly contrasts to what he jokingly refers to as the “not lucrative” value of his intended degree in German. But he wouldn’t change a thing, such as dropping activities just to work or not taking out loans — his education is a worthy investment, even if he goes into debt.
“I think your interests and passions are worth that,” Fauss said.
In the summer before her senior year, Gladys Castro worked as a Cal Student Orientation leader, leading new students around UC Berkeley. It was a solid job in the ways her nearly nine-odd occupations beforehand were not. Being a CalSO leader meant free housing, food and a stipend.
To the new undergraduates, Castro would give one piece of advice: Don’t work — not if you don’t have to.
It’s a phrase entirely contradictory to Castro’s undergraduate experience — she works about four jobs a semester. Most of the jobs are tasks that she doesn’t need documentation for, such as tutoring, transcribing and babysitting, as she’s an undocumented individual. She receives some financial aid from the university in the form of the grants provided by the California DREAM Act, but what she gets is barely enough to cover her tuition.
Castro can’t get loans, private or federal, due to her immigration status. She has a few scholarships, but it’s not enough to buoy her above the financial troubles.
“People don’t assume you’re going to make it, especially because I’m undocumented, I’m a Latina woman, I’m the first one of my entire family to graduate high school. To make it to college and to like UC Berkeley, it’s like the biggest deal.”
After withdrawing for a year, she began to support her parents — who work as a barber and construction worker — and save money.
She re-entered her junior year and began working again. Now a senior, she works about 35 hours a week and holds multiple jobs with a full courseload.
Making it here means the world to her.
“People don’t assume you’re going to make it, especially because I’m undocumented, I’m a Latina woman, I’m the first one of my entire family to graduate high school. To make it to college and to like UC Berkeley, it’s like the biggest deal, you know,” she said. “I haven’t been shy at all about my status, and I don’t think I should be ashamed of it at all. We made it, and we’re at Cal. I’m okay with people knowing that.”