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STUDENT PROFILE: LINDA GONZALEZBy Lori Valigra
For Linda Gonzalez, 22, the dream of becoming a paralegal assistant was seeded in childhood, when her brothers brushed up against the wrong side of the law. Because her family, with nine children, was too poor to hire a lawyer, she hoped one day to enter the legal profession.
Linda, the single mother of two children, now has great ambitions. She is determined not only to work for a corporate law firm, but also to become the first in her family to graduate from college and break a generational cycle of poverty. And, after a few years as a paralegal, she wants to return to school and earn a law degree.
But the road to the new lifestyle has been steep for Linda, who is in her second year at Massachusetts Bay Community College, and likely will require a third year to finish her associate's degree. She has received little help from her family, and many times has felt overwhelmed by a schedule jammed with classes, child care, and a part-time job. At times, she simply wants to give up.
"But I want my kids to have a better life than I have," said Linda. "I want to be successful. My dad didn't graduate from high school, and my mom didn't finish grammar school."
Linda, who is petite, with long, curly hair, didn't graduate from high school until she was 20 years old. She had her first child, Ashley, at the age of 14, and had to delay finishing eighth grade. Her son Joshua came two years later, further delaying her completion of high school.
But the experience of having children made her more mature, she says, and she kept pushing on to get her diploma. It was tough to make friends in high school as a young single mother, so she focused on her studies instead, forsaking social events and parties.
"Sometimes I feel like I'm all alone in this world," said Linda. "But my kids keep me going. I'm determined to go to school. I don't like the feeling of not doing anything for myself."
Along the way, she did have some help from those around her. Her cousin, Maria, went with her to re-register for high school after her children were born. And Miss Wieder, her English teacher at Newton North High School, along with her counselor Miss Byers, offered support and encouragement. The career center at the high school pointed her toward MassBay, where she could get the financial aid she needed to pursue a college education.
"They kept me going when I wanted to give up. And Miss Byers gave me money at one point because I didn't have enough to get milk for the kids," Linda recalled. "I felt bad about taking it, but she gave me money when I made the honor roll." Linda was on welfare during high school, and received government egg and milk vouchers until her children were five years old. She also made the rounds of local food pantries to cobble together meals for the family.
Linda still shares an affordable-housing apartment with her father, who is on social security. She contributes $100 toward the $267 monthly rent, and she pays for the phone, some utilities, food and clothing for the children. She receives $239 every two weeks from the Aid to Families with Dependent Children welfare program, and makes another $115.50 per week from her work study job in the financial aid office at MassBay. That job, which averages 14 hours a week, gives her a maximum of $1,000 per semester, as she is not allowed to work during final exams.
She is receiving $1,875 per semester in the 2001-02 school year in federal Pell Grant money and $100 per semester in federal Supplemental Grant money, neither of which requires repayment. She also has been awarded $425 per semester from the Massachusetts Assistance for Student Success (MASS) grant program.
On average, MassBay charges $1,692 per semester for tuition, fees, and books for a liberal arts major like Linda. That means about 40 percent of her monthly income and grants goes to school fees. The rest is for living and miscellaneous expenses.
On a typical day, Linda awakens at 7:00 AM, makes breakfast for her five-year-old son Joshua and seven-year-old daughter Ashley, and gets them to school by 8:20. Then her father drives her 45 minutes to the MassBay campus in the Boston suburb of Wellesley. She takes one or two classes, and then it's off to her work study job at MassBay's office of financial aid till about 4:00 PM. Afterward, she picks up her children at school.
Evenings, Linda's work continues. She makes dinner for her kids and her father, cleans the house, helps the children with homework and puts them to bed, and then finally gets around to her own homework.
Despite her seemingly tireless enthusiasm, Linda admits her hectic schedule sometimes takes its toll. One semester she enrolled in five classes, but had to drop one because she did not have enough time for her children. And since her academic progress did not quite meet the standards for financial aid, she was on financial aid probation last fall semester. While she continues to receive the promised aid, she needs to improve her academic performance for it to continue.
Still, Linda says life is easier these days than when she was in high school. Her children are old enough to understand her situation, and they support her efforts to earn a college degree. Linda herself looks to music for inspiration. "I listen to R&B, rap and other music, and the older songs remind me of how far I've come, and how my life could be much worse," she said.
"My kids want to go to college, so I've started a new trend in the family," Linda added. "I want to break the cycle of poverty."
Drawing on her own experience, Linda offered some advice to states seeking to help open doors for people like herself. "The state could give high-school kids an incentive to go to college by offering after-school programs," she said. "And they could encourage teen moms to keep going."
Freelance writer Lori Valigra lives in Boston.