When Andrew Rocha started his first class in career counseling at PCC, he took it very seriously. He began his second stint as a PCC student coming back from a full-time retail job, in search of his future passion and ready to pour himself into his studies. When he read an occupational description of a career to design lasers as an optical engineer, he knew he wanted to go full-force into that area.
It was a decision with some serious consequences. As a returning student, Andrew was in danger of exhausting his allotted six years of federal financial aid, especially if he hoped to transfer to a four-year university after community college. This meant that he would need to complete his time at PCC as quickly as possible as a full-time student. Without full-time employment and a steady income, his budget dwindled, and he found it hard to maintain his financial stability.
When money got so tight that he was unable to afford rent, Andrew decided to move into his car to save money. This got him through a semester, but he couldn’t store food for any length of time, and he was constantly struggling to find new places to park his car every night, staying ahead of the police and wary homeowners. When the car began to develop serious mechanical problems, he knew he was in trouble. Already living at the limits of his comfort, he feared that losing his car would mean he would never achieve his dream of graduating college.
It took a lot for Andrew to admit the reality of his situation. “I was always a prideful person,” he says. “I never wanted to ask for help.” When he finally did, though, he turned to PCC’s Emergency Aid program.
Emergency Aid was started through a grant from Scholarship America in January 2011 as a way for students in need to receive financial support for emergencies. The program provides grants of up to $500 for non-academic expenses, offers additional services to help students build their long-term money management skills, and connects them to campus and community resources.
“We’re here to help students keep their mind on their studies and achieve their educational goals,” says program administrator Carol Brown. “A financial emergency shouldn’t mean that you get completely thrown off the path to your degree.”
Students in the program have to meet a certain number of requirements. They need to be taking a minimum of 6 units, and they have to have a cumulative GPA of at least 2.00. There’s also a unit completion requirement, but Brown says that shouldn’t keep students from seeking help. “Students should talk with us before they think, ‘Oh, this program’s not going to work for me,’” she says.
As a source of emergency assistance, grants from the program are paid directly to third parties, not to students. If a student’s car is in the shop, the mechanic will receive a check from Emergency Aid to cover the expenses — sometimes as soon as 24 hours after the grant is approved. “We know students have a lot on their mind, especially when there’s a crisis. Emergency Aid is a safe place to talk about it,” Brown says.
For Andrew, the meeting with Emergency Aid included a good dose of talk therapy. Fernando Serrano, the staffer who helped Andrew understand his options, “told me it was time to stop being prideful,” Andrew says. He documented his complete financial picture for Fernando — “bills, bank account, everything,” he says. He walked him through the problems with his car. The meeting took about an hour, and then Andrew waited for word of a solution.
Fernando delivered in a big way. In addition to paying the mechanic’s bill, “he found me a place to park without being hassled, he found places to get food, and he connected me with other programs on campus that helped me out — little things that were available that I didn’t know about before,” Andrew says. Andrew started working with PCC’s MESA program, which provides tutoring and other assistance to disadvantaged students who are pursuing degrees in science and math.
The Emergency Aid boost was just what Andrew needed. Crisis averted, he focused on completing his PCC degree, eventually transferring to the University of Arizona, which houses one of the country’s best programs in optical engineering. He hopes to go on to earn his doctorate in optical sciences. For the past two summers, he has interned at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland as part of the Integrated Radio and Optical Communications project team developing new technologies to improve laser communications from distances beyond Mars. Financial aid grants, federal loans, scholarships, and a stipend from the internship have improved his financial situation as well. His basic needs are being met, and he rents a small apartment in Tucson.
He’s also keeping the Dreamkeeper mission alive for the next generation of PCC students. When he spread the word about the program, other homeless students came out of the shadows to seek assistance and move beyond the damage to their pride. Andrew still advocates for a campus food bank and other services that will help those students who put their educational goals above all other priorities.
To those that would come behind him, he has simple advice: “You have to look at everything you’ve gone through to get to this point, and you’ve still survived,” he says. “It doesn’t even matter what goes on around you, you’ll always have something to fight for.
“You have a choice to turn things around.”
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