Before Student Debt: The Story of a Student’s Struggle to Pay for College

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Rakhi Agrawal, photo by Gwen McClure.

NEW YORK -- During her senior year at William H. Hall High School in West Hartford, Conn., Rakhi Agrawal fit the stereotype of an involved senior. Her grades weren’t as good as she’d have liked, but she threw herself into extracurricular activities, staying after school well into the evenings. The activities served to do more than bolster her application for her dream school, Columbia University in New York City -- they kept her at school for long hours and away from what she describes as an abusive home.

She grew accustomed to showering at the gym, to brushing her teeth and hair at McDonald’s or in the school bathroom and to sleeping in the back of her black Volvo 850, a small pillow tucked under her head and a blanket shielding her slightly from the cold. But no matter how many times it happened, she never got used to waking up, panicked and confused, to a police officer rapping on the car window, or to driving into the dark in search of a new, safe place to sleep.

“When a cop knocks on your door and you suddenly awaken,” she said, “it’s very disillusioning.”

Throughout the year, Agrawal struggled with her mental health. Although she doesn’t have, and never has had, a diagnosis, the difficulties she faced took a toll. Though she does not identify as clinically depressed, she has felt sad, lonely and at times suicidal. In high school she saw a family and individual therapist but still she felt isolated and helpless. 

By the time she finished high school, only a few people knew about her living conditions. Agrawal became close to her high school principal through her activities at school, and finally admitted to him what she couldn’t to so many others.

Her principal, disapproving of her choice to sleep in her car, followed her home on his motorcycle to make sure she was safe. But he never reported the situation to Connecticut’s Department of Children and Families, and neither did her therapist. Her principal declined to comment.

Kate Mattias, executive director of National Alliance on Mental Illness Connecticut, says that Agrawal’s decision to live out of her car is not particularly rare. Although only about 1,000 young adults are using state-supported services in Connecticut, there are about 6,000 eligible.

Not only can it be challenging to find services, she said, but there is also a desire by many young people to avoid being part of the system because hospitalization can be traumatic. So, often, teens will make a choice to be homeless rather than getting involved in the system.

“What we hear a lot from young adults is they don’t want to go into the hospital because they see themselves there 20 years later,” she said.

Agrawal agrees and said her experience underscores that point. Her senior year culminated with a week in the hospital -- a result, she said, of asking too-specific questions about another student who had committed suicide for an article in the school paper. Her hospitalization was forced, and she found the experience far more distressing than helpful. 

“The things you see can scar you so much more than the reason you’re there,” she said.

Although Mattias says that Connecticut actually offers more services than many other states, there is still a gap in the services specifically tailored to teens and young adults — an age group that has a particular set of needs that are different than those of children or adults. At a time when teens should be experiencing positivity and transitioning into their adult lives, the experiences they face often hamper their development instead, Mattias said.

“If you don’t have a large support system, how do you wend your way through all of the applications,” she said. “You can just see how these kids slip through the cracks.”

Agrawal, however, was able to beat the odds. She chose to go to Barnard College, a liberal arts school for women that is part of Columbia University.

“I chose it because it was still Columbia, it was still in New York City, it seemed to be the best of both worlds if I couldn’t get that holy grail of financial aid at Columbia,” she said.

That summer, she bounced between a friend’s house and her car. Her principal had promised to drive her to school to help her move in, but in the end he bought her a one-way bus ticket to the city.

“It was a lot of firsts and I don’t think I was ready for a lot of them,” she said. “It wasn’t what I’d envisioned my first days of college would look like.”

Though she settled into her dorm and college life, she still faced the same problems. She followed the same blueprint as she did in high school. She threw herself into extracurricular activities and work, trying to make ends meet and distract herself from her stress. Since leaving West Hartford she has had no contact with her parents, but without a support system, she has struggled. Just as they had in high school, her grades have slipped.

“I’m a pre-med student, so my grades really matter in terms of getting into school and my life after undergraduate education. So that’s been kind of hard to swallow,” she said. “I wont be able to go to med school right away because my grades aren’t strong enough, so that’s kind of altered my life plan.”

Much of the problem for Agrawal is what she calls the “perennial issue” of financial aid. Although she is estranged from her parents she is still required to list their tax information on her financial aid forms, so every year her younger sister forwards their taxes.   

Although her parents still have a low enough income that Agrawal is eligible for student aid, it’s not low enough so that the aid funds meet all of her expenses. It leaves her constantly struggling to work enough hours and earn enough money to make ends meet.

In addition to her overwhelming workload, Agrawal has continued to struggle with her mental health — a problem that is all too common for college students.

In a survey conducted by NAMI, almost three-quarters (73 percent) of respondents said they had experienced a mental health crisis while in college. Of those who were no longer in school, 64 percent said they had left for a mental health related reason.

Afraid to ask for help because she doesn’t want to be hospitalized, she continues to feel alone and hopeless. Without school, she feels she has nothing, but without support, she’s unsure how she’ll be able to finish.

“I have thought about leaving every day that I’ve been here,” she said.  

 

All photos credit: Gwen McClure