Despite pandemic, three LA college students pursue their dreams

Courtesy of Robyn McGee
Remote learning derailed Racheal Gaffney’s studies at Compton College in Los Angeles, but she's working and saving for a laptop so that she can finish her degree.
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Imagine trying to learn remotely without a computer, or getting accepted into your dream school but then having to “attend” it from home. Or perhaps you pushed pause on your education to join the military – two days after your wedding. Now you’re stuck on a base on the other side of the world due to pandemic-related restrictions. Those are true stories for three 20-somethings. Though from different backgrounds, they all share one thing in common – a community college instructor who cared enough to reconnect with them during the pandemic. What did she find? Dreams deferred but not destroyed.  

All three are taking steps to finish their education and improve their situations. But their focus isn’t solely on themselves. While frightened by racial profiling and harassment, one recognizes that race relations are more nuanced than black and white. Another helps immigrants with Temporary Protected Status who live in limbo regarding their legal status. The third, comparing South Korea and America, sees the value of collective well-being over individual gain. As one of them puts it, “We could be doing a much better job if we would all agree that others’ safety is just as important as our own.”

Why We Wrote This

With education and career plans derailed by the pandemic, college students have drawn on reserves of resilience they didn’t know they had. Meet three who, despite delays and disappointments, are doing what it takes to complete their degrees.

In his poem “Harlem,” African American poet Langston Hughes describes what could go wrong when hopes and aspirations are interrupted – or sidelined altogether – because of powerful forces beyond one’s control. But the young people of color I’ve talked with – former students of mine at Compton College – aren’t giving up on their dreams, despite the detours they’ve encountered due to the pandemic. 

No computer, but a love of learning

Racheal Gaffney, 27, a biracial restaurant cashier, has put her dream of earning an associate degree on the back burner for now. A lover of contemporary art museums and Kabuki theater, Racheal stopped attending school because most of the colleges in her home state of California have gone to online learning and she doesn’t have a computer.

Why We Wrote This

With education and career plans derailed by the pandemic, college students have drawn on reserves of resilience they didn’t know they had. Meet three who, despite delays and disappointments, are doing what it takes to complete their degrees.

For the time being, Racheal works part time, hangs out with friends, and dotes on her 2-year-old niece, Royalty. She also consumes social media ferociously, especially posts about the ongoing demonstrations against police brutality and in favor of the Black Lives Matter movement.

“I proudly wear a BLM T-shirt and dare a Karen to get in my face,” Racheal laughs, referring to the slang term for white women who assert their racial privilege, sometimes by falsely accusing nonwhites of wrongdoing. The steady barrage of news stories about Black people being killed by police has made Racheal fearful of being racially profiled and harassed. And the pandemic has forced her to stay in close quarters, instead of being out and about as much as she used to be. That’s not all bad, though. Racheal says she feels more comfortable “around my people – Blacks and Mexicans.”

Yet she recognizes that race relations are nuanced. “I know not all white people are racist,” she says. “In fact, I saw a sign painted on the side of a house in the white area of Redondo Beach that said, ‘No justice, no peace.’”

Racheal says she has no intention of letting this delay in her schooling stop her from graduating. She is saving up to buy a laptop and plans to return to college.

Still law school bound

Courtesy of Robyn McGee
Stephanie Zacatares and her father attend Compton College instructor Robyn McGee's book signing. Ms. Zacatares now attends UC Santa Barbara remotely. After the pandemic hit, she moved back home with her family in Los Angeles and advocates for Temporary Protected Status for immigrants.

Stephanie Zacatares, 23, is persevering, too. She was shocked when she found out her dream school, University of California, Santa Barbara had shut down on-campus classes because of the pandemic. That meant she would likely complete her undergraduate studies via remote learning from her home in Los Angeles. Despite this change in circumstances, Stephanie still plans to attend law school and become a lawyer.

Stephanie’s father, Mario, inspired her passion for social justice. “My dad is a TPS [Temporary Protected Status] holder from El Salvador and has had TPS for over 20 years. He is currently awaiting his green card and hopefully will finally become a U.S. resident.”

The road for TPS recipients recently became more precarious when the Trump administration ended TPS status for people from El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Sudan. However, a lawsuit opposing the decision has been filed and an injunction has halted implementation of it for now. Stephanie doesn’t think the ruling will affect her father, but she believes immigrants overall would be treated more fairly under a different administration.

“For the past four years, the current president has demonstrated through his actions and his words [that] he is not willing to work with undocumented immigrants,” Stephanie says, “especially not people of color.”

Outside of school, Stephanie works with the National TPS Alliance, an advocacy group formed, as its website explains, “to save Temporary Protected Status for all beneficiaries ... and to devise legislation that creates a path to permanent residency ...”

Overall, she says, “We could be doing a much better job if we would all agree that others’ safety is just as important as our own.”

That conviction drives her determination not to let the pandemic prevent her from achieving her goals. She may have lost the rich campus experience she’d hoped for, but she’s not giving up on her higher education.

Always moving forward

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world in South Korea, demonstrators took to the streets in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and in acknowledgement of the racism immigrants experience there. That’s the context where U.S. Army Specialist Anthony Caro, 23, finds himself living out his dream.

Courtesy of Anthony Caro
Anthony Caro, a former humanities student at Compton College in Los Angeles, is serving in the U.S. military in Seoul, Korea, where he says he sees the virtues of focusing on collective well-being in a pandemic.

Always on a fast track, Anthony began taking community college classes at the age of 16, went on to study philosophy at UC Berkeley for a couple of years, and is currently taking online classes at Arizona State University. On Nov. 18, 2018, Anthony married Mitzi Pérez-Caro, a teacher. He entered the military two days later.

“Because of the pandemic, I’m restricted to staying on base here at Camp Humphreys,” he explains. “l haven’t seen my wife … since February. ... I had plans to travel all [around] Asia, but those were put on hold. My Mexican grandparents were also due to visit me, but those plans have been postponed for now.”

Because of the high number of COVID-19 cases in the U.S., Anthony is not allowed to travel home to California either, but he finds a lot to appreciate about his current location. “South Korea is a very disciplined country,” he says. While South Korea was in shelter in place, the United States was still fighting over toilet paper. People here think of the collective rather than just of themselves.”

That focus on the collective rings true to Anthony. It’s part of the reason he founded Citizens Power Network, a nonprofit educating citizens about the importance of voting and civic engagement. Doing what’s best for others also helps him make peace with the roadblocks the pandemic has put in his path. Even if his military experience isn’t exactly what he’d imagined, he’s still living his dream of being a soldier.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our pandemic coverage is free.

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