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Financial realities for struggling students

Aaron Hernandez and Cynthia Mendoza are former NMSU students who were unable to return to school due to the ongoing pandemic.

Financial stress has proven too big an obstacle for them and other students who are paying for school out of pocket. College students have been adversely affected by COVID-19. Many were ineligible for the stimulus payments and have had a difficult time receiving steady income.

Hernandez was a normal student sharing an apartment with multiple roommates when the pandemic first started. He was working a full-time job as well as attending school full time.

“I’m glad we got employee meals because most days that’s all I ate. I didn’t know what to do. It’s embarrassing to tell people you’re struggling so hard.”

“I remember when everything started closing … school became way more demanding,” Hernandez said. “Teachers acted like we had all the time in the world to do extra work because classes were online. It was a lot, you know?”

Financial hardship during the pandemic has affected college students disproportionately. Many work low-paying jobs in industries that have been hard hit by the pandemic, and many do not qualify for stimulus payouts. (Photo illustration by Carlos Lujan/Kokopelli)

His parents had claimed Hernandez as a dependent, so he did not receive a stimulus payment. His job at a restaurant had to cut hours because indoor seating had been closed and he was unable to qualify for food stamps because of his lack of work hours.

“We were kind of pissed that we were stuck working and being exposed to hundreds of people every day when other people were getting paid more to stay home,” Hernandez said. “All we got was more customers and a higher chance to get sick.”

His roommates were also affected financially and they were no longer able to afford the rent for their apartment.

“I’m glad we got employee meals because most days that’s all I ate,” Hernandez said. “I didn’t know what to do. It’s embarrassing to tell people you’re struggling so hard.”

For months, he slept on friends’ couches or in his truck. By the time the fall 2020 semester came around, he could not afford to attend school. He was able to work more hours at that point, but all the money was going toward paying off debt he accrued during the pandemic.

Another obstacle arose when his brother required a surgical procedure. Hernandez left his job to help care for his brother. He was unable to enroll at NMSU for the spring 2021 semester because of the money he still owed. Hernandez did manage to enroll at El Paso Community College and is now living with his brother. He hopes to return to NMSU when his financial status is more stable.

Cynthia Mendoza left NMSU for similar reasons. She was also working full time while she was a full-time student. Unfortunately, her job was not retained during the pandemic. She was also ineligible to receive the stimulus payments. The unemployment application process dragged on and it was months before she was approved.

“I was trying to avoid spending money because I wasn’t sure when I’d get unemployment,” Mendoza said.

She struggled to buy groceries and food. When she was able to afford a trip to the store, the shelves were bare of anything useful.

“Everyone kept hoarding stuff,” Mendoza said. “I’d finally have money to get stuff and there was nothing to buy. It was so frustrating that people who had money were buying more than they needed and screwing over everyone else.”

Mendoza had recently moved out of the dorms into her own apartment before the pandemic struck. Once she became unemployed, she struggled to make her rent payments. She was unprepared for such an unexpected financial strain and was forced to move in with family members.

By the fall semester, Mendoza could not afford to enroll in classes. She is currently working a new job and trying to save up enough money to return to NMSU.

Both former students were adversely affected by the pandemic, and they are not alone. Nationwide, college students have been disproportionately affected because most of them were claimed as dependents and did not qualify for the same stimulus payments that many Americans did. Many college students work jobs that do not pay a livable wage, and the uncertainty of even being able to keep their jobs has created a unique situation where the youngest adults are often forced to choose between financial stability and their educational goals.

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