Working Students of SMC

Victoria Gidey, 22, studying at Santa Monica College to become a nurse. Gidey reviewing notes at the school cafeteria just before a test. Photo taken on Wednesday March 29, 2017 at Santa Monica, Calif. By Emeline Moquillon, staff photographer.

Her eyes betray hidden exhaustion but instantly light up when she speaks. Her black jacket and muted grey shirt are elegantly simplistic, drawing all attention to her statement piece, a scarf – vibrant in its deep hues of brown, patterned by red diagonals, it whispers hints of her rich cultural background, traces of Ethiopia. Victoria Gidey is a 22-year-old student at Santa Monica College who sleeps only four hours a night. Many days, after finishing her graveyard shift as a cashier at Union Station from midnight to 8 a.m., she immediately takes the Expo Line to Santa Monica College for her 9:30 a.m. class.

Gidey is attending SMC with a green card after migrating from Ethiopia two years ago. Although attending a school in San Jose where her aunt lives would be more convenient, her burning desire to attend SMC outweighed that convenience.

When asked why she did not go to college in San Jose, Gidey says, “I wouldn't have to pay rent... but I just wanted to come to SMC so bad. I really like the campus. I really love all the diversity, all the professors."

She does pay a heavy price for her decision. Paying for food, books, rent and transportation requires her to work full-time. Shuffling her schedule between working and attending SMC with a full course load has left her running on four hours of sleep – or less – for the past seven months. And the side effects have not left Gidey unscathed. Migraines, nausea, drowsiness and insomnia have become commonplace for her. Her doctor has been insisting that she quit her current job, warning that her current trajectory is unsustainable – she runs a high risk of having a stroke.

Yet, Gidey believes these hardships to be inevitable for many immigrant students attending SMC. "When you're an immigrant, I think you have to work harder for everything," she says. Gidey notes that some people have it even worse than her. Many students with green cards have families outside of the United States who rely on their income from their jobs here for financial support. "Some people I know have families back home that they need to send money to. There's nobody helping my friend pay the bills. So being an immigrant in this country has good and bad parts to it. There's a lot of struggle," she says.

When asked about the good parts of the United States, Gidey praises better living conditions and more opportunities than in her home country. She mentions how in Ethiopia, most people wait until they are 50 years old before moving out of their parents' homes due to the lack of jobs and the low pay of the ones available.

Despite her praise, she expressed apprehension about attending Santa Monica College. When she first saw the school's demographic dominated by Asian and white populations, she considered going to West LA College. Listening to the stories she heard while growing up, and more recently in the lectures from her American history class, she was afraid of discrimination. "When I first came here I thought, 'Oh my god, there are so many white people.' I didn't know if I was accepted." She was pleasantly surprised to discover that she hasn't faced any discrimination so far, saying that despite its small black community, SMC is a very accepting environment.

But Gidey fears that experience may change soon. She expresses serious concern about what effects the Trump administration's policies will have on her. Currently covered by Obamacare, Gidey often goes to Kaiser Permanente for checkups due to concerns about what her lack of sleep will do to her health. Thanks to her visits, Gidey's doctor was able to warn her to quit her job or find a new one because her current trajectory is unsustainable.

She laments the extensive threats that the Trump administration's policies might have on her way of life. With her parents currently navigating the process of coming to the U.S., Gidey panicked when she heard about the recent immigration ban. While acknowledging that Ethiopia is not a Muslim country, Trump's anti-immigration policies make her feel apprehensive about the future.

When asked what she would say to Trump or the new Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, Gidey replied, “I don’t think I have a voice. Because you have to be very privileged to be heard. I’m not trying to be a pessimist but I don’t think anyone would listen to me or someone like me."

While trying to characterize Trump, she brings up former President Obama in comparison, saying that Obama “gets it,” and explaining that Obama's experiences with discrimination throughout his life makes him understand the issues of students like her. Yet for Trump, she says, “I don’t think Trump has ever been poor, or anything, because his dad was a billionaire. So he doesn’t get it. I think Trump is aware that he’s ignorant or racist. I think it’s the way he grew up, and because he’s been privileged with so many things, he doesn’t know that he’s wrong. Everything he does is just 'right for him.' (In his mind) everything he says is completely ok. But it’s not.”