Volume 46 Number 3
One student’s story
By Ron Norton Reel , CCA President
It was the second week of classes at the California Community College for an 18-year-old college freshman who was not only a full-time student, but was also working fulltime. The job was a new job, however, and the student had not received his first check. This student did not have parents or family who he could turn to for assistance. The student had not eaten for three days. He had no money left, and he was still two days away from getting paid. He had just finished his last class of the week and was driving to his job. He turned on the radio in his car and heard a public service announcement regarding food stamps and how the county support system was there to help those in need.
Immediately, he decided to go to the County office and ask for assistance. The student remembered that when he was younger, his parents had been on welfare and had been given food stamps. So, thinking he would be able to get some assistance, he ventured into the office.
Meat and potatoes
Approaching a woman who sat behind a partitioned area, the student summoned the courage to speak and told her, “I am a full-time student at the college and I have a job, but I don’t get paid for two more days, and I have not eaten in three days. I was wondering if I could get just one can of meat and some potatoes that would tie me over until I get paid?
“We can’t just give out food,” the clerk indignantly responded, “You have to fill out the appropriate paperwork, turn it in, and then wait for the two week processing time.”
The student felt humiliated as he looked at the clerk and pleaded, “I only need a little help now, and I promise to never return.”
“We can’t break protocol,” stated the clerk. The student left the office feeling defeated and embarrassed, not so much embarrassed for himself, but rather for a system that wouldn’t make an exception for someone just trying to improve his own plight.
Later that day, the student returned to campus and found one of his professors in his office. The student asked if he could have a moment with the faculty member and then explained his situation to his teacher.
Consider it a gift
The professor was both touched by the student’s situation and appalled at the callousness of the woman at the county office. Handing the student $20, the professor replied, “Don’t consider this a loan, consider it a gift, and when you find the appropriate time, pass it on to someone else that needs the help.”
I want to share with you what that student did during the third week of classes, after he got paid. He went back to that same county office and found the same clerk sitting at the same desk in the food stamps area. He handed her a paper bag with one can of beef, one can of potatoes, one can of green beans, a can opener, and he asked her to keep it at her desk so that the next time a resident of California, who had enough courage to ask for assistance, came in, he or she would not be turned away because of bureaucratic paperwork.
That student was me.
We are all influenced by our life’s experiences, and growing up in a poor family was certainly one of my influences. But thankfully — despite the uncaring attitude of the county office clerk — I grew up at a time when a poor student had access to an unparalleled and largely tuition-free education. Because of the system in place in California, an entire generation was able to rise beyond the means of their parents. Our state prospered as more of us acquired degrees in higher education.
And what did I do with that education? I became a community college professor, because I believed, and still believe in the power of education to change people’s lives. Like my own college professor who helped me out with $20, I’ve strived to make sure my students have the chance I had. We must continue to pass along that gift of education to students today and the generations to come. We must all fight to keep the promise of affordable higher education in our state.