The College Try
Liz Waite and Kersheral Jessup couldn’t afford a higher education, let alone rent. But they worked and scrounged and slept on couches to put themselves through school. Will their degrees be worth it?
“Hey,” the text began. It was from the friend she’d been crashing with for the past few nights.
“Would you move back into your godmoms until you find another place?”
She sighed. It was just before 8 a.m. one Thursday this spring, and Liz Waite had a million other things she’d rather stress about than where she was going to sleep.
Liz was 24 and halfway through her first semester at California State University, Long Beach. She was a theater major (with a theater major’s predilection for randomly breaking into song), and that day she was juggling, among other things, a midterm on the play structure of Aristotle and a meeting at the affordable-housing advocacy group where she was an intern. She eventually replied to the text, her tone stiff: “My friend is picking me and my stuff up Saturday.”
Liz dashed across four lanes of traffic on Long Beach Boulevard, a glittering cloth headband matting her damp blond hair. Her face was mostly scrubbed of makeup, save for a slash of blue eyeliner, and she wore a thin green-and-pink dress, an off-the-shoulder sweater, and two small pins: One pictured John Coltrane; the other said FOOD NOT BOMBS. She carried a big reddish purse that a co-worker at the affordable-housing group swore someone had abandoned. Liz suspected the co-worker bought it for her but was too kind to say so.
All her life, Liz had been told by her teachers that college was a passport to prosperity. With a bachelor’s degree, you’re more likely to climb the income ladder, less likely to tumble back down, and better able to withstand a recession. So Liz had spent the past six years slogging through community college but still fell short of a degree. Like many students, she took classes she didn’t need, partly due to poor advising and partly because she was feeling her way toward a major. She’d also had problems with her financial aid, and she probably needed two and a half more years at Cal State to get her bachelor’s, which would mean she’d be in college close to nine years total.
Four days a week, Liz spent a half-hour on the city bus rumbling to campus. She was a shaken Coke can, ready to explode. She was broke, estranged from her parents, and lacked a reliable place to sleep. These days, she usually curled up on her godmom’s couch, cats Miles and Baby Girl purring nearby, sunrise peeking through a curtain that gave the entire room a greenish tint. But the situation was untenable: Liz’s godmom was 60, and she lived in a seniors-only apartment building. They worried that if other residents noticed Liz was crashing there, her godmom would lose her housing.
Once on campus, Liz checked a message she’d sent to her former high school teacher via Facebook: “Hey would you guys happen to have a couch I could sleep on for a couple of days next week?” She raced through her midterm and dashed to another meeting. Cal State Long Beach rises from a sea of Targets, Coffee Beans, Ralphs, and Subways washing across the city. The campus isn’t stately or Gothic, like wealthy New England schools, or even the University of Southern California to the north, a frequent stand-in for Ivies in the movies. It is massive, however: 30,000-plus students, 300 acres, its own zip code. The buildings are low-slung, many eggshell-colored or weathered brick, and the campus landmark is the athletics center: a giant blue pyramid that you can see from the 405 freeway. Fountains burbled, planes vroomed overhead, car alarms blared. Flyers advertised Russian movie night and a group called Cease Animal Torture, or CAT, which was planning a vegan picnic “depending on the vibes.” The campus was too big, too diverse, for her to feel so isolated, Liz thought, so she made a flyer of her own — “Are you living in a vehicle? Couch surfing? Sleeping somewhere illegal? Find support!” — and asked a friend to print it. She didn’t have enough money to pay for copies.
Liz hoped to enlist the College Democrats in her cause: to help her and other students on the verge of homelessness lobby administrators to make their lives easier. At the Dems’ weekly meeting, about a dozen students chitchatted in a semicircle; the speakers before Liz were looking for volunteers to take surveys about election-related stress. When it was Liz’s turn, she bounded to the center.
“Hey, everybody, let’s make this awkward,” she said. “What words would you guys use to describe me? Like, if you look at me, what words come to your mind? Just shout ’em out.”
She nodded. “Tall …”
“Student, blond, right,” she said. “There’s a word that’s probably not coming to your mind. And it’s” — she shot out her arms the way you would to yell, “Surprise!” — “homeless!”
Liz looked at the audience: saucer eyes.
California has long been at the forefront of trying to open higher education to students like Liz — students who, in past generations, might have been priced out of a degree. In 1960, the state enshrined into law the Master Plan for Higher Education. Born of Progressive Era optimism, the three-tiered system now consists of ten University of California campuses, 23 Cal State schools, and 114 community colleges. While UC is the state’s primary research institution, Cal State is the workhorse: cheaper, less exclusive, and much larger. More than half of Cal State’s nearly 500,000 students receive federal Pell Grants, aid for students from low- and middle-income families. One in three of its undergrads is the first in his or her family to attend college.
No type of school has been more successful at lifting the poor up to the middle class and beyond than midtier public universities like the Cal States. In a ranking published this year of colleges that helped the highest percentage of students claw their way out of poverty, four Cal State campuses made the top 10. Cal State Long Beach clinched the last spot, vaulting 78 percent of its students from the bottom of the economic ladder, where household incomes top out around $25,000 a year. But for all the good Cal State does for its alumni, most students there struggle to get their degrees. Only one in five finishes in four years, and a little more than half graduate in six, their progress slowed, in part, by soaring living costs in one of the nation’s most expensive states.
After her meeting with the College Democrats, Liz sat inside a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. Her former teacher had responded — “Yikes, what’s going on?” — and told Liz to call her. Over the whir of the espresso machine, Liz picked up her phone and gazed across the room. “I’m couch surfing, I guess is the word for it,” she said in a voicemail. “Maybe I could stay in your backyard?”
The day before she graduated from Cal State Long Beach, Kersheral Jessup and her friend were rifling through the racks at Torrid, one in a series of stores at the Del Amo Fashion Center with summery frocks and a soundtrack of abrasive dance thumps. Kersheral (the l is silent) was 23 with black-rimmed glasses and an inviting smile. Her dark hair hung in loose braids, and her T-shirt said WHATEVER, but she plowed through her third mall in two days with feverish intensity, scouring H&M, Charlotte Russe, Eden Sky, and Angl for the perfect graduation dress: not too tight, too mumu-ish, too flimsy, or too pricey. She also needed earrings, shoes, her hair done, her cap decorated. Kersheral was the first person in her family to graduate from college.
On the first day of 11th grade, when a teacher assigned her class to write about their plans after high school graduation, Kersheral was, for a moment, dumbstruck — she hadn’t thought beyond prom. Growing up in Long Beach as the youngest of three children, she knew she didn’t want to emulate her parents: drinking, squabbling, conscripting their baby into the role of adult. “A child-adult,” Kersheral told me, her voice tinged with bitterness. Many of her high school friends strove to get “hood rich,” as she put it — making as much cash as quickly as possible to buy fancy clothes and cars — and gravitated toward dead-end jobs, or men, or both, because that’s what everyone in the neighborhood did. Kersheral, however, had been deeply involved with her church ever since she was a little girl drawn in by its Christmas parties. She watched a church friend, who was a few years older, graduate from San Jose State, and Kersheral followed her example.
Kersheral went to community college first, as close to half of Cal State graduates do — it is a far less expensive way to knock out basic requirements. She transferred after three-and-a-half years and trudged through two and a half more at Cal State. Her shopping friend, Ana Moody, from Oxnard, California, cut a similar path, having earned her bachelor’s degree in December after nearly six years. Ana was 24, blunt and quick with a joke, her mountain of tight curls visible across the store. They pawed through the Torrid sales rack, faces pinched as if studying for a final, and talked about how, by electing college over the instant income of, say, the home health care or security industries, they’d essentially chosen to be even poorer for six years.
“I want to make more than minimum wage,” Kersheral said, shaking her head. A not-unobtainable goal, yet her childhood friends mocked her ambition.
“Everybody was trying to ball out as soon as they graduated [high school],” Ana said, “and I remember being, like, one of the cool people that went to school, and all my friends are working, like, making, like, more than minimum wage at the time, like, buying cars and shit. I remember I was still on the bus.”
“That’s me!” Kersheral said. She laughed, sounding more exasperated than amused.
At Cal State Long Beach, Kersheral’s tuition and fees ran close to $6,500 a year, but they were covered. In fact, more than half of California college students don’t need to worry about tuition — various federal and state grants and waivers pick up the tab. The problem is the cost of everything else. Two-thirds of the expense of attending a public four-year college stems from costs like rent, food, and books. The vast majority of Cal State students live off campus (the system has enough housing to accommodate only about 10 percent of its undergraduates). Cal State Long Beach estimates that off-campus students who don’t live at home need close to $18,000 a year in addition to the cost of tuition, or nearly the salary of a full-time minimum-wage worker.
Last year, researchers at Cal State estimated that nearly one in nine students is homeless. Even more couldn’t afford food on a regular basis (a problem at UCs, the California community colleges, and campuses from Hawaii to New York). Students without stable housing, in particular, are more likely to enroll part time, struggle in class, and drop out altogether. In California, lawmakers recently floated a proposal to help many UC and Cal State students with their expenses. Projected to cost more than a billion dollars a year, it sputtered.
When Kersheral started at Cal State, she also moved out of her parents’ place. She needed to if she hoped to concentrate. “My mom and dad like to drink a lot, so they’ll argue all night and then expect me to go to, like, school or work the next day super early,” she told me. She lucked into splitting an apartment with two roommates. She mainly lived off the three days a week she worked at Home Depot for $11 an hour, or roughly $1,000 a month before taxes. Her portion of the rent, $340 plus utilities, ate her first check. The second paid for everything else: phone, deodorant, the occasional treat — a movie, a mani-pedi, Starbucks. She also tithed a small amount to her church. She scrimped where she could, but her money always vanished. Felt like a meme she’d posted on Facebook:
“me: I’m going to be more responsible with my money this month
me 1 minute after I get my paycheck: [GIF of baby tossing cash out a window]”
Kersheral didn’t have a car. She relied on her credit card more than she wanted to, and she sometimes scooped up pasta and sauce from a food pantry on campus. She was reluctant to take out loans, as so many of her fellow students had. (In 2010, almost half of California freshmen took out a loan; a decade earlier, only a third had.) “They get to the point where they think it’s OK, it’s OK to be in that much debt and not worry about it,” she said. “I’m just not wired that way.” Kersheral didn’t even like the idea of borrowing 20 bucks from a friend — owing the government thousands terrified her. What if she fell behind on her payments and ruined her credit? She’d rather work.
Her parents admired her ambition; Kersheral once posted to Facebook a selfie with her mom beaming in a blue-and-gold CSULB MOM shirt. But they didn’t really appreciate the incessant calculations: If X costs Y, is it worth Z hours at Home Depot? They were both unemployed and subsisted on various government programs. One day, Kersheral was painting her room at her apartment, and though her dad helped, he expected her to pay him afterward. The time her parents needed roughly $1,000 for a security deposit, Kersheral emptied her savings.
After rummaging through a dozen stores, Kersheral found a dress at Forever 21. It was black, spaghetti-strapped, pink- and white-flowered, and cost $19.47. Ana grabbed black heels at Payless. “$17.40 with tax!” she whooped. By now, Kersheral had applied to about a hundred jobs: Some she’d found on an internal Cal State site, some by Googling companies. Not all were the best fit. One sold antique coins, another trained would-be Hollywood agents, and others turned out to be — her words — “get-rich money schemes.” Many paid little more than Home Depot, where Kersheral was a cashier, and a good one at that — she’d been named employee of the month three times, and her co-workers had scribbled congratulations all over her orange apron. During her first month, however, a customer asked how she was doing. She said, “I’m well,” and he turned to another customer and sneered, “She speaks proper English!”
If Kersheral survived six years of school and took a job that paid only a few dollars an hour more than she made now — so, Home Depot management money — what was the point? She prayed for “a job that pays well, that’s in media, that’s not in, like, Timbuktu,” she told me. About $20 an hour sounded right. Ana had chosen the same major, communication studies, but she was working at an after-school program and padding her income by driving for Lyft. That’s not what Ana wanted, not what Kersheral wanted. They’d sacrificed too much.
Ana drove back from the mall, her white graduation tassel dangling from the rearview mirror, Kersheral in the passenger seat.
“People think school is, you go to class, you fucking write your papers, and you take your ass home,” Ana said. “School is way more stressful than that.”
“People don’t think it’s work,” Kersheral said.
“You’re like, Fuck, I’m fucking tired. I’m broke. I’m hungry. You know what I mean?” Ana said. “And I’m working myself to hell and to still have so little, you know?”
“Yeah, like, I know I have to go back to work on Monday,” Kersheral said, “and I know people are like, You graduated, why are you still working at Home Depot?”
Kersheral had a promising lead on a job fielding customer-service calls at a retirement-plan company. It wasn’t a dream gig, but the pay — about $47,000 a year (or, as she calculated everything these days, $23 an hour) — was higher than she expected, and a mentor from church knew the guy leading the search. If she got it, no more begging her brother, who once charged her $15 for a lift to the grocery store, for rides. No more fretting over when, or if, her sacrifices would pay off.
Liz loved acting. She knew it wasn’t the most practical choice. “You want me to be a STEM major? I can’t do math,” she said. Anyway, “I could be majoring in being a pharmacist, and I’d still be homeless, and I’d still be in debt.” As long as she got a degree, she believed, she could find a job. If she couldn’t get work as an actress, maybe she’d teach theater, become a drama therapist, find another way. So she chose to focus on her passion, her outlet for her frustrations. Later in the semester, in her musical theater class, she sang a piece from Spring Awakening, in which her character, Wendla, experiences a moment of hope and possibility before she dies.
“I want you to say, ‘I am this character, and I want this,’” Liz’s instructor told her.
“I am a girl who had her whole life shattered,” Liz replied, “and I want a second chance.”
“Good,” her instructor said. “I knew you could relate to that.”
Even as a kid, Liz suspected something was amiss at her house. In a crayon drawing from back then, she and her mom were normal-size stick figures; her dad, a speck drifting away. Liz and her little sister, she said, were perpetually in a defensive crouch, wary of their father’s temper and the odd collection of stragglers he brought home. School was a refuge. Liz’s grades were so-so, but her teachers became her role models. In high school, she couldn’t afford a yearbook, so she ripped out a sheet of notebook paper for her teachers to sign. She still has it.
Liz met her godmom, Megan Taylor, her junior year. Megan, who had dark hair and a regal bearing, had tumbled out of wealth and was dating a man who knew Liz’s dad. After Megan’s boyfriend — a meth user, she said — died, Liz’s dad invited her to share Liz’s small pink room without consulting his daughter. Megan corrected Liz when she mispronounced words, challenged the logic of her rants, talked her out of getting an ombre dye job, and comforted her when she was depressed. In short, she parented. “That’s exactly what she was,” Liz told me, “a life preserver, a social worker, a psychologist, a sergeant, and a mother all in one package.”
Megan probably would have moved out sooner, but she couldn’t bring herself to abandon Liz. Around the time of her arrival, the house slid into foreclosure. Over time, Liz’s mom filed three requests for a restraining order against her dad, her handwriting often shaky, a word here or there misspelled. “There was an argument in the house we were staying at in Lakewood Ca,” she wrote in one:
“[He] threaten to kill himself by putting a gun in his mouth. He did this in front of [us]. I did find out later the gun was not real, but it scared all of us, he also tried to push in our bedroom door where [we] were sleeping. We did not know if he had a weapon, so Elizabeth Waite called the police…. The doctor treating [him] found meth in his urine.”
In court, Liz’s dad denied using drugs and menacing his family. He blamed the episode on a “bad headache,” and Liz’s mom said social service workers made her ask for the restraining order or else they’d take her girls away. By the end of Liz’s senior year, her parents had reunited. But Liz was 18 and, given the nightmares and panic attacks she’d had, refused to live with them again. She and Megan, who was diagnosed with lymphoma around the time she moved into Liz’s room, spent years bouncing from place to place — from bunk beds in temporary housing to a room in the home of a couple they knew from church (Liz slept in the walk-in closet). Then Megan secured her apartment in the seniors-only building. It’s on a scruffy stretch of Long Beach Boulevard near Oscar’s Nails, a Wing Stop, and a weeded lot next to a building announcing WE BUY CARS. Neighbors refer to Megan as Liz’s mom — “You know Liz, the girl who sings.”
As Megan’s official caretaker, Liz was paid $500 a month through a state program. Her internship with the housing advocacy group, where she worked ten hours a week, was supposed to be paid, but some processing snafu had kept her from getting a check. In Long Beach, that didn’t add up to her own place: The median rent for a one-bedroom is about $1,400. The housing advocacy group tried to help renters who’d been evicted, or were on the brink, and its office was papered with the saddest sort of shorthand (“HOMELESS FAMILY W/ 9YO”). “I almost feel a little insecure because, I’m like, I haven’t slept in the streets yet, so I’m not a real homeless person,” Liz told me.
She spent a lot of time trapped in bureaucratic mazes: acronyms, forms, deadlines, questions that, she felt, demanded she prove she was poor enough — or homeless enough — to merit help. “It’s this faceless monster that you have to contend with,” she told me. “You just want to scream at them, ‘Why do I have to prove to you that I’m worthy of not starving?’” One afternoon in March, she walked to a financial aid window in the courtyard of a campus administrative building. When an administrator poked her head out, Liz was blunt: “OK, when are my classes going to get canceled?”
Liz had been warring with the office all semester over whether she qualified as homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. If she did, she wouldn’t be required to submit her parents’ financial information when applying for aid — the school would assume that she wasn’t, or couldn’t be, in touch with them (an acknowledgment that many students are homeless because they are estranged from parents who are abusive). Under federal law, to be considered an “unaccompanied homeless youth,” you could be stranded without a parent or guardian in a shelter, a motel, a car, a barn, a storage unit, a couch — anywhere that isn’t a permanent residence. During the 2015–2016 school year, close to 60,000 students nationwide indicated that they were homeless on their financial aid applications, though experts believe there were far more.
Applying for financial aid can be an opaque and convoluted process. It’s even worse when you’re homeless. Technically, a student can prove she doesn’t have a place to live by having certain school or shelter officials vouch for her or by submitting to an interview with a financial aid administrator. But many schools, fearing that students might take advantage of the system, make some applicants undergo a more cumbersome process. That’s what happened to Liz. She’d brought her social worker from a mental health program to the financial aid office. But Cal State Long Beach asked for more, including her tax records and letters from two professionals. “There was a little paragraph box where it’s, like, talk about your circumstances,” she told me. “I just wrote a paragraph saying my dad’s a tweaker, tried to kill himself in front of me. Mom took off on me.” An administrator, she said, replied, “‘You really should have gone into more detail about this, at least a couple of paragraphs.’” Liz broke into angry tears and refused.
Now, head poking out the window, the financial aid administrator reassured Liz: We won’t kick you out of your classes. So Liz tried to take charge of another, more vexing, problem. “I am homeless,” she said, her annoyance not unlike someone who’s made umpteen trips to the DMV.
The financial aid administrator suggested, not unkindly, that she move into the dorms.
“I mean, I can’t pay for the dorms myself,” Liz said. That would cost several thousand dollars. “It would have to be through financial aid.”
The woman handed her a yellow sticky note with a co-worker’s email. Liz’s jaw tightened: She’d already talked to him. He hadn’t helped. “This is fucked up,” she said as we walked away.
At Cal State, the response to homelessness has varied by campus. All have programs aimed at helping students eat, such as pantries, vouchers, and drives to enroll students in the state food-stamp program, CalFresh. Cal State Long Beach also offers emergency dorm space and hotel vouchers. Liz wanted to use the program but couldn’t — she needed to show she’d accepted all the financial aid offered to her, but her package was on hold while she tried to convince the school that she was homeless. These services are relatively new, and many were launched not because of administrative dictates but because faculty or students noticed people in crisis. Cal State officials are taking bigger steps, too, including the recent hire of an administrator to oversee basic-needs programs across all campuses and help determine what’s working and what should be replicated. The state budget also allocated $2.5 million toward preventing student hunger.
The same day Liz made her ill-fated trip to the financial aid office, she was messaging with a friend who’d just quit her job at a bar with skeevy patrons. “They grab you, they smack you, you have to dress in bikinis, blah, blah, blah,” her friend told her. But if she wanted to work there, her friend said that Liz could drop her name. Sitting in the student union among undergrads disappearing into their iPhones and napping between classes, Liz wondered whether she could handle the job. She was an actress, after all, and perhaps this was another role. “I could just sit there and giggle, and they’ll think I’m great and give me money.”
The bar was a short drive from campus, next to a place with barred windows. Inside, the red glare was so overwhelming that it took a minute for her eyes to adjust. A woman with ink-black hair and ruby lips, clad in a black bra and booty shorts, told Liz that, as a server, she would dress in lingerie on Fridays and a bikini on Saturdays. Some girls danced with customers or atop the bar, but there was no groping or touching, and Liz didn’t have to dance if she didn’t want to. And, also, she’d make a boatload of cash. That’s all Liz needed to hear: She offered to start the next night. She lasted one shift.
Around spring break, the school emailed Liz about her still-unpaid tuition and fees: SECOND NOTICE, PAST DUE: $1,931.00. Her financial aid remained on hold. Camping in her high school teacher’s backyard hadn’t panned out — she’d never heard back from her. So Liz was still sneaking around to sleep on Megan’s couch. Often, she woke up depressed. It felt like there was a weight on her chest, and she couldn’t drag herself to class. No one had responded to her flyers or to the Facebook page she’d made for homeless students. She felt alone on a precipice: between having a permanent address and not, between staying in college and dropping out — or, as Megan put it, being forced out. Because that’s how Liz felt: like she wasn’t wanted. She posted on Facebook one afternoon, “Can someone persuade me as to why staying in school is worth it?”
Kersheral graduated on an unbearably hot Saturday in May. An hour before the ceremony, she rushed around her room, powdering and highlighting her face, painting her lips with a mauve-ish color called Lolita. She assessed herself in the full-length mirror on the back of her door: flowered sundress, strappy heels, big gold hoops Ana had brought. “I look so grown,” she whispered to herself. “Like an adult.”
Her sense of the world had changed so much since she’d started at Cal State. During her second semester, her oldest brother, who’d just turned 37, died suddenly, the result of a heart condition that made him incapable of fighting off a minor infection. Kersheral went to class the next day because she didn’t know what else to do; the grief seeped in over time. If death could take someone so young, she thought, she should relish life now. Her fourth semester, she studied abroad in Italy, something she’d previously dismissed as a thing only rich kids did. To afford it, she juggled two jobs during the summer, at Home Depot and Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. (where she made $10 an hour), caved and took out $7,000 in loans, won $2,500 in scholarships, raised another $2,500 through GoFundMe, drained $1,200 from her savings, and opened a second credit card.
“You were second-guessing going to Italy,” Kersheral’s stylist at Sky’s Hair Oasis, a salon in a Long Beach strip mall, reminded her the night before graduation. Kersheral had been a customer for years.
“That was one of the best decisions of my life,” Kersheral said. “Of just experiencing that and working hard towards that, working two jobs, and without a car, so I used to go to work from 6 to 3 and then my other job 4 to 12 and then come back. I used to live with Ana, and I used to come home when she was sleeping and leave before she got up.”
Post-Italy, Kersheral was someone who could say, definitively, that she liked Florence better than Rome, that, on a side trip to Paris, she discovered the Mona Lisa was smaller than she expected. She hung a calendar in her kitchen: Each day was paired with a photo of an Italian town (her graduation day showed cappuccinos in Lucca). Her cap was decorated with pictures of a wine glass and an Italian flag and the words READY FOR MY NEXT ADVENTURE.
“I have so many expectations for my future plans,” Kersheral said as her stylist smoothed hair extensions that tumbled halfway down her back. “Like, if you don’t want to travel, you can’t be with me. Like, if you don’t have an open mind — I can’t. I can’t go backward to the person I was and become narrow-minded.”
Kersheral’s first graduation ceremony — the 30th annual Pan-African Graduation Celebration — was inside a giant blue pyramid. (There would be a larger ceremony for liberal arts majors a few days later.) Known as “black grad,” it was as jubilant as a pep rally: Loudspeakers thundered an instrumental version of Ja Rule’s “Livin’ It Up,” graduates danced across a basketball court to their seats, the audience whistled and fluttered signs (One Degree Hotter!). Ana and Kersheral texted throughout:
“Idk if you heard me scream when they called your name but I was the only person standing up in my section and I was loud and these ladies were like ‘alright now!’”
By the time Ana found Kersheral outside, her mom, dad, brother, and other well-wishers had draped her in leis made of Snickers and M&Ms. She clutched so many roses that you’d have thought she won a beauty pageant. She rode to dinner with Ana and lost herself in Snapchat for a while, then suddenly looked up and shouted, “I graduated!” At Tequila Jack’s, a Mexican place near the pier, the strain of bridging worlds was more visible. Kersheral sat in the middle of a long table, her yellow graduation stole still draped over her shoulders, her parents several seats away. She and her mom lightly bickered over the guacamole and the fact that, years ago, she wouldn’t let Kersheral join cheerleading. To Kersheral’s left, her best friend from high school, who’d forgone college, was slurping her way through electric-blue fishbowl drinks called Adios Motherfuckers, AMFs for short. “What are you looking at?” she snapped at Ana. Behind her sunglasses, Ana glowered.
Soon after, Kersheral interviewed for the well-paying job at the retirement-plan company. She was so sure she nailed it that she splurged on something she’d dreamed about for years, something that would make her life in Southern California so much easier: a car. The brand-new white Hyundai Elantra was $17,000; her monthly payments, $262. She hung her graduation tassel from her rearview mirror, just as Ana had, and attached her key to a lanyard that said I [HEART] CSULB. “I officially retired my bus pass!!!” she wrote on Facebook. “#blessed.” Two months crawled by. She didn’t get the job. Worse, she was stuck at Home Depot.
On a scorcher of a summer afternoon, she stood in the open-air Garden Center ringing up Mexican heather, Miracle-Gro, several box fans, jalapeño peppers, potting mix, and raspberry splash dipladenia. Her wireless scanner beep-beeped: high tone–low tone, high tone–low tone. A giant floor fan rumbled but failed to cool her off. Then, before she clocked out, some guy with the shakes attempted to spend a suspicious-looking hundred-dollar bill. Kersheral was trying to be patient. But a few weeks before, she’d asked a middle-aged woman for her ID, which was store policy for certain credit card purchases. For some reason, the woman was offended. She accused Kersheral of discriminating against her, then complained to her manager. Kersheral found herself thinking: What if these people knew I had a bachelor’s degree?
Her cashier shifts took care of her rent and her car, a gift for herself that was starting to feel like a burden. She used her credit card for car insurance, her phone bill, food. Throw in graduation, and she was carrying a $2,000 balance. Kersheral considered a second part-time job. Maybe driving for Lyft; Ana still was. Even though college graduates tend to make more than people who finish only high school, students who come from wealthier backgrounds — and who often have access to more influential people and the wherewithal to hold out for higher-paying opportunities — end up making far more (130 percent more, as opposed to the poorer students who make only 70 percent more). Kersheral, though, couldn’t wait much longer. She dreaded ending up like the manager at her gym, a college graduate moldering in a no-degree-required job. But each rejection chipped away at her resolve.
In July, Kersheral caught up with another friend, Annette, at Panera, one far enough away that Kersheral could practice driving on the freeway. They’d worked at Home Depot together, and Annette was now on a path to medical school. Kersheral complained that her co-workers kept asking whether she’d go full time now that she’d graduated.
Annette rolled her eyes and mentioned a particular manager: “He told me not to become a doctor.” She shrugged. Some people want quick cash. “And some of us were so broke in school that we’re like, I could go without for years if I get to do what I want to do.”
“That’s what I’m talking about!” Kersheral said, eyes alight.
Annette’s advice: Hold out for a job worthy of your struggle. Exactly, Kersheral thought.
As she panicked one night about finding a permanent place to sleep, Liz remembered that a friend’s dad had an extra room that he sometimes rented out. She flooded him with messages:
“Do you have a couch I can sleep on for a couple of nights? and if possible, could you pick me up sometime in the morning …? I can’t stay here at all
I just can’t
I can’t I cant I cant PLEASE I AM BEGGING YOU”
Within a day, Rick Thornburgh responded:
What are friends for?
Sorry I wasn’t there for you in your time of great need. You sounded desperate.”
Liz moved in soon after. Rick lived in a one-story pink box near her old high school in Long Beach, where the biggest threat was the neighborhood raccoon. There was a little patch of dirt out front, where Liz planted thyme, tomatoes, strawberries. In May, Rick and Liz sat across from each other at his kitchen table, which was nearly hidden under a layer of mail. Sun streamed through a window overlooking the backyard, and the smell of Liz’s lunch, a pepperoni-and-cheese Hot Pocket, hovered in the air. Rick had printed out Liz’s lease, and he started reading it aloud: “Tenant agrees to maintain the room in good order …”
The room was the size of a rich person’s closet, with two windows, an air conditioner, and walls that Rick had, at his daughter’s behest, painted lavender. Earlier, Liz gave me a tour, brushing her fingers across the twin bed and flowered bedspread, both hand-me-downs from Rick’s daughter. Though the room came with a closet and a dresser, Liz kept nearly everything in sight: a tube of Frizz Ease, a box of Raisin Bran Crunch, an array of plays (How I Learned to Drive, A Doll’s House), medication, a documentary about women priests, several coffee mugs. Old habits. “What if this is some computer-simulation torture devised by a dystopian society,” she joked, “where it’s, like, we’re going to give her a room, and then we’re going to take it away.” When we left, she smiled as she locked the door, because she had a door to lock.
The rent was $700, which included utilities and food. The mental health program had agreed to cover Liz’s first month. Crucially, Rick hadn’t asked for a security deposit, didn’t run a credit check — either one would have probably knocked Liz out of contention.
As he guided Liz through the lease, she stared at the paper, cheek resting on her hand.
“OK,” Rick said, “so if you clog the toilet, you —”
“It’s on me.”
“You plunge it.”
“Got it, got it.”
Rick tweaked some words, printed new copies. Liz held hers as gently as you would tissue paper.
Liz’s life, a keeling ship for so long, steadied in other ways. After Megan pestered the financial aid office, Liz’s case was transferred to an administrator who she felt was more sympathetic because she had worked with foster youth. She finally pushed through Liz’s financial aid package — about $3,100 in grants and $8,700 in loans for tuition, housing, and school expenses such as a new laptop. (When Liz checked her total loan amount one morning and saw $21,847, a number that included the loans she’d taken out for community college, she gasped and closed the computer.) She also discovered she wasn’t alone: A musical theater classmate named Nicole confided that she’d motel-surfed for a few weeks after starting Cal State as she and her mom searched for a cheap apartment. She still relied on a campus food pantry. Nicole’s mere existence reassured Liz that she wasn’t some pathetic anomaly. Liz talked Nicole into posting on the homeless students’ Facebook group:
“It’s very hard to go to the pantry without [being] worried that someone might notice me, like a classmate, and tell people in my department or look down on me … I feel stupid because I feel like I should know how to not be poor and to not need things or help but maintaining stability is so hard … I never make progress.”
Spring warmed to summer, and then Liz’s life returned to a cadence she was more familiar with: The program that paid her first month’s rent, and that she expected to continue to float her for several more months, wouldn’t cut a second check. Liz said she was told that her rent was too expensive — couldn’t she find a place for $500 a month? — so she’d get nothing. “What plan B could there be for someone who is on the brink of homelessness?” Liz wrote to her social worker afterward. “How on earth would there be a plan B other than a shelter?”
Liz had made so much progress. With her financial aid in place, she was taking a full course load in the fall: classes about acting, directing, and modern plays, plus a class about the nexus between theater and community that was known as “theater of the oppressed.” She’d been elected political director of the campus College Democrats. And she had a new boyfriend, someone she met at a Catholic event. For the moment, though, she was sitting in a Starbucks, slurping a giant caramel Frappuccino and brainstorming how to hang onto her room. Her brow furrowed. She decided to call the director of the mental health program. Maybe today she’d make headway. “Hello?” she said over Starbucks jazz. “Hello? Can you hear me?”