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STUDENT PROFILE: CRYSTAL FONSECABy Lori Valigra
Crystal Fonseca, 24, knew from the start that the only way she could go to college would be to hold down several jobs. At $35,000, her family's income was too high for Crystal to get any meaningful amount of financial aid, but too low for a family of four to contribute to their daughter's tuition. Her parents helped the only way they could: by giving her free room and board at home, an easy drive from the University of Rhode Island's main campus in Kingston.
Crystal found herself caught in the vise well-known to many students of working-class families: Even though the family was scraping by, they were making just enough to prevent her from receiving much-needed funds for education. Her only ticket to school was to work and study, and apply for bits and pieces of any financial aid she could find. She is now a first-year graduate student at the same university, which also is known as URI.
Crystal's undergraduate degree was a double major in environmental management and communications studies that took her four and a half years to complete. The diploma came at a dear price: She had to forsake the social clubs and other school activities she enjoyed in high school, where her work in the drama and debate clubs led to her interest in communications.
"This was the only college I could afford," she said. "Living in state, it was a lot cheaper than other schools, and the academic standard is high. I wanted the best school I could get for the money." URI charges full-time undergraduates who are Rhode Island residents $5,386 per year for tuition and fees, and full-time graduate students $5,342 per year. Books can run another $500 per semester.
The guidance counselors at Crystal's high school were not helpful, she said. So she and her mother pored over scholarship books at the local public library, and applied for about 50 scholarships her freshman year. She managed to get scholarships totaling $800 from five different organizations: her home town of Jamestown's Rotary, Portuguese-American and Women's clubs, the Fraternal Order of Police of North Kingstown and North Kingstown High School.
She also received $290 per semester in federal Pell Grants during her first three years of undergraduate work, and a total of $22,408 in Stafford Subsidized Loans for the first four years of college. For the last half year of her undergraduate work she received no loans or aid, so she used her credit card to pay for books and fees.
During her first three years of college Crystal worked 40 hours a week. She worked three 13-hour shifts as a manager at a local farm stand, and attended classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays. She also worked at the Department of Environmental Management.
"I made out better at those jobs than I would have in work study, which was barely minimum wage," she said. Crystal's job at the farm stand at first paid $7 per hour, and she eventually worked her way up to $8.50. In the summer she also stepped up her hours at the Department of Environmental Management, where she earned $6.90 per hour. All totaled, her income as an undergraduate was $16,000 per year-about 40 percent of which went toward college.
A person juggling work and school learns many practical skills, and Crystal managed to get some college course credits for the work at both of her jobs. However, the strain of work and school was difficult at times. Crystal's family and friends did not understand why she locked herself in her room with her books when she was at home, and why she rarely had time to socialize like other young adults.
As a result of her tough work load, in her first year of school Crystal found herself on probation when her grade point average fell below the 2.0 required by the Pell Grant. That's why she chose the second major in communications: to pull up her grades, which were suffering because she couldn't spend enough time on her science courses in the environmental management program.
"I got A's in communications, so I used it to bring up my GPA," she said. She ended up with two degrees: a Bachelor of Science in environmental management and a Bachelor of Arts in communications studies. Her parents were proud of the first college graduate in the family, and threw a large party for Crystal. "They really didn't understand a lot of the studying and school work, but my parents were very proud," she said. "My dad wished he could have contributed more."
In the fall of 2001 Crystal started a two-year master's degree program in communications studies. She aims to get her Ph.D. and then teach or consult. She is paying her tuition and fees with a charge card and income from two jobs, one as a lecturer at URI that pays $3,000 per course. Currently she is teaching three courses, but that will drop to two next semester. She also is working 20 hours a week, and getting health benefits, as a research assistant at Bradley Hospital's sleep laboratory in East Providence.
She shares an apartment with her boyfriend, paying rent of $500 a month, plus $300 for her car loan. Her tuition and fees are now a bit more affordable, consuming about 25 percent of her $22,000 income.
Crystal's graduate course load is a little lighter-two to three courses a semester-and she now has a little more time to engage in some outside activities. She is chairperson of a tree preservation committee in Jamestown, which is about a 20-minute drive east of Kingston, where she managed to get a $4,000 state grant. She also is on a local parking committee.
"As an undergraduate, I resented having to work. A lot of kids here are rich," she said. "I couldn't party, and I missed out on social events as a result. But now I'm in an excellent position at my age because of my sacrifices. I'm a 24-year-old who acts like a 32-year-old."
Looking back, however, she said she wouldn't have worked as much. "My grades, especially in science, could have been better, and I would have been able to have joined clubs."
Crystal has come a long way since high school, learning the ins and outs of getting a college education and paying for it, and doing it under her own steam. "I wish funding would be available for a wider range of income levels," she said. "Perhaps they should have more intensive essays on applications describing your needs, and what you plan to do with your education."
Freelance writer Lori Valigra lives in Boston.