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STUDENT PROFILE: DEMETRIO JOHNSONBy Alexander Russo
Demetrio Johnson is becoming an expert in negotiating the world of college finance. And along the way, he's becoming pretty accomplished at academics too.
Demetrio, a senior at the University of Illinois, Chicago (UIC), is an honors pre-law student. He's on the dean's list (with a grade point average of 4.57 on a five-point scale). And he's president of the criminal justice society. To make ends meet as he's earning these college credentials, Demetrio works two jobs and receives a wide range of grants, scholarships, and loans. He visits the financial aid office so frequently that he has become a familiar face there. He networks with professors to find out about new scholarships. And he knows the university's loan limits and how direct lending works.
But still it is not enough. "The financial pressure is overwhelming," he said. "But as I get older I am able to handle it better. I expect it. I know I'm going to be faced with it." At this point, he has about a year left to graduate and he has high hopes of going to law school.
Born and raised on Chicago's impoverished West Side, Demetrio was an All-State running back in high school. He got used to seeing his name in the Saturday papers, and he received scholarships from two community college athletic powerhouses. After earning his associate's degree in 1999, he was searching for a full scholarship at a four-year university that could lead, he hoped, to a career in the National Football League.
In November of that year, however, as Demetrio was driving home from a bowling party with his girlfriend, another driver smashed into Demetrio's car. "Me and my girlfriend had to be cut out of the car," said Demetrio, who suffered multiple broken ribs and injured his lungs. The accident ended his football career, and he chose UIC in part because it has no football team. "So what I didn't make it to the NFL?" he said. "I am here to break the cycle."
His parents split up several years ago, and since then his mother and younger sister have been living with his grandmother and several other family members in a three-bedroom house. His mother is a clerk and his sister attends nearby Northeastern Illinois University.
Demetrio is the first male member of his family to graduate from high school, and the first family member to get an associate's degree. But not everyone supports his college aspirations. He said that many in his family are critical of his decision to pursue a four-year degree, which is one of the reasons he is not living at home.
So Demetrio, who turned 24 in December, is on his own. His expected family contribution for the 2001-02 school year is zero. He receives an occasional meal and some toiletries from his mother, who would like to give him more, he said, but she can't afford to. His father, who left when Demetrio was in high school, "hasn't given me a dime towards college," he said.
To pay for his college expenses, he's amassed a range of grants, scholarships, and loans. For the 2001-02 school year, he is receiving $3,750 in federal Pell Grants (UIC's maximum) and the full state grant of nearly $5,000. With the help of his department advisor Dwayne Alexander, Demetrio keeps an ear to the ground for special opportunities. This year, he was awarded a $2,000 Martin Luther King scholarship for his high grades. "I apply for as many [scholarships] as possible," he said last fall. "I can't wait for the spring term so I can apply again."
Like many college students, Demetrio takes out the maximum allowed in subsidized loans: a little more than $3,500 per year. But it is not enough to cover his expenses, he said, so in addition to taking a full load of classes and serving as a youth mentor, he finds time to work 25 hours a week at a downtown law firm where he earns about $560 a month.
In November he began waiting tables two shifts a week at a restaurant in Marshall Fields department store. He was told the job would bring in about $400 a month, but it really pays only about half that much. "If I didn't work, there's no way that I could cover my living expenses," he said.
Demetrio does the kind of things many students do to keep their costs down: He has no cell phone, he eats a lot of noodles, and he takes the bus. But his current housing arrangement-$600 a month for a one-bedroom apartment-exceeds the university's estimated housing costs by $250 per month (UIC estimates total student expenses at just over $15,000 this year). Even though Demetrio has no car, he pays $200 monthly for the car that was totaled in the accident two years ago-a cost that further distances his expenses from the university's estimate.
"I don't have cable and all the luxury stuff," he said. "A lot of time I don't have groceries. The only luxury I have is a phone."
Yet as of last Thanksgiving, Demetrio was behind in his rent. Already more than $10,000 in debt from loans taken out during community college and his first three semesters at UIC, he knows he has to find ways to spend less and bring in more.
He considered moving back on campus as a way to reduce expenses. But a meeting with a financial aid officer revealed that it would not help. "It was going to cost more to stay on campus," Demetrio said.
On the income front, Demetrio's only real hope is to increase his maximum subsidized loan amount. He feels that the nearly $1,800 a semester that he currently is allowed is not enough, and he already has petitioned to have his budget re-evaluated. The maximum level for seniors is roughly $2,000 higher per year, and Demetrio thinks he has the need.
However, the only way for Demetrio to qualify is to get the university to increase his estimated budget, which determines his maximum loan amount. But there are strict limits. "The loans are based on limits that we can't play with," said Maureen Amos, associate director of the Financial Aid Office. Even if he thinks he needs more loans, she explained, "He may not have the need."
Indeed, financial aid counselor Kelly Merker was not encouraging. "With your EFC (expected family contribution) at zero," she told him, "there's not much more you can do." The only way she could think of to get his package re-evaluated would be to reject a $733 a year federal work-study grant for which he was eligible but had not yet been awarded.
The idea did not sit well with Demetrio, but after thinking it over, he decided to reject the federal work-study award, hoping that it would increase his loan amount next semester. The financial aid office responded that he had to come up with a good reason why he could not work an on-campus job. In the meantime, Demetrio juggles payments and triages bill collectors. "If I don't have it, I don't have it," he said.
Trying to balance studying with paying for college has been especially hard, he said, but now "I know how to handle it with a smile. I smile and use it to motivate me. . . . Nothing is given to you."
Alexander Russo is a Chicago-based freelance writer. He can be reached at AlexanderRusso@aol.com.