Hard at work to realize their dreams, students punch in
Diverse across every demographic, Santa Monica College students have one thing in common—they are on the move. This school is but a stop on the way to the future. Faced with a dismal job market and inflated tuition prices, students are worried, but not deterred. They are continuing to head for the future promised to them. Time will tell if their aspirations will be realized, or if this will be the generation to see their dreams become the American nightmare of debt and disappointed expectations.
For now, they are focused on completing their education, even if it means balancing work, family, and school, to do it.
Twice a week, after dropping her two-year-old daughter Natalia off at daycare, Raquel Orozco walks the few short blocks down Pico Boulevard to SMC for class. School is Orozco's “me time.” On the days she does not attend school and on weekends, she takes the bus down to the Santa Monica Pier, where she works for the Pacific Park Amusement Park Department.
For a few leisurely moments, she lingers in the locker room between her two fitness classes. She wears a black baseball cap with a long, dark ponytail trailing behind it. Her cheeks are barely flushed from her last class, and there is always a hesitant smile waiting when she speaks.
Except for the three-month maternity leave she took after Natalia was born, she has been working nonstop at the same job for the last five years. She uses the money to help pay for rent and food.
This semester is her first back at college since her baby was born. Three years ago, she was studying broadcasting and loving it; that is, until she found out she was pregnant.
The pregnancy raised to the forefront tensions between her Mexican-American family and the father’s Orthodox Jewish family. His family was unsupportive, primarily due to the fact that Orozco wasn't Jewish, and her mother was hurt that she had never met his family.
Orozco went to a doctor to find out her options. The doctor fumbled momentarily before asking if she was ready to hear what he had to tell her.
"Let's get it over with," she answered.
"Your first baby is fine," he told her.
She was carrying twins, but the second one was inactive, and had stopped growing. She would have to keep carrying both babies throughout the pregnancy. Abortion at that point was a risk to both Orozco and the healthy baby.
At first, Orozco continued school, but soon found that it was too much, both physically and emotionally. She was, literally speaking, carrying both life and death inside her.
On Sept. 8, 2009, after a long and painful labor, Natalia was born.
"When she came out, it was so unreal, hearing her cry,” she says. “It was amazing, and also the scariest moment of my life."
Orozco didn't look when the nurse reached inside her and pulled out the remains of her second baby, which the hospital later discarded.
She returned to school, but withdrew a few weeks into the semester. Her life consisted of "work, baby, work, baby, work, baby,” she said. She moved into her own apartment when Natalia was around one, but decided to move back in with her mom after a year. She says it was tight financially, and had to rely on her mom often, asking for rides in emergencies, like when Natalia was throwing up excessively and needed to be taken to the doctor.
Last winter, Orozco took a communications class and passed with an A. It felt great.
"That was my motivation to continue," she says.
Now, she is taking five units, and plans to get a degree in broadcasting.
"I want a future for myself, and for my kid,” she says. “I want to be an example for her. I want to be a mom with an education."
She hopes to "eventually jump into a career, a job that pays better, with benefits," so that she can provide Natalia with the skills she needs to succeed at school.
Orozco hopes that the internship required for completing her broadcasting degree will open doors for her. But right now work, school and Natalia all keep her busy.
"You just think about what's in front of you," she says.
She thinks about the future she is envisioning, and then smiles apologetically.
"I'm a work in progress," she says.
Chris Hussey has dreams of changing the world, starting with Southeast Asia, and specifically Indonesia.
He is an American who grew up in Singapore, and although he has been here for two years, he speaks about “this country” like it still surprises him. Tall and tan, he is neatly dressed in shorts and boat shoes.
He takes 16 units and works four days a week. The closest thing he has to a day off is on Wednesdays, when he has class from 1 to 5 p.m. Next fall, he will be attending UC Berkeley, where he will pursue a degree in international development.
Eventually, Hussey plans to start his own non-profit global venture fund, investing money in undeveloped economies.
"There are a lot of global venture funds putting money into these economies, and they're making tons of money from it,” he says.
“I don't want to be making millions of dollars,” he says, and explains that he doesn’t believe in making a profit. “I’m a communist.”
But he has a long way to go before he can establish his non-profit.
"You have to have money to start a non-profit," he says.
For now, Hussey is a runner at The Cheesecake Factory.
"It's not what I want to be doing for the rest of my life, obviously,” he says. “It's just a college job."
He started as a host, greeting and seating patrons, and hopes he will soon be promoted to waiter. He likens his job to school, as he must study and take tests to move from position to position.
Before this job, he worked at Hollister. He says that folding clothes for six-to-eight hour shifts may look easy, but it hurts mentally. At The Cheesecake Factory, he is "making people happy," and learning how to talk to customers.
"You learn to turn on, not exactly the charm, but the humility," he says.
The money he makes goes toward his expenses and tuition.
"I'm subsidizing my father," he says. "He never asked me to work; I made that choice myself."
Hussey is the oldest of three siblings, and he knows that putting them all through college is a burden on his father.
After Berkeley, Hussey plans to live in Indonesia for a year. His mom's family is Indonesian, and he plans to focus his studies in Southeast Asia. He does not believe you can effect positive change as an outsider, so he plans to "become an insider." After that, he might continue school for international law, or get a master’s degree.
He believes education should be free, but acknowledges that it is not a feasible solution.
"Not in this country," he says, adding that if education were free, it would allow students to focus on their dreams.
Whether or not Hussey qualifies for financial aid, he will have to take out student loans to pay for school. Then, he will have to get a job to pay them off.
"It makes you a robot, trying to make money to live,” he says.
One thing Hussey dislikes about his job is that people seem to do it just for the money.
"I was raised to be nice to people without wanting money from them," he says.
But for now, it beats folding Hollister sweatshirts, and it is a learning experience for him. Hussey knows he will never look at retail clerks or waiters the same way.
"Everyone should work," he says. "Everyone should get a really crappy job."