By: Kesare Mowrer

My #RealCollege journey is not the kind you think of when you think of your typical “college student.” I graduated high school in 2011 and immediately enrolled at my local community college. Both of my parents were on social security income, so my tuition and books were to be fully funded by grants. I lived at home, so my expenses only included a meager rent charge from my mom and purchasing my own food to eat.

However, when I went to get my books, the clerk said, “Your total is $300.” Dumbfounded, I put the books back and immediately made an appointment with my advisor. As it turns out, I did not sign up for the appropriate number of classes, and my books were no longer funded. I was 18-years-old with absolutely no savings and no credit, so $300 was completely out of my reach. My mom could not afford the books either, so I dropped out.

At the time, we both thought, “Try again next semester,” but I didn’t. Instead, I worked full time at a shoe store, not really knowing what my plans were, but I had this youthful belief that I would fall into a job that would fulfill my needs both financially and personally. I started going down a broken path of partying and doing drugs with no direction of where I wanted my life to go.

Shortly after graduating high school the environment at my mother’s house deteriorated and I had to leave. My sister became addicted to heroin and I left my mom’s house the night my sisters boyfriend tried to break into my room with a knife.

I moved in with my dad, but it was short lived. My dad is a trans woman, and she concealed her identity for years. At the time none of us knew, and when I moved in with her, she needed to know when I was coming home so she could change into clothes that she did not identify with. As a teenager I could not tell her the exact time I was coming home, and she told me not to come back. Looking back, I realize the sacrifice she made for me to live with her and why it was so hard on her.

During that time of moving between multiple houses, most of my personal belongings were heaped in the back of my car. I remember between all the moving, my general manager at the shoe store called me into the back to tell me that my work uniform was too dirty to be presentable. She asked if she could help with my laundry and what was going on. I broke down, I did not know how bad I was struggling until someone else pointed it out. I think that was the moment that I realized my life after high school was not starting out the way that I thought it was supposed to.

Things eventually settled down, and I continued working and living with my boyfriend’s parents. I was starting to enjoy adulthood.When I was 20-years-old, I moved to Philadelphia with my boyfriend, where we were able to get by with part-time jobs and a discount on rent for renovating the bathroom which, when we moved in, did not have a functioning toilet or shower. It was the scariest and most challenging point of my life.

Eventually, we both secured more stable, higher paying jobs, and I thought, “Finally, I can afford the pleasures I want, I have leftover money, and I can start saving.”

It wasn’t until I was playing a trivia game with two of my college-educated friends that I realized I wanted more. I wanted to be smart and know the answers to these questions that stumped me but not my friends. I wanted to have my own opinions on topics that I knew little about. I did not want to be lost in academic conversations anymore.

I enrolled in the Community College of Philadelphia in 2017 where I soon realized that it is nearly impossible to work at the same rate. I remember being so tired that my eyelids started sticking together at work, falling asleep while writing papers, making mistakes at work.

I, like many, was forced into this impossible position: I had to take at least four courses to receive aid and grants, but I must also continue working to support myself. I was being torn down the middle. If I wanted to be eligible for scholarships I must do well in school, but also work enough to survive. How do you do both without burning yourself out?

So, I took the minimum four courses at a time, and spent the summers working full-time to save up for school, which translated into spending three years in school for a two-year degree. Each semester I cut down my hours and non-essential luxuries. I opened up credit cards that offered bonuses to create my own “discount” on books and tuition. Any credit card that offered a cash reward for spending between $500 and $1000 in the first three months I signed up for.

The debt eventually caught up with me, I found myself taking all the cash made from serving, paying my credit card down, and then turning around and using my credit card because I had no cash.

But, I was one of the lucky ones. I had a partner to help support me, I had a job that allowed me the flexibility to cut down hours during school and work full-time in the summer, I had the credit that allowed me to pay for school expenses when otherwise I would not have the cash to pay. I also was supported by a program called Single Stop, where they helped me fill out the application for food stamps and Medicaid for health insurance.

Unlike any public resources office that I had ever been to, they made me feel like they wanted to help me. I found a place that was easily accessible on campus, that would do everything they could to make sure I was able to concentrate on school. It allowed me to make being a student my number one priority.

Because of this support, I received a scholarship from the AAUW, where I found another support system. Beyond the scholarship, the ladies that chose me as their recipient have been on this journey with me for over a year and have offered immeasurable emotional support and I work so hard to make them proud.

I started at CCP taking remedial math and reading lessons and did not have a solid plan of where I wanted to end up. I graduated from CCP with a 4.0 GPA and transferred to Temple University where I continue to strive to learn and grow as much as I can.

The support that I received made me a better student and continues to shape academic goals. I started my first honors course this semester, and very early on, I was scared. I felt like I was not grasping the concepts fast enough, I didn’t feel like I was good enough. My advisor told me that they did not want to lose me, but if I felt that I wasn’t up to it, I could drop the honors courses from my future semesters. I told her no, I have already told my whole family and the ladies at the AAUW that I was committed to this and I will not let them down.

That is what support does: it brings out the best in us. I believe that all students want to do well in school, we want to impress our professors, we want to show off our good grades, and have everyone we know read that awesome essay that we wrote for class. But for many of us being a student first is not an option because we have to be full time workers, part time works, parents, and caregivers.

I may not be a traditional college student, but I am one of many trying to be the best student I can be and because of the amazing support that I have received, I am.

Kesare Mowrer (she/her/hers) is a proud graduate from the Community College of Philadelphia and a current undergraduate at Temple University. She serves on the Student Leadership advisory council at The Hope Center. She can be reached at kesaremowrer@gmail.com.

Hope is an action research center focused on supporting #RealCollege. Students, presidents, educators, and more will lend their voices here.

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