I started college when my daughter was only 14 months old. We had been homeless six months earlier. My life up until I discovered I was pregnant had been blissfully unplanned. I worked a lot at random jobs, and figured someday—when I finally admitted I was a writer who would take writing seriously—I’d settle down and go to college.
But the pregnancy was unplanned, too. So was the abuse from the father. So was him kicking us out in the middle of a particularly snowy winter in northwest Washington.
A few months before my daughter Mia’s first birthday, I worked with a friend, eagerly taking up the slack in his landscaping business. I crawled through flowerbeds and junipers and pulled weeds. By the time the season ended, Mia and I had an apartment paid for mostly by a housing grant. But I knew if I expected anyone to hire me for a job with benefits, I needed a degree.
My parents didn’t raise me with an expectation that I would go to college. When I approached my dad with a list of schools I wanted to apply to during my junior year of high school, he said, “Who do you think’s gonna pay for that?” So I moved out of my parents’ house and went to work full-time for over a decade. That had seemed all right. Respectable, even. But now I needed a job that would do more than just barely pay the rent.
I was able to go to college, and get the degree I knew I needed, because of a grant the federal government provides to low-income students—the Pell Grant. It covered my entire tuition at my local community college, leaving me a few hundred bucks to live off of. I crept along that way. I found full-time work as a maid. I worked late at night, often past midnight, and through the weekends when my daughter was with her dad.
Transferring to a four-year college, for me, meant moving to a different state. I moved to the place I’d intended to go before I became a mom. I moved because, when I visited, I found a progressive community that’d be supportive of a single mom working her way through college. I moved because I needed to hold myself accountable to my dream of being a writer that I’d had since I was ten. I needed my daughter to see me pursue that dream, and not settle for anything less, because I never wanted her to think life wouldn’t afford her the same opportunity.
By that time, I paid for books and tuition with the Pell Grant and a scholarship created for survivors of domestic violence. I also took out the maximum amount of student loans to cover living expenses through the school year when I was only able to work part-time as a maid. I lived off of a little over $1,000 a month, and my daughter bounced from preschool to the various homes of classmates when I worked or attended class. Neighbors watched her for free, and I rented the other bedroom of our apartment in exchange for help with child care.
Since I was juggling work and child care, I couldn’t take a full course load during the semesters. Instead, I took classes every summer. When the summer courses finished, I worked 10- to 12-hour days doing move-out cleans, landscaping gigs, and any other work I could find until the academic year began again.
A month before my daughter turned seven, she watched me walk across the stage to get my bachelor’s degree.
A year later, I was working full-time as a freelance writer. A year after that, I celebrated my first book deal for a memoir about my time in college, when I worked as a maid. We no longer need government assistance, but we only got here because it was there for us when we did need it. Especially the Pell Grant.
In his recent budget, President Trump proposed cutting the Pell Grant’s surplus funds by $3.9 billion. That surplus was set aside, with bipartisan support, so that recipients can attend summer school like I did. Trump also wants to cut funds for the work study program and TRIO, which mentors, tutors, and finds resources for students in need—including low-income single moms.
Trump’s plan to cut this funding will diminish opportunities for first generation students, single parents, disabled students, and low-income populations to get an education. All that does is keep the cycle of poverty spinning. It keeps people shut behind closed doors, with the belief that opportunities just aren’t available to them. It hurts students who can’t get the support they need through their families—because their family has no money, or no one has ever gone to college, or no one expected them to go, either.
I write today as a success story, heartbroken that others won’t have the same opportunity I did. Decreasing funds for these programs puts up road blocks that stop people in poverty from ever setting foot on a college campus, all for the sake of tax breaks for the wealthy that leave the path of the privileged pristine.
By Stephanie Land
Stephanie Land is a writing fellow for the Center for Community Change and a frequent contributor to TalkPoverty. She also writes for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, and several other outlets. Talkpoverty.org.