Getting through college is a challenge for many. But for low-income students, spiraling costs and familial responsibilities can combine to make a college degree an elusive goal.

(Click here to read what experts are saying about the difficulties facing low-income students in their quest for a degree.)

Four local students spoke with Voice of OC about their struggles. Here are their stories:

‘I found myself’

College was “a culture shock – I’m not going to lie,” says Escarlet Mar of Santa Ana, who is going into her junior year at Cal Poly Pomona. “I had never left my city.”

Mar had a hard time adjusting to life away from her close-knit family – her dorm room was the first she had not shared with siblings – and she struggled with her classes at first.

“But I managed to pick myself up,” she says, and adapted to the academic and social demands of college life.

Financial aid covers a lot of her tuition, though Mar expects to leave college with $24,000 in loans and has generally worked between 20 and 35 hours a week during the school year. That means she has had to be selective in focusing her efforts on classes in her major, urban and regional planning, and settle for not getting As in some of her required classes.

She works at an internship in Santa Ana’s planning division in the summer and during vacations, where she is furthering her interests in urban planning issues. College was difficult in the beginning, she says, but at some point it all came together for her and now she is thriving.

“I can truly say I found myself,” Mar says. “I wouldn’t have if I’d stayed home.”

‘You can go a little crazy’

It sounded great: financial aid to attend the UC Santa Barbara. But it didn’t end well for Nelson Alonso, a Santa Ana High School graduate. He had never had a bank account before and didn’t know how to manage the loan money that was being deposited in it.

“One of my biggest issues was learning how to manage money,” Alonso said. “The school offers you loans, you get money thrown at you and you can go a little crazy.”

He didn’t pass as all his classes at and left with debts totaling $5,500. The money owed kept him from getting his transcript, which has kept him from transferring the credits he earned.

Soon after, Alonso signed up for classes at Santa Ana College after receiving a fee waiver and took a tutoring job at the library. But the former high school AP student still struggled with school work. The demands of home were great – from helping care for four younger siblings to providing for the family. In addition, his father underwent surgery and a sibling became a teen parent.

“You have family responsibilities; taking care of brothers and sisters and they expect you to contribute to paying bills. The money from my part time job was not enough to cover costs,” Alonso said.

Looking to make a change, he joined the U.S. Air Force Reserve last year.

He greatly appreciates the benefits of a reservist’s life, including professional training as a surgical tech, for which he currently studies microbiology and nervous systems. On his first exam he received a 96 – the top score in the class.

Alonso estimates he’s a dozen credits away from a two-year degree and still hopes to return to college and help his family.

And he remains committed to his ultimate career goal: “I’m going to be mayor of Santa Ana.”

‘Am I as smart as these kids?’

Rachel Norman walked, proudly, last month.

Since graduating from Chapman, she is working full-time as a mentor for low-income high school youth at Stepping Up in Santa Ana. However, she faces a $44,000 debt over the next 10 years and wishes she’d known to prepare for her SATs earlier, since modest improvements in her scores could have yielded scholarship options.

At a school where annual tuition costs $42,890, Norman sometimes felt out of place. She had spent some of high school sleeping on a couch her mother rented.

She even questioned her academic credentials. “Am I as smart as these kids?” she remembers asking herself. “These kid kids are taking AP Russian. We didn’t have this at my high school.”

She worked three jobs and by sophomore year had connected with fellow African-American students at Chapman, which eased some of the initial culture shock she’d experienced. She also became her dorm’s lead RA, which helped pay for her room and board.

She eventually wants to go graduate school but right now is building her financial acumen, learning about savings and investment.

“I’m trying to break away from a poverty mentality,” she said.

‘The hardest part of college’

It took 33-year-old Josh Waldrop more than 10 years to work his way through community college.

Waldrop, who grew up in Fountain Valley and Huntington Beach, lost his mother in high school and was paying his own way through college at various jobs. But his work schedule frequently conflicted with classes and by the time he was accepted to UC Irvine in the fall of 2011, he sought a financial aid package that would allow him to attend school full time.

Things went smoothly until 2012, when problems with Office of Financial Aid and Scholarships at UC Irvine began. According to Waldrop, UC Irvine was frequently late in approving and depositing his aid money, which was his sole support. Waldrop also says that UCI aid counselors didn’t properly explain that his aid package for the summer of 2012 included private loans  on the assumption he’d have the credit rating to get them; he didn’t.

Christopher Shultz, the director at UC Irvine’s Office of Financial Aid and Scholarships, said his office makes every effort to be timely but that rules, regulations and a student’s own situation can cause delays. As for private loans, “We make every effort to provide as much information as possible to our students up front regarding the private loan process.”

Whatever the cause, Waldrop came up short in 2012 and ended up spending three weeks sleeping in his truck in Irvine. He expects to graduate in the fall after completing his last requirements, with about $30,000 in debt.

The hardest part of his college experience has been “financial aid, not mid-terms or finals,” Waldrop said.

Amy DePaul is a Voice of OC contributing writer and lecturer in the University of California, Irvine Literary Journalism program. You can reach her directly at

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