Adriana Amer and two coworkers smile while working at the student call center at SFSU.

by Jana Howarth

Adriana Amer stands upon a patch of browning grass and gazes up at her childhood home for what may be the last time in a long while. The soft grey color blanketing the large three-story blends with the overcast skies above. A sign hanging over the open, wooden porch reads, “Furniture of Abou Ali Amer.” This is the name of her grandfather, who owns and operates a furniture store out of the first level of their house. Adriana walks through the store, bursting with handmade tables, chairs, and beds, starts up a flight of stairs against the back wall. She enters the living area, hearing the giggles and bickering of her three younger sisters. Footsteps can be heard like a stampede as they run around and around, fighting and playing. Adriana’s full lips turn upwards, and her rich brown eyes twinkle with affection. She walks through the living room, cozy with old family photos, following the smells of herbs and meat wafting from the kitchen. She finds her grandmother standing at the stove, and strokes her dark, curling hair that so much resembles her own. The tomatoes, corn, and cucumbers lying on the green countertops come fresh from their own garden, picked by Adriana and her sisters. Her grandmother’s wrinkly hand swats her own away as she attempts to steal a sample of fresh, homemade bread. Chuckling, her grandmother pulls Adriana’s small, round face down and kisses her light, olive-toned cheek. Leaving the kitchen, Adriana climbs a second, and then a third set of stairs, until she is standing on her roof, among a kaleidoscope of plants and flowers. She looks out over the land, the hills and fields of her birthplace: her Lebanon. Tomorrow, she will be 30,000 feet in the air, embarking on a new chapter in her 21-year-old life.

Adriana came to San Francisco in the Fall of 2007 looking to gain more opportunities and enrich her life with new experiences. Coming from small Lebanese village, she wanted to get out of a place where the most common and important job a woman could have was working in a bank. As her childhood friends began getting married and having babies at young ages, as was traditional in Lebanon, Adriana dreamt of learning and escaping. After convincing her grandparents, who had raised Adriana and her sisters since their parents divorced and abandoned their children more than a decade earlier, Adriana made plans to come to America, leaving her village for the first time in her life.

“I still remember when my grandfather let go of my hand, and said take care of yourself,” says Adriana. “It was weird, seeing tears in my grandparent’s eyes. I think it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, leaving my family.” Adriana remembers the day she said goodbye to her home. Standing in Beirut International Airport, Adriana gathers her sisters close for a final embrace. Kissing each of their cheeks in turn, she then turns to face her grandparents. Choking back tears, she hugs the two people who have raised her, loved her, and have always been there for her throughout her life. Staring into the glassy green eyes of her grandfather, and teary brown ones of her grandma, Adriana feels her own face become damp. Holding her grandfather’s hand, she says her farewell words, and with the release of their hands, she feels the release of her childhood.

Since her time in the United States, Adriana has been hosted by two different families, who have helped her acclimate to this new culture, support her in her educational endeavors, and provide a financial safety net. Adriana couldn’t be more grateful to those she has met during her stay.

“I am so fortunate to have found a home away from home,” she says as she ties back her dark, spiraling hair into one long tail. “If not for my host families, I would feel so alone here.”

Adriana is now studying International Business at San Francisco State University.  Four nights a week you can find her sitting in the Administration building, calling and attempting to garner donations for the school. The shrill ringing of telephones bombard Adriana’s ears from every direction. The lifeless grey plastic chair on which she sits numbs her brain and stiffens her back. The same over-enthusiastic greeting can be heard exiting the mouths of each worker nearby, “Hello my name is so-and-so and I’m calling from San Francisco State University…” Adriana yawns hugely, twirling a dark curl around a finger glittering with purple nail polish. She checks her list of phone numbers, and resignedly punches in the next call.

Adriana has accepted work as a necessary evil. With living costs in America greater than those in her home country, and with tuition for international students steeper than that of locals, Adriana must work hard in order to financially support herself. “My family in Lebanon cannot support me here, and so I have no choice but to work,” she says. “Coming to the United States was a great opportunity for me, but one that did not come cheap.”

…………

Jamba Juice on Church and Market Streets in San Francisco is overflowing with bodies, the line from the two working cash registers winding like a snake out the single front door and onto the sidewalk outside. The “ping” sound that can be heard over the unintelligible chatter of customers signals the exchange of money, peacefully coexisting with the harsh buzzing of blenders. Guests sport satisfied smiles as they exit the store, sipping pink, yellow, and green liquids that go by such names as “Razzmatazz,” “Banana Berry,” and “Mango-a-go-go.”

Behind the scenes, wearing a forest-green apron and black hair net over her long, dirty blonde hair, Rachel Young scoops up strawberries in preparation for a smoothie, followed by bananas, then peaches. For four hours a day, up to five days a week, Rachel eats, drinks, and dreams of smoothies.

Like Adriana, Rachel, a junior at San Francisco State studying business, Rachel works hard to pay for school and daily needs. She’s spent each year of her college career acting as what she titles a “smoothie slave.” And like Adriana, she’s resigned to the fact that working is necessary, especially in recent times with the cost of education steadily increasing.

“School has become so expensive,” says Rachel, as the quad on the SFSU campus is reflected out of her neon green sunglasses. “It’s really terrible. And there would be no way for me to afford it plus living unless I work.”

With her cherub cheeks and summer blue eyes, Rachel resembles her mother as a young woman. She recalls a favorite childhood memory; playing at the park on sunny spring afternoons. Rachel is a bouncy five-year-old, her long pigtails soaring like kites as she flies back and forth on a swing. Her bubbly giggles seep into the smooth, crisp air, merging with the deep, silky laugh of her mother. Together, they swing and swing until the blazing yellow sun sets out to sleep.

Rachel and her mother had only each other while Rachel was growing up, with her mom working two, and sometimes three jobs in order to support her daughter. Rachel credits her mom with her own work ethic.

“My mom definitely taught me what it means to work hard and earn your own way,” says Rachel, pulling on navy blue cardigan over a gray, floral-printed tank. “My mom couldn’t afford to send me to school on her own, which is why I work so hard to be here. I want to make her proud.”

Rachel sits in a small, hospital white room in the Business building at SF State. Her head wobbles and rolls and the dull droning of her professor shoots waves of fatigue through her body. The tick-ticking of the uniform clock suddenly becomes meaningful as the hand lands at 3:25 p.m. Class is over. Rachel grabs her grape-colored backpack, and rushes out to catch the  bus. Work starts at 4:15 p.m. Sharp. Sitting on Muni, she pulls out her hairnet and apron, prepping for yet another day on the job.

Tomorrow, it’ll all start over.

…………..

Students like Adriana and Rachel work hard as they try to remain financially in stride with the ever increasing tuition of California higher education. November of 2009 saw a 32 percent undergraduate tuition hike for the state’s students, put into effect by the California Board of Regents. This past November, just one year after this staggering raise, the California State University Board of Trustees voted on an additional 10 percent rise in tuition for the 2011-2012 school year, while simultaneously instituting a 5 percent mid-year fee increase. These seemingly indefensible monetary swells have led to student protests up and down the state, on university campuses and at the state capital as well, as students attempt to fight for their education.

“I’ve participated in a couple of marches protesting costs,” says Rachel. “It’s unbelievable really, the continuous increases in tuition. And it’s sad that working students like me are forced to work that much harder to maintain our education.”

…………

The black flowers covering Bree Ryan’s twin-sized bed match the color of the sky peeking through her window. The soft silver light of the moon illuminates her sleeping face as the Office theme song chimes through the speaker of her iPhone. Bree throws one arm out towards her nightstand, desperate to shut off her alarm and pretend that it isn’t actually time to leave the warm comfort of her bed.

Reluctantly opening her olive-green eyes, she checks the time; 5:45 a.m. A tiny whimper escapes her small, light pink lips in protest of being up before the sun, as she heads into her paper white bathroom to brush her teeth, comb her dark brown hair with blonde highlights, and apply teal shadow to heavy lids of her eyes.

She has to be at work by 7 a.m., the same time she must be there four other days of the week. Muffins, coffee, and sandwich-making await her at the Station Café at the top of the SFSU campus, where she has been gainfully employed since her arrival at the university.

Bree Ryan with her mom and younger sister as they move Bree into her first San Francisco apartment.

Bree is a third-year transfer student studying political science at SFSU, hailing from Bakersfield; and Las Vegas, San Diego, Tucson. After the death of her father from cancer when she was just six-years-old, Bree‘s mother frequently moved her and younger sister to new cities, never being able to find a place that felt like home without the family’s center.

For Bree, this meant new school after new school after new school; and countless after-school jobs as soon as she reached the age of 15. Target, McDonald’s, and Starbucks have all employed Bree at one point or another, to name a few. Bree has spent much of her life working hard to help support her family after the loss of her father, as her mom struggled under the income of a single parent to take care of her two daughters.

“I’m no stranger to working, that’s for sure,” says Bree, her full cheeks glowing rosily from the brisk, cool breeze. “I’ve always supported myself, because as hard as my mom works, we’ve always struggled with money. Coming to college hasn’t changed this, and with school being so damn expensive, I’ve gotta work even more.”

The squeak of sneakers moving on the shining hard wood floor echo off the bleachers and surrounding white walls of the gym. The stench of sweat hangs in the warm, stuffy air as the slap of palm against ball can be heard amongst the chattering of voices and shrilling of whistles.

Bree stands on the sidelines in a grey-collared shirt and black yoga pants, calling out points and fouls as she watches the ongoing volleyball match. She can be found in this exact spot three nights a week, refereeing intramural volleyball for up to four hours. As she lifts her sparkling silver whistle up to her lips with her left hand, she simultaneously uses her right to wipe the gleaming perspiration off her forehead.

In order to keep up with the rising costs of education, and simply to afford going away to school, Bree has to hold down two jobs. With early mornings spent at the café, late nights at the gym, and those hours in between dedicated to classed and studying, Bree has become used to running on little to no sleep.

“It’s exhausting sometimes, I’m not going to lie,” she says, as she gingerly sips on a Diet Coke. “I’ve gotten used to it, though. I mean, you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do. And I know in the end it’ll be worth it.”

………….

Adriana, Rachel, and Bree are among a growing percentage of employed college students. According to a survey conducted in 2007 by the National Center for Education Statistics, nearly 45 percent of full-time undergraduates were working while enrolled. For those part-time students, this rate jumped to 80 percent. The number of hours students are working has increased over the past few years as well. Those working less than 20 hours per week has declined 15 percent, according to the same survey, while those working 20 hours or more has increased 21 percent. Today, one in ten employed full-time students is working 35 hours or more a week.

Research has revealed as well that the amount of hours students work affects both their academic and social experiences. According to an article published in May of 2005 by the Indiana Project on Academic Success, 50 percent of employed students are working enough hours to hinder their studies, including grade point average.

Enough hours seems to be 20 or more, according to studies, with these students having lower GPAs, and showing fewer interactions with faculty and lower quality peer relationships.

Students working less than 20 hours however, have been found to maintain higher GPAs than those working 20 hours or more, as well as than those completely non-working students.

Whatever statistics show, the fact remains that working and studying together takes its toll on students. “There are definitely sacrifices that have to be made,” says Rachel, the sun shining off her hot pink fingernails as she scratches her cheek, “I miss out on a lot activities, and sometimes don’t have as much study time as I’d like to. But working is necessary for me to even to be here so I’m okay with it.”

Bree agrees: “Working two jobs and going to classes is definitely tiring, and sometimes I might feel like I’m missing out on the full college experience because of it. But really, I’m just grateful to be here.”

The words “college,” “students,” and “poor” have become synonyms for one another is recent decades. This unfortunate truth can be related back to the rising costs of higher education; tution, books, housing, etc.

At SFSU, “poor college students” find themselves losing even more money due to living in one of the most famous -and expensive- cities in the world. The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment per month in San Francisco is $1,300, a two-bedroom is $1,600, and a three-bedroom is $2,100.

Compared to the national medium, the cost of utilities in the city is 7 percent higher, transportation 11 percent, groceries 16 percent, and housing is 172 percent higher. By way of comparison, Phoenix’s cost of living is 39% below that of San Francisco, Miami’s is 34%, Anchorage 22%, Knoxville 45%, and Dallas is 43%.

Overall, the cost of living in San Francisco is 62 percent above the nation’s average; a not-so-optimistic statistic for those “poor college students” hoping to live and work in one of the world’s most beautiful cities.People and students especially who dream of attending college in one of the United State’s largest and most popular city must be financially prepared the city’s inflated cost of living and education; or prepare to work very hard.

……………

Monday. 12:50 p.m. Caitlin Martinez slowly, meticulously ties the faded white laces of her black Converse sneakers. Standing up, she stretches her arms towards the ceiling, where multicolored paper lanterns hang amusingly.
She gathers up every last piece of trash left over from the BLT she adoringly ate for lunch, checking, then double-checking the black coffee table for left-over crumbs.
It’s 12:52.
Grabbing her floral-printed purse, she looks inside at the contents; wallet, lip gloss, keys, hand sanitizer, cell phone. Wait. Is my wallet in there?
12:53. Yes.
Sighing, closing her golden-almost hazel-eyes she takes a deep breath as she steps down from her third-story apartment to make the short walk to her work, which she begins sharply at one.

Caitlin Martinez works as a student assistant in the Student Services building at SFSU.

A senior at SFSU, Caitlin works as a student assistant to the Dean of Student Affairs in the Student Services building on campus. Coming from a single income family, Caitlin’s mother and father have spent the past four years struggling to put both her and her older brother through college.

After her mother received a pink slip from the Stockton Unified School District in 2007, she has since become a devoted homemaker, though that loss of income has been greatly felt by the family’s finances.

Caitlin’s father, a worker for the Union Pacific Railroad, has been devotedly working overtime in recent months to make up the loss, but with two kids in college, it’s been difficult.

“My poor dad,” says Caitlin. “It breaks my heart how much he works but he does it for us. I’m so thankful for him, but I know I need to do my part, now more than ever.”

The beep of the elevator as it reaches each new floor causes Caitlin’s heart to accelerate in unwanted anticipation. Two… BEEP…Three. Tugging at her blue and purple plaid button up, tucking her wavy bark-colored hair, she steps gingerly out onto the fourth floor.

She is greeted with SFSU banners on the white wall directly in front of the elevator’s steel gray doors, arranged in various patterns meant to exude school pride to all who pass.

Passing two bold red lounge chairs and a more subdued navy couch, Caitlin sets her purse down under her neatly organized desk, and prepares to spend the next four behind it.

The phone rings and to Caitlin’s sensitive ears, the sound resembles sharp nails on a chalkboard. Vice President, Dean of Student’s office. This is Caitlin. How may I help you? Oh, you’re here for your appointment? The vice president will be right with you. Yes, of course I can take a message.

The beeping of the elevator right across the hall, the ringing of the phone, dial-tone of the fax machine, constant mumbling of voices…

These phrases and noises consume Caitlin’s life for 20 hours every week. Her job as a student assistant for the vice president of student affairs may not be particular enjoyable for her, but the check she receives on the 15th of every month keeps her motivated.

“Being a secretary isn’t my dream job or anything, so no, I don’t necessarily like it too much,” says Caitlin. “But any job is better than no job. And right now just having some sort of income to help pay for school is the most important thing.”

 Caitlin is looking forward to graduating at the end of May however, but now her biggest concern is paying back the $20,000 in student loans she was forced to borrowed.  And she’s not alone. Higher education has increased so dramatically in the past two decades that not only do students have to worry about working while studying in order to pay for their education but also paying back the debt they will inevitably find themselves buried in come graduation.

In the 2007-08 school year, two-thirds of students graduated from a four-year university carrying some amount of debt forward with them. The average student loan debt of this graduating class was $28,000. This figure had increased by 5.6 percent, or roughly $1,200 in just four years, since the 2003-04 school year. More than 50 percent of recent college graduates end their college education with some form of debt derived from student loans.

………………..

Jana Howarth lies on the dampened cement tinted silver in the moonlight. Scraping at the dirt on her face, running her fingers through her tangled, mud-colored hair she counts coins out of a plastic cup on the sidewalk. The streets are dead, everyone tucked cozily into their homes. Jana sits in within the flimsy confines of a cardboard box, a scarce barrier between her grimy skin and thin layers of ripped cotton.

A moth-eaten sleeping bag lies across the wet ground, providing little comfort from the brisk winter air.  A half-empty water bottle and carton of charitable left-overs sit sadly in a corner. Five years ago Jana was graduating from college, looking forward to a bright future. But the declining economy and less-than-stellar job market had different plans.

Well, that may not be real. But the fear of it, irrational as it may be, sure is. Yes, I am Jana. A soon-to-be college graduate who is preparing to battle today’s unstable job market. Like Caitlin, worrying about the repayment of my student loans is beginning to weigh heavily on my mind.

And like Adriana, Bree, and Rachel, I too have worked throughout the entirety of my college career to afford my higher education. Also coming from a one income family, my family has struggled for the past decade to make ends meet, with  my mother, our primary bread-winner, working full-time in retail to support our family. Hard work and student loans have allowed me to attend college, but in light of recent disappointing employment rates, an almost college graduate like myself can’t help but experience ridiculous nightmarish thoughts about ending up on the streets; broke, homeless, and alone.

Bright sunlight beams softly down onto the little girl’s oval face, the blunt layer of brown bangs dancing merrily across her forward the light spring breeze. Jana rushes out of the classroom in a stampede of students as the bells shrillsloudly through ears decorated happily with leaping blue dolphins.

She hops toward the street on glittering purple Jelly sandals. She spots the worn out, black Aerostar van and the woman with black hair as short as a boy’s leaning lightly against the hood. Her pace quickens and she is scooped up against plum shirt, giggles escaping as fingers dance along her ribs. She’s with mom now and all is right with the world.

My mother’s dedication to her family and awesome work ethic have inspired me throughout my life, and have kept me driven during my college career. My hero, my mother, has always financially helped me as much as she could, but it just isn’t enough.

“I wish I could help my daughter more, it breaks my heart,” Janice Howarth sighs as she plays with a gold stud in her right ear. “I wish our income was larger, but I’m so proud of how hard she’s worked and her college education.”

Working all four years as a teacher’s aide at a local Mission preschool called Buen Dia Family School, I’ve been challenged but the income pays for the education I was studying to receive and studying to receive the education I was working to pay for.

The lifetime experience received from both, however, will be an invaluable skill in the future, and will one day work to further my career.

Jana Howarth poses with a child at her work, Buen Dia Family School.

The late August sun warms Adriana’s face as she steps into the bustling SFSU quad. It is the first day of school, Adriana’s first day of college in America, and she is stepping onto campus as a student for the first time. She hikes her purple backpack with white polka dots higher onto her shoulder, and smiles as she looks around the busy campus with its lush green lawns and rushing, talking, and laughing students going about their days. She smiles and begins to walk towards the business building in her candy cane red flip flops and matching v-neck. She is thinking, Today is the first day of her brand new life.

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