“Have you seen that movie on Lifetime…how the girl, she was homeless and got into Harvard?” asked Heidi, 20.
My wife and research partner, Amber, shook her head.
“Well, she was homeless, and her parents were junkies,” Heidi continued, “they were addicted to heroin. And, she dragged her dad into a public school, just to get her in, and she made perfect grades, studied all the time, living on the streets. And she studied so hard, got straight As, that she got a full-ride scholarship to Harvard.”
We met Heidi through our research with working-class young adults in Ohio. Heidi’s mom was 16 when she gave birth to Heidi; her father was 15. Her father, whom she rarely sees, is now a drug dealer. She’s had a stepdad “on and off”: her mom dated a guy for sixteen years, and finally married only to divorce a year later. As a child, Heidi remembers once going into her mom and stepdad’s room, comforters and blankets covering shards of glass everywhere. They had fought and broken every piece of glass in the room. Heidi has never been technically homeless, but she did move out of her mom’s house at age 16 to live with her boyfriend, Dan. So she can identify with the Lifetime heroine.
Heidi moved into her boyfriend’s house after her mom’s house was foreclosed—she couldn’t pay the bills by herself after the divorce. Heidi and her mom were arguing a lot, and when Heidi’s mom moved to a town thirty minutes away, she told her mom that she couldn’t afford the gas that it would have required to get from her mom’s new house to the community college classes that she was taking in high school. During her junior and senior year of high school, Heidi jumped at the opportunity to enroll in the Post-Secondary Enrollment Options Program, established by Ohio lawmakers. She wasn’t going to drop out of that. The studies were part of the independent self she was forging.
Now on her own with Dan’s dad and stepmom, she worked late nights as a waitress at a fast-food chain to support herself. With little time to study, her grades suffered. But her resolve did not. She wanted to be different than her family—from her mom, who has worked at the same factory since she was eighteen; from her dad, a drug dealer who works at McDonald’s; and from her aunt, who works one day at the post office and spends the other six days “living off the government” and raising five children.
“The people that live off of welfare—my family,” says Heidi, with some indignation. “I have family members that have done it. And I do not support it. I tell them, ‘You need to get a real job. You should not be living off the government. This is pathetic!’”
“I think that it’s about determination,” Heidi says, “If you really want something, you’re going to work hard until you get it.”
What Heidi wanted, and was working hard towards, was to go to college immediately after high school. She wanted to become a lawyer, an aspiration born from watching Legally Blonde at the age of eight. She didn’t know what she wanted to study for her bachelor’s. But the important thing was to get some kind of degree, and to go to law school.
Determined as Heidi is, it’s harder to navigate the system when your family is fragmented.
The challenges came in the details—specifically, financial aid. She learned that if she could prove that she wasn’t living at home, she could become eligible for a full-tuition grant. She had to produce letters from family friends and others in order to be eligible. But her parents never wrote the letters. “I’m just not a real pushy person,” Heidi says. “I’ll never say, ‘Hey, will you write that note for me?’ I’ll just say it once.” She didn’t want to take out student loans—“I don’t make enough money for that!”—so she gave up on her plan of attending college immediately after high school. Determined as Heidi is, it’s harder to navigate the system when your family is fragmented, your dad’s a drug dealer, and you have a strained relationship with your mom.
Instead, the year after high school she was decorating cakes at a grocery store for $9.10/hour. Heidi has never found it difficult to get a job, but all of the jobs that she has held thus far are temporary jobs—telemarketer, waitress at a local fast-food chain, waitress at the local diner, U.S. Census Bureau census taker for three months, Dairy Queen with her boyfriend Dan.
“I’m not gonna be happy until I’m a lawyer,” she says. She scorned her grocery coworkers who “get comfortable” and “don’t move on.” And she resented her managers: “They all think they’re better than you.” She got through the day at the grocery store by remembering the law school she is working towards, and comparing that grand dream to her “low life” managers who will be “at [the grocery] the rest of their life.”
She adds that, “There’s the ones that are going to excel at stuff, and there’s the ones who are going to get comfortable at [the grocery] and think that they have a big superiority complex and think that they really mean something. I don’t let it bother me. You can think you’re better than me. Wait until I’m president.”
As soon as Heidi was able to take her first week of vacation from the grocery, she spent all of her savings to move to Columbus so that she could be close to Ohio State University, which she wants to attend.
She found work as a Verizon sales associate on weekdays and as a bartender on weekends. On Fridays and Saturdays, she worked 8:30 a.m.–6:00 p.m. at Verizon, then went to work to the bar from 7:00 p.m. to 3:30 a.m. She figures she’ll make about $25,000 this year, “almost as much money as my mom does now” ($35,000). She is not sure how she will get the financial aid that she needs to afford college, particularly if she is required to include her income and her mother’s income. But she continues to work, with the hope of going back to school.
‘A lot of people who are handed money just assume that life is easy and that [college is] what you do after high school. That's just not always how it works.’
Still, she is not sure how it will work. She thinks that more financial aid may be available to her, “but I haven’t even looked into it up here [in Columbus] since I work so much. I just don’t have time.” And she doesn’t know whether her credits from the postsecondary program will transfer to any college other than the community college she completed. So she’s thinking about moving closer to home and going back to school at the community college where she originally took classes.
Despite the help of a state program to make college more affordable, Heidi finds herself on the outside looking in, selling Verizon phones and bartending, working 70-hour weeks—and in the process making the financial aid that she needs more difficult to achieve.
“There’s a lot of rich yuppies who just don’t understand,” says Heidi exasperatedly. “And I’m not saying this in a mean way. I have nothing against people who have money, because I want to be like that someday. But a lot of people who are handed money just assume that life is easy and that that’s what you do after high school. You just go to college, and you meet somebody there, you get married. And in a realistic world, where your feet are on the ground and you work 40-hour jobs every week, that’s just not always how it works.”
“I just think the government needs to focus more on the middle-class people,” Heidi adds. “I don’t want to say the lower-class people. How I see it is that the low-class people stay low-class; high-class people stay high-class; the middle-class people want to move up and they can’t.”