DREAM Scholar Tells House Lawmakers About Her Struggles to Pay for College

“I am clearly willing to work for my bachelor’s degree, but when money is tight, and bills are due, I wonder why I am paying for the price for a badly broken system.”          -Jenae Parker, Columbus State Community College Alumna

Jenae Parker, a 2018 ATD DREAM Scholar Alumna, was given the rare opportunity to share on a national stage her experience and her struggles as a college student. On March 13, 2019, she spoke to the House Committee on Education and Labor about her struggles as a lower-income, black, single parent student while pursuing her dream of a college education. Jenae’s testimony focused on her struggles in finding child-care, housing and food insecurity, mental health care, and being a working student. She told the Committee the story of her journey.

In 2008, Jenae started at the University of Toledo as a first-generation student coming from a single-parent home. Holding a $4,300 Pell Grant and working three jobs, she had to borrow more than $20,000 in private and public loans in her first year. “Money was so tight that I did not have a comforter when I arrived on campus.”  she says. However, after two years at Toledo, she dropped out, citing the mental and physical toll it took on her. In 2013, Jenae tried again at Columbus State Community College, but she was now a recently divorced single parent with a full-time job. In addition to caring for her daughter, she was also tending to her ill mother, and upon her mother’s passing, became the sole provider for her two teenage brothers. This led to her dropping out a second time. In 2017, Jenae re-enrolled at Columbus State as a part-time student, working three jobs. “Our bills got so tight we ran out of money for food and this wasn’t about ramen, we were unable to afford to eat regularly, then we were evicted. I thought this was my fault.” She thought, “Are we all (other students like her) just not college material or have we all done something wrong?”  She found ways to pursue her education and keep food on the table by using food stamps, and pushed through, despite the challenges she faced.

Jenae’s daughter Journey Marie is always on her mind and, for her to be able to go to college and be successful, her daughter’s safety was priority number one. In the U.S., 14 percent of college students are single parents. However, 95 percent of campuses with childcare have long waiting lists, and some campuses don’t have childcare services at all. With the help of a Columbus State Community College Job and Family Services representative, Jenae was able to connect to Scholar House, a housing community for student parents. This representative was also able to assist her in enrolling for healthcare and food stamps. Columbus State Community College’s ability to connect her to these resources enabled her to complete her associate degree in December 2018.

In her final thoughts, Jenae posed this question to the Committee: “What would happen if congress instead built a college financing system that matched the strength and ambition of today’s students like myself? I hope my story makes clear how desperately we want to improve our lives and how very real the struggle of paying for college has become.”

ATD is proud to call Jenae a DREAM Scholar Alumna, her passion for higher education and drive to help those who have gone through similar situations in their pursuit to fight against generational poverty, inspired members of the Committee as well as everyone who had the opportunity to listen to her speak.

Watch Jenae’s testimony here.

Learn more about Jenae and other 2018 scholars here.

Learn about 2019 scholars here.

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