Here’s what a day in the life of a community college student in 2015 really looks like.
By Scilla Alecci
Investigative Reporting Fellow, The Huffington Post
HuffPost College, December 21, 2015 — Ema Mora’s school day starts at 5:30 p.m. As soon as she finishes her data-entry work at a company in Hartford, she hops in her gold 1998 Toyota and drives the backroads of the old Connecticut city to avoid rush-hour traffic and reach her school, Capital Community College.
Mora — who was born in Lima, Peru, and moved to the U.S. when she was 10 — is one of 1,800 students who attend the community college full time in an effort to make a better living for themselves. Like most of her classmates, she’s older than the average college student, at age 28. And like most of her classmates, she receives financial aid to help pay for her tuition. At Capital, 58 percent of students receive Pell Grants, which typically means they earn less than $40,000 a year. (In 2008, 46 percent of the student body was low-income.)
Community colleges and other schools that tend to serve poor populations have lower graduation rates compared with top public and private schools — sometimes dramatically so. Just 7 percent of students graduate from Capital within three years, according to the U.S. Department of Education. (The two-year school says another 23 percent transfer.)
The odds are much better for students at Trinity College, an elite private school that shares the same hometown as Capital, but in terms of student services, money spent on education and physical appearance, it’s worlds away. A recent examination of the learning divide in higher education by The Hechinger Report and The Huffington Post found it is increasingly difficult for low-income students to get into top colleges such as Trinity.
But Mora is determined to prove that statistics can be wrong. “It doesn’t have to be like that,” she told HuffPost while on a recent lunch break from her job. She said it is up to students to make the most of their studies and their life — and stay focused on their dreams.
Mora said she rarely sees the sun. Her workday starts before sunrise and her classes — she is majoring in communications — end when stars are twinkling in the sky.
She’s optimistic her efforts will pay off. “I just have to suck it up and keep working and going to school until I’m done,” Mora said. “I am very grateful for the opportunity that I have.”
Next year, she said, she plans to transfer to a four-year college and pursue a degree in psychology and communications. Her dream is to attend Trinity, where she has already taken a few classes.
In the photo diary below from Dec. 15 and 16, Mora illustrates and narrates her typical day, juggling her responsibilities at work with classes at Capital, which is housed in a former department store. It is a routine made of empty corridors, artificially lit libraries and deserted parking lots.
8 a.m. To make ends meet, Mora works full time for a company that sells restaurant supplies. “My workplace is made up of small offices, mostly cubicles. I go to work very early on weekdays.”
Before she was hired at this company in September, Mora juggled two part-time jobs: at a hotel and at her college’s career services office. “When I got the job, I was desperate. I needed the money so I could continue to study. I don’t plan to do this forever but I am very grateful.”
1 p.m. “One of my favorite parts of the day is my 30-minute lunch break when I can enjoy something and free my mind for a little bit.”
5:10 p.m. Clocking out. “When I get out of work, it’s already dark outside and I often don’t get to see the sun.”
5:30 p.m. Mora drives to class in her late-model Toyota. She moved to the U.S. when she was 10 and now calls Hartford “home.”
5:45 p.m. Arriving downtown for her first class of the day. “[After high school,] It took me a long time to decide what I wanted to do. I was confused. Three years ago I went back to school.”
5:50 p.m. “[Working and studying full time] is very hard … There are some days that it could be harder than other days. It could be sad … But it’s manageable. Once you get used to it, you’re fine.”
“I know that at the end it will be worth it.”
“The college has 11 accessible floors. From the top floor you have access to a very nice view of downtown.”
“Main entrance. My college was once a mall.”
“One area of the building belongs to the college. The rest is shared by several small businesses and public offices.”
“They have different ways to help poor students. I have financial aid and it covers everything. Sometimes I even have money for the books, because they are very expensive. I am very fortunate to have that covered.”
“The Foxx Stopp. Sometimes I stop here to get coffee or hot chocolate before class.”
“We have just a few elevators, all of which are usually packed with students and staff throughout the day.”
“Luckily for students that come after 5 p.m., the elevators are usually empty.”
6 p.m. “I like behind-the-scenes production. I like editing a lot. That’s my passion.”
“The college is very diverse. There are older people, moms with kids as well as your typical college student who doesn’t work full time.”
8:15 p.m. “For now I’m planning to stay in the area and finish college here.”
8:30 p.m. “Aside from communications, I am interested in psychology. I want to pursue both. I know it’s going to take more time, but I want to know more.”
“I am pretty optimistic [about my future].”
“It feels like my day is long because I spend all day working, and yet at the same time it’s short because I don’t get to see the sun or do many things that other students have the time to do.”
“If all goes well, I will be graduating this coming spring semester. Knowing this helps me go through everyday challenges and keep working toward the time when I will be able to enjoy my life to the fullest and dedicate myself to the total fulfillment of all my dreams.”
9:30 p.m. “At home, I make myself dinner and I finish my homework and other work for the day. That’s my routine now: I wake up, go to work, I study and back again.”