By Rilyn Eischens
on August 9, 2019
Erika Hernandez met her mom outside the dorm at sunrise.
In a few hours, the hall would buzz with flustered parents and students pushing carts of dinky microwaves and binned clothes and twin-size bedding out to their cars. But right then, the entire Virginia Commonwealth University campus felt empty.
The two women quietly brought Hernandez’s boxes down to the car, loaded them and shut the trunk with a click. They drove away while her roommates were still asleep, bringing her freshman year to a close.
It should have been a relief, checking off this final item on her end-of-semester to-do list and going home to Staunton — especially after the whirlwind of balancing academics, work and extracurriculars during her first year on campus.
The 19-year-old wasn’t sure she would be back in the fall, though.
While her roommates were making plans to live together in the same suite during sophomore year, Hernandez — like so many young people in Staunton, the Valley and the nation — was struggling to pay for college. She faced a cultural and bureaucratic challenge on top of the sky-high cost of attending a four-year American university.
Hernandez was leaving campus with a year’s worth of college credits and $10,000 in debt to VCU. She had watched her plan to pay for school unravel partway through the spring 2018 semester.
This was her “first taste of adulthood,” Hernandez said, and it was bitter.
Her mom, distraught, was plagued by the sense that she had failed as a parent, even while friends assured her the system was to blame. Hernandez was still hoping she would find a way to pay off her balance and enroll again in the fall.
Financial aid and scholarships for students like Lee High graduate Hernandez, who don’t qualify for Pell Grants but whose families can’t afford to help them pay for school, are few and far between. To pay their own way, these middle-income students need to be scrappy and lucky.
Hernandez’s family — a Hispanic household in rural Virginia, headed by a single parent for part of her childhood — is well-acquainted with financial pressure. They live a world away from the college admissions scandal, away from connections and rich parents greasing the way. It's a reality where even good grades and effort sometimes are not enough.
When aid covers only a fraction of university tuition and fees, and loans aren’t an option, sometimes there is only one path: trading school for a full-time job.
Three months later, in the fall of 2018, Hernandez would be back in the same VCU dorm in Richmond, unpacking boxes with her friends.
None of the boxes were hers.
Saving up for college a struggle
Hernandez’s long black hair swung behind her as she sprang up from the padded blue gym mat in the Staunton-Augusta YMCA weight room.
She giggled mid-burpee, the sound rising above the clang of metal weights and whoosh of machinery. Her client, however, was not laughing.
Hernandez was guiding him through traditional planks, planks on balance balls, weighted twists, butterfly crunches, traditional crunches (Hernandez loves crunches) and mountain climbers.
When his energy started to fade, Hernandez offered firm and cheerful encouragement. The client thanked her after, sore and sweaty.
Hernandez had been on the move since her own workout at 6 a.m. She planned to take a quick nap after her shift that afternoon to gear up for her Friday night plans: a nine-hour shift at Chick-fil-A.
It had been 11 months since she'd left VCU.
The now-20-year-old is well-suited to Chick-fil-A’s relentless commitment to fast service with a smile. Hernandez, who held the Staunton location’s record for best drive-through service time, means it when she says the fast-food restaurant is a great place to work.
But being on your feet for that long is exhausting, and people can be mean in food service. Hernandez has grown used to just smiling as customers berate her for things she can’t control; things that really don’t matter.
When her shift ended around 10:30 p.m., Hernandez would go back to her childhood home, shower, collapse in bed, find a movie to fall asleep to and set her alarm for 5 a.m. to do it all over again.
Work ethic as a family tradition
Hernandez goes to her mom when the exhaustion, frustration and stress become overwhelming. Her mom gets it, Hernandez said, and she always supports her — but she pushes Hernandez, too.
Hustle has been passed down from woman to woman in her family for generations. Hernandez learned her work ethic from her mother, Rita Shiflett, just like Shiflett did from her own mom.
Rita Shiflett was about 7 years old when her mom became a single parent. Her mom, who didn’t graduate high school and never worked outside the home before, had to support her six kids alone.
As an adult, Shiflett became a single mother, too.
Her reality meant working four part-time jobs. She served drinks at a golf course and waitressed at an Applebee’s. Her daughters, Alyssa and Erika, about 2 and 4 at the time, tagged along while she taught at a preschool. They played with toys in the offices Shiflett cleaned on the weekends.
At night, the trio went home to their two-bedroom in Manchester Townhomes in Staunton. It always smelled like vanilla, perfumed by Dollar Tree candles bought to illuminate the space when Shiflett’s tips couldn’t pay for the electricity.
They left the townhome for a house on Lambert Street when Shiflett married an HVAC technician. Seven-year-old Hernandez was excited to have her own room with a purple canopy bed. The girls asked their mom why they didn’t eat by candlelight anymore.
Shiflett said the blessing of that period is that her kids know how to work.
If they hadn’t watched her struggle and persevere, they might not be so driven; they might not know how to take care of themselves, she said. If it weren’t for the tough times, she might not be so certain now that her daughters will be okay no matter what.
That wasn’t much consolation when Sallie Mae denied the loan application Shiflett submitted to pay for Hernandez's second-semester college costs.
She had assumed she’d have no problem borrowing to cover part of her daughter’s tuition, since the bank had given her a $7,500 loan for the fall semester.
But Shiflett had started a three-year plan to get rid of the debt from her years as a single mom, and the process damaged her credit.
She applied to several other banks, and all of them rejected her.
Shiflett was inconsolable, hysterical with guilt and the overwhelming feeling that she had failed her daughter.
A college student, but how?
When her mom told her they couldn’t get another loan, Hernandez didn’t want to believe her.
She didn’t want to think about money, or the lack thereof. No college student would. Every hour of her days during freshman year had been filled by schoolwork, her job, her friends, her clubs. She was following her longer-term strategy to study physical therapy in graduate school.
This was not part of the plan.
Hernandez was stuck with a $10,000 bill from her spring semester. She and her parents met with the VCU financial aid office to see if they could ease her burden. They said she qualified for a $2,000 federal loan, but she wasn’t eligible for other options based on her parents’ incomes.
Hernandez held on to hope that her biological father would be able to co-sign a loan. About halfway through the summer, they sat at the kitchen table in her childhood home while he submitted the application.
He received an email with the results moments later. The application was denied.
Hernandez realized she wasn’t going back to school as planned. She wasn’t going to take classes toward her biology major or rehearse with the modeling troupe. She wasn’t going to have late-night board game tournaments or share an apartment with her best friends.
Fear overcame her. She worried not only about what this meant for her future but also about what people would think. How was she going to explain this to her friends? What would people say when they heard she wasn’t back on campus because of money?
How would she make this work?
‘Not many options’ for some middle-income students
Thousands of other prospective college students across the United States ask themselves the same question every year.
The cost of college has skyrocketed across the United States in the last several decades. In Virginia, in-state tuition at public four-year universities increased more than 20% between 2013 and 2018, according to The College Board.
At Virginia Commonwealth University, the estimated cost of attendance for in-state undergrads will add up to about $31,360 for the 2019-20 school year, according to the school’s website. The school’s governing board voted in May to freeze in-state tuition for the first time in nearly 20 years, after state legislators doled out nearly $58 million to public colleges in hopes of preventing them from raising tuition.
Applying for aid can be overwhelming and confusing — especially for first-generation students, who can’t rely on the experience of family members who have already navigated the process, said Brendan Williams, director of knowledge for the college affordability organization uAspire.
And aid and scholarships often don’t meet a student’s entire need. Penn State’s 2018 College Opportunity Risk Assessment found that Virginia families pay more than 30% of family income after financial aid to attend college, ranking the state 41st in the nation for college affordability.
For middle-income students like Hernandez, who don’t qualify for Pell Grants, the search for aid and scholarships can be especially frustrating, since most funds are dedicated to people under a certain income threshold, Williams explained.
“Once you get to a point where a student is a dependent, but the parents don’t have the resources and are unable to cosign, there’s not many options,” he said.
This means long-term planning is critical. Prospective college students and their families need to assess whether they can afford four or five years of college, not just that first year, he said. And those who plan to take out loans should ask themselves whether they’ll eventually earn enough to justify taking on tens of thousands of dollars in debt for their degree.
Community college can be a valuable option for students who find themselves in a financial bind, said Paula Buckley, director of outreach and public affairs for GRASP, a Virginia nonprofit that aims to help students access post-secondary education.
Students can save money by completing general education requirements at a community college before transferring to a four-year college, Buckley explained.
“You won’t necessarily get the four-year experience of being at a four-year college, but if money is an issue, it’s probably something you might want to consider,” she said.
Slow progress toward a far-off goal
Hernandez was hired by Chick-fil-A shortly after her father was denied the loan. She continued putting her paychecks toward her VCU bill, hoping to re-enroll in spring 2019.
Researching scholarships had shown Hernandez that she couldn’t count on any award money to get back to school. She wasn’t eligible for the vast majority, including Chick-fil-A’s scholarship program, because she wasn’t a current student.
By August, Hernandez was proud that she had brought her outstanding balance down to about $6,000.
Then she got an email alerting her that 25% interest was added to her remaining balance. She had missed the deadline to pay off the entire bill, a deadline that she wasn’t aware existed. After chipping away at the bill for months, Hernandez was back where she started.
Panic set in again when she realized the setback meant she wouldn’t be able to afford school for either semester of what should have been her sophomore year.
So spending a weekend at VCU, unpacking boxes in her old dorm was painful. She helped her former roommates move in and watched someone else settle into her room, knowing she'd be back in Staunton while they started classes and made memories without her.
Her mom was dealing with the stress, too. She deleted her Facebook account around that time. Scrolling through her friends’ back-to-school pictures of their college-age students was like rubbing salt in a wound, she said. Quitting social media did Shiflett a world of good.
In June of this year, Hernandez traded her weight room shifts at the YMCA for mornings spent herding children as a YMCA day camp counselor. She bumped her morning workouts to 5 a.m. to make it to camp by 6:45 a.m. and kept her closing shifts at Chick-fil-A.
After more than a year of working and paying, working and paying, working and paying, Hernandez still owed VCU about $3,000 in July.
Though she won’t have the money to re-enroll this fall, Hernandez is ready to get out of Staunton for a while.
She plans to move to Richmond by the end of the summer. Her housing hunt has yielded some promising leads, and she’s chatting with a few potential roommates who have rooms for rent in affordable apartments.
Hernandez wants to be in an urban area, closer to her friends and the thriving art scene, and with better opportunities for her eventual career in sports medicine. Paying rent and utilities instead of living at home for free will slow her progress on saving for college, of course, but Hernandez said she’s no longer in a rush to start classes again — "school will always be there.”
She’s also toying with the idea of going to community college in Richmond once she’s eligible, which would alleviate some of the pressure to pay her outstanding VCU balance right away. Or she could pay off the bill in a few months anyway and keep working for a while to bolster her savings, then decide what’s next.
Putting college collapse in context
When Hernandez leaves the house for Richmond this summer, it’ll be easier than when she moved away for her freshman year, Shiflett said. She’s going to miss her daughter, of course, but at least Hernandez knows what she’s getting into this time. Shiflett thinks she’ll worry about her a little less.
But she’s still a mom above all. She wants to give her daughters everything. She said she would do anything for them, lose everything if it meant having just enough money to put them through school.
Staring at a black-and-white photo of the trio hung over the fireplace in their home one day, she called them her “ride or dies,” “my girls,” said they’re the Three Musketeers. In the picture, they lean their heads together, looking straight into the camera. Their smiles seem genuine, easy.
That’s what she wants for Hernandez: happiness, a life where she doesn’t have to work so hard. Success is relative, Shiflett said. Hernandez is successful at Chick-fil-A, but she’s not happy there.
Hernandez knows this has been hard on her mom. She has tried to reassure Shiflett that she doesn’t blame her, that other families are going through the same thing.
And everything happens for a reason, Hernandez believes.
Surely something better is ahead.
- - -
After this article was written, something unexpected happened to Hernandez. The story of the surprise tumbled out shortly before we had planned to publish this article.
Here's what happened:
In early July, Hernandez went to a local couple’s house for lunch.
And they gave her $3,000.
The couple had saved money for their grandchildren’s educations, but their grandchildren didn’t end up going to school. They heard about Hernandez’s story through mutual friends and, hoping to give the money to a local student, invited her to discuss her finances and college plans with them over a meal.
However, they found out before the lunch that they could only give the money to a relative. The couple later told Hernandez that they felt bad for getting her hopes up and still wanted to help in some way, Hernandez said.
Over lunch, Hernandez broke down her debt and the costs of college. She was talking to the wife when she saw the husband take out his checkbook.
He asked exactly how much she owed VCU — about $3,000 — then signed a check for that amount and handed it to Hernandez.
She burst into tears.
“I knew they were possibly going to give me money, but I didn’t know the amount,” Hernandez said. “I wasn’t expecting it to be right then and there … I was in awe. I was shocked.”
Right after the lunch, still stunned, Hernandez deposited the check and called VCU to ask how to transfer the sum as quickly as possible. She sent it that afternoon.
The 20-year-old was debt-free within two days.
That week was a happy blur, Hernandez said. She enrolled part-time at VCU. Her application for an apartment in Richmond, which she’d submitted earlier in the summer, was approved.
Then the good news kept coming.
The next week, the unnamed couple told Hernandez they would give her $25,000. They had found a way to let her use the money from the college fund toward her own degree.
Hernandez’s entire family was overwhelmed.
“I was beside myself. It was like a miracle,” Shiflett said. “I can’t believe it’s happening.”
Worried she wouldn’t adequately communicate her gratitude in person, Shiflett wrote the couple a two-page letter thanking them for their “life-changing” gift.
“God has reminded us yet again that He is with us on this journey! He has revealed His presence through you both! His love has overwhelmed us through your kindness and generosity!” the letter reads.
Hernandez spent much of July traveling from Staunton to Richmond to sort out her academic affairs and interview at Richmond Chik-fil-As. She’ll take two classes this fall while working full-time to make sure she keeps her finances in check.
On a hot day in late July, Hernandez had a chance to explore VCU between sorting out parking passes and gym access. She already knew her way around, of course, and had visited several times since her freshman year — but wandering the campus felt different this time.
This time, when she ran into people she knew, she could finally tell them, “I’m coming back.”
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