Full-time campus student Ashley Cunningham works 30-plus hours to pay rent

Jenna Wong/Staff

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In Ashley Cunningham’s first semester at UC Berkeley, she and her long-term boyfriend split up after 7 ½ years. Despite this hard emotional time, Cunningham still worked 30-plus hours a week and stayed in school full time.

Cunningham is a 29-year-old transfer student who has to work 30-35 hours a week in order to pay rent and survive while she attends school full time. She has worked as a retail sales manager since transferring to UC Berkeley in fall 2017 but now works at the Sierra Nevada Torpedo Room on Fourth Street. On top of classes and work, Cunningham volunteers at a high school in Oakland and took time out of her schedule to strike last week with her fellow workers.

Cunningham is originally from San Diego and moved to Concord when she was 21. Six years ago, she moved into her apartment in Rockridge, Oakland. Her apartment has rent control that only allows a 2 percent increase in rent per year, according to Cunningham. Now she lives alone with her cat Jasper and pays $1,350 for her one-bedroom apartment.

“Because it’s rent-controlled, I am never moving,” Cunningham said.

To pay for her apartment, Cunningham works as a bartender at the Sierra Nevada Torpedo Room. On Tuesdays, Cunningham has both class and work. Her first class starts at 11 a.m., and her shift at work starts at 4 p.m. She usually doesn’t get off until 10:30 or 11 p.m., forcing her to be alert and awake for 12 hours straight.   

Making time for coursework is hard for Cunningham. On Thursdays, she stays on campus from 11 a.m. until 8 p.m., with a break from 2 p.m. until 5 p.m.

“From 2 until 5 you can find me at Moffitt Library,” Cunningham said about these Thursday breaks. “I’m either sleeping on a couch or reading, or a combination of both.”

Cunningham transferred to UC Berkeley from Berkeley City College, where she attended classes for three years. She still has to work full time and go to school full time — “that hasn’t changed,” she said.

Cunningham wants to be a high school teacher. In preparation for credential programs, she volunteers as a teacher’s assistant at Coliseum College Prep Academy, a public school in East Oakland. Cunningham only needed 40 hours of experience at the school and has long surpassed that, but she still goes one day a week.

The teachers at the school are striking along with the rest of the Oakland Unified School District. On Feb. 22, Cunningham was present in Oakland striking with her fellow workers.

“The city of Berkeley and Oakland need to take more responsibility for what’s happening in the cities,” Cunningham said. “It’s really unfortunate how much rent has increased over the last six years.”

She acknowledged that living in Berkeley and Oakland has gotten more expensive partly because of the tech boom in the Bay Area. Cunningham expressed that she thinks the cities should be taking more responsibility for providing affordable housing in the Bay. She recognized that UC Berkeley has affordable student housing but raised concerns for people who want to stay in the area after they graduate.

Cunningham has found ways to cope with and manage school, work and life. During her breakup in her first semester, she had to do many things to get by, such as pass/no pass-ing classes and asking professors and GSIs for extensions. During her breakup, she remembers going home and drinking wine while trying to read “Ulysses” by James Joyce.

“I think a lot of students forget this: One, at the end of the day, we are not just students — we are humans. We face really intense hardships like ending a long-term relationship. But your life has to still go on; your priorities have to go on,” Cunningham said.

Cunningham has work or school every day of the week except Saturday. Finding time to do the hours of homework she has is a struggle. Cunningham expressed that when she takes time to have fun, it takes away from the little time she has to study.  

She expressed that she thinks all you can do sometimes is just show up and do the best you can.  

“I think we all just put so much pressure on ourselves. I think we forget at the end of the day, there is only so much we can do,” Cunningham said.

Contact Brennan Havens at [email protected] .