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STUDENT PROFILE: TRACY FAULKNERBy Pamela Burdman
After six years of college, Tracy Faulkner is just one class shy of completing her undergraduate degree at San Francisco State University. That and her 3.78 grade point average are reasons to celebrate for a single mom who spent years on welfare and lived her first 30 years convinced she wasn't smart enough for college.
Now 37, Tracy plans to continue for another two or three semesters-either to earn a teaching credential or to complete a program in special education. It will not be an easy choice, said Tracy on a recent morning at San Francisco State's Family Resource Center (FRC), a support organization for students who are raising a family while attending college. She has to consider whether she wants to teach mainstream elementary school classes or focus on helping kids who struggle with learning disabilities.
But, as she discussed her plans, Tracy said she was dreading an even more difficult decision: whether to go back on welfare when her childcare benefits expire in 2002. "I'm trying to avoid it, but it's looking inevitable," said Tracy, noting that her daughter's after-school program costs $400 a month. "I'd have to be making a lot of money to afford that."
After seven years, Tracy finally got off welfare about a year ago. At the time, in addition to an $8.50 an hour work-study position at the FRC, she was earning $225 a month as an assistant manager of her apartment building, and another $450 a month working for the Coalition for Ethical Welfare Reform (CEWR).
It had been a relief to get out of the welfare system, she said, because welfare recipients often are given the feeling that they are stupid or incompetent-something Tracy had taken years to shed. When she was 15, she dropped out of school, never expecting to return. It was another 15 years before the root of her school difficulties-an undiagnosed case of dyslexia-was uncovered and she could begin to overcome her self-image of being untalented and unintelligent. Until then, all she knew was that she could not succeed at school. Reading was not a part of her life until she was twelve. Her handwriting was a hard-to-decipher patchwork of letters.
Unsure how to help her, most of her teachers simply gave up, and Tracy heard classmates whispering that she was "emotionally retarded." The fact that she was being raised by a single mother-an unconventional lifestyle in the 1970s-did not gain her any sympathy, let alone the help she needed.
One of the best predictors of college matriculation is parents' college attendance, but Tracy didn't have that in her favor either: She had no contact with her father, and her mother had left school at the age of 14 in her native Britain.
Under the circumstances, Tracy saw little reason to continue with school. "It was so awful to continuously fail and not know why," she said. "I figured if nobody else cares, why should I?"
Outside of school, Tracy survived on a series of minimum wage jobs, with very little hope of anything better. Then in 1995, her mother discovered she herself had a learning disability and urged Tracy to get tested as well. The disability specialists at City College of San Francisco told Tracy that she did indeed suffer from a disability, but that she also had strengths. They pinpointed the problem and coached her on ways to succeed in spite of it.
"I thought, 'Oh my God, I'm smart!'" she recalled. "It was such an amazing thing for me. Just give me a little extra time and I'm okay."
With encouragement from her mother and the City College specialists, Tracy enrolled in her first college class, a comparative religion course, in 1995. She hasn't left school since. "Every class I took and did well at," she said, "it really bolstered my confidence."
Because she is dyslexic, Tracy is given extra time and a quiet room for test-taking. For essay tests, she is allowed to dictate her answers. And, because she also needs to spend more time doing her homework, she is allowed to take ten credits-instead of the usual 15-for a full-time load.
After learning to compensate for her disability, Tracy has chalked up a string of successes in recent years, and hopes to keep the welfare system behind her permanently.
At least one of those successes involved the welfare system itself: While earning her associate's degree, Tracy was part of a team that worked to make San Francisco the only county in California where students' homework time can count toward the 32 hours of work required by Cal-WORKS, California's welfare-to-work program.
In addition to class hours, students are allowed one hour of homework per week for each course unit. This exception was granted when San Francisco officials agreed to describe college courses as part of a student's "educational welfare-to-work plan," an approach Tracy thinks more counties should adopt.
"To have to do 32 hours and do homework and be a single mom, you're setting us up to fail," she said, noting that two-parent families on Cal-WORKS are required to work a combined total of only 36 hours.
In her experience, educational pursuits were so discouraged by Cal-WORKS staff that when she was preparing to transfer from City College to State in 1999, she disguised her plan from the counselors, out of fear they would veto it.
Tracy and other students raised money to set up a family resource center at City College: In addition to the grants they received from several corporations, a nonprofit group called "Christmas in April" helped them build the facility, and an electrician and architect donated services.
At the time, Tracy was receiving $500 per month in welfare. She collected $1,500 per semester in Pell Grants, and City College waived her course fees.
In addition to providing a support network she could tap into, the center also offered Tracy a work-study job-boosting her income by $300 a month, which was not deducted from her welfare grant. But work-study was available mainly in the spring and fall. "Summers were hard," said Tracy. "It was hard to save. Children need clothes."
In 1999, she transferred to State, where tuition is much higher-$1,826 per year-and fee waivers are not available. Instead, Tracy receives more financial aid: Each semester she receives a $1,562 Pell Grant, a $714 State University Grant, a $325 federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant, and a $150 Educational Opportunity Grant.
Together with the income from her various jobs, that just covers Tracy's monthly expenses-and allows her to make minimum payments on her credit card bills. She owes more than $18,000 on credit cards she was offered by Wells Fargo Bank when she started at City College. In addition, she has borrowed $7,000 in subsidized student loans.
"Why they would give someone on welfare a credit card, I don't know," she quipped. "I really regret that now, but at the time I was so desperate. I had no money for clothes. I had no money for shoes. Christmas would come along."
Still, she's pleased that she has successfully navigated the financial-and educational-thicket, and can look forward to earning at least $35,000 a year when she graduates. "That's a huge step up for me," said Tracy. "If I can live within $20,000 a year, I could start paying off my debt."
She faces several obstacles in getting there. Since leaving welfare last year, Tracy lost her ten-hour-a-week outreach job with CEWR because of funding cuts. Even with two new jobs-a position on the San Francisco Health Plan's Beneficiary Committee, which pays $80 in various stipends, and a $45-a-week job with an asthma advocacy group-she is earning $200 less than she was when she went off welfare.
Starting next fall, she also will have to come up with an additional $400 for her daughter's after-school program. Though she dreads going back on welfare, so far Tracy's calculations show that may be the only way she can keep her daughter in the program. To pick her daughter up after school and care for her, Tracy would have to quit some of her jobs-and also return to welfare. Still, even if she has to go back into the welfare system, Tracy knows it will be a temporary stop, largely because of her education.
"It was a whole process in self-esteem," she said. "It would really benefit a lot of Cal-WORKS parents to go through that process of getting a degree."
Pamela Burdman is a freelance journalist and former higher education writer for The San Francisco Chronicle. She can be reached at email@example.com.