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‘I am the future’: During COVID-19, low-income students fight to defy college dropout stats

At her family home in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of east Los Angeles, Yesenia Vargas’ misfortunes were multiplying.

First, her parents’ low-speed internet service struggled to load the virtual lectures and online assignments required to complete her spring-semester coursework at University of California Merced, which went fully remote in March as the coronavirus emptied campuses nationwide.

Relatives requesting help with babysitting duties distracted from her studies. Then her laptop, a decade-old hand-me-down from her older sister, quit working. A shift reduction at her father’s job meant there was no money for a new one.

“I needed to find a solution. I was not going to drop out,” said Vargas, a 21-year-old Mexican American. “I was not going to allow my circumstances to stop me from attending class.” So she borrowed her young nephew’s desktop computer, set up all her programs again and moved her belongings into her little sister’s bedroom, where she could pick up the stronger Wi-Fi signal from her sister’s home next door.

“Looking back, I can’t believe I did that,” Vargas said.

As a first-generation student of color from a low-income community, Vargas was determined not to become another statistic by not finishing college. In 2016, only 11% of students in the lowest income quartile attained a bachelor’s degree by age 24, compared to 58% of those in the highest income quartile, according to a Pell Institute report. Like Vargas, many low-income students faced even greater challenges completing their studies from home after campuses shut down. Yet they can’t afford to wait out the pandemic in hopes that life and school will return to normal.

On Chicago’s South Side, an engineering student struggling with online learning feared he’d lose his scholarship — and his motivation — if he took time off. In Florida, a first-generation student who quit college to go to work attested to how a hiatus stretched into a nearly 30-year detour from academics. Some organizations, like San Francisco-based ScholarMatch, seek to improve the odds for first-generation, low-income and minority students like Vargas through financial aid and mentorship.

The nonprofit has stepped up support for its scholars during the pandemic, supplying them with laptops, internet service and groceries, and helping with rent and utility bills, said ScholarMatch’s Los Angeles program manager Kojuan Williams, who also is Vargas’ mentor.

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