Life changes you. An unexpected event and what follows can transform a college student from a carefree spending machine to a conscious and humble human being.
Alex Fernandez, a 22-year-old Central American Studies major at CSUN, had a life changing event that brought him to enroll at Los Angeles City College for spring 2009.
No financial aid was given to him and taking out loans again was out of the question. Still, Fernandez decided to stay in school, but at a cheaper cost.
The decision hadn’t been made in fall 2007, but financial problems at home indicated that LACC would became Fernandez’s school. That fall he took out his first two student loans, a total of $5,500, not for himself, but for his parents.
‘It comes down to helping out your family or your own education. And I think that’s where everyone is different and they put their priorities first and I think in my situation, it was my family first, then my education,’ Fernandez said.
As easy as the choice might sound it wasn’t that easy for Fernandez. In 2007 his parents couldn’t afford to pay the mortgage for their Bakersfield home.
‘It was the beginning of that year and I started seeing more fights at home, dad couldn’t get a job and my parents started saying I shouldn’t be eating out,’ Fernandez said. ‘That wasn’t how I wanted to live my life or how my family should live a life.’
‘I value family a lot, this is probably going to sound clich’eacute;, but my mom and my dad have helped me a lot,’ Fernandez added. ‘I got kicked out of high school and I was really tough with my parents, they still stood by me and at no point did they ever say’ ‘we are calling it quits.”
Fernandez’s parents have remained positive throughout his school years, he said. They didn’t want him to end his education when he took out those loans.
‘But I felt that I had to do something, I had to do it,’ Fernandez said.
When fall 2008 arrived, CSUN’s estimated cost of attendance, including tuition, transportation, books and other expenses was $13,582 for a full time student attending the entire year. While at LACC, the amount is $10,922.
Since Alex can’t afford $10, 922, he opted for part time status at LACC, while working full time at a museum. Working that many hours is something Alex has been doing for the past four years.
His mother, Maria Elena Valera, a cashier at Ralphs, saw her full time hours being cut from 50 a week to just a bit over 20. She ended up giving him no more than $1,500 for that semester.’
‘In 2007 I used to make less per hour, but my income taxes were more than the past year,’ Valera said.
Now she makes more per hour, but her income is less.
She made $48,000 in 2007, while in 2008 her income dropped to $42,000, a 12.5 percent decrease.
Alex is considered a dependent student since he is not yet 23 years old, the age limit to be considered independent. Even though he lives with his mother, his fathers’ $22,532 annual income was added to determine his estimated financial need.
That addition of income made the difference and no financial aid was received, for Fernandez it meant changing his lifestyle. First step: Switching schools.
‘We see this every recession, where the economy is not so good, the students will go back to school,’ said William Marmolejo, Dean of Student Services and Enrollment at LACC. ‘They want to improve their skills, so that’s when things turn around, they are prepared.’
The enrollment is up 10 percent at LACC compared to last year, Marmolejo said. Fernandez is one of the 18,000 students attending the college this spring semester.
The most notable difference from those students, is that Fernandez has 89 units completed, has finished all his general education classes and is only taking classes at LACC to not lose the practice of being a student.
‘I think that is a really big problem because Fernandez was taking CAS 440 with me and he was already taking upper division courses, so I am sure this is going to be an obstacle for him to graduate on time,’ said Sirena Pellarolo, assistant professor at the Spanish and Central American Studies department.
Fernandez is a member of Hermanos Unidos and participates in events held by Central American United Students Association.
‘I like the various student organizations they have at CSUN, I like the school environment, it is different from where you come,’ he said. ‘Like home it maybe noisy, but CSUN has a spacious library.’
Fernandez would rather be at CSUN, not that he is not getting used to LACC, but the atmosphere is different he says.
At LACC he doesn’t get that space because the library is smaller and has less computers for students. What Fernandez does is go back home, where it can get noisy and hectic.
‘When I have to baby-sit my brother’s baby girl, you need to have all your attention at her at all times and I rather be in the library, where it’s quiet and you can even check out a laptop and go anywhere you want, you and your own space,’ Fernandez said.
LACC is the big change for Fernandez and his family but they are also trying to save as much money as they can to bring back Fernandez to CSUN.
Valera, his mother, had to cut extra services they didn’t need, including the internet, cable and daily newspaper subscription.
At first it was hard for Fernandez to accept the changes, especially when it came to food, Valera said. She started buying groceries, cooking at home and telling Fernandez to take school snacks, like fruits or chips, but he wouldn’t do it.
Once her son started seeing times were not going to improve so quickly, he started changing, she said.
‘We changed our spending habits a lot, if we would get an opportunity to get Jack in the Box or McDonald’s, we think twice about it,’ Fernandez said. ‘Now our routine is every other week stock up on food and vegetables and you’re being healthy and saving money that way too.’
He also takes public transportation partly because he wants to save money on gas. For example, last year Fernandez would spend $50 dollars a week on gas compared to spending $1.25, which can either take him from home to LACC or from home to work.
When one of his professors from the Central American Studies program, Beatriz Cortez, found out about Fernandez’s situation she supported him as best she could, he said.
‘I think is important to note in Fernandez’s particular situation what a mature reaction he had,’ Cortez said. ‘He unfortunately had to interrupt his status here but he took responsibility for his family’s well being, and I admired that.’
Fernandez remembers how the CAS program understood his situation and came with open arms, by hearing him out and talking of different ways to fund his education.’ But the opposite was true of the business department, which he was part when he had previously majored in business management.
‘I don’t miss the business department,’ Fernandez said. ‘I am just another student ID and they don’t really care for their students’ pursuit of their own education.’
At the end, the two loans didn’t solve Fernandez’s family problems, which are still there, but he acknowledges it.
‘I saw a couple of changes because it was fine and we were fine for these two months and it gets you a bit of an outlook for a short period of time,’ Fernandez said about the loans. Alex didn’t realized it was going to be a temporary aid, compare to long-term change.
‘I came out with a solution for the moment.’
Even though that was the case, Fernandez still makes his family a priority, and he might not like parts of LACC, but he keeps going with the help of his parents.
‘I know that Alex is no longer my responsibility, he is not a baby anymore, his mother said. ‘But if I can help him, I will.’