NEW YORK -- This past May, Audrey Hollingsworth had finally reached her limit.
The rising debt and chronic joblessness among her friends, combined with the thought of personally plunking down $35,000 for another year at Warren Wilson College, was more than Hollingsworth could stomach.
So, the 19-year-old, Lexington, Va., native dropped out.
After a summer spent waiting tables, Hollingsworth boarded a bus to midtown Manhattan in mid-September with $4 in her pocket and no clear plan for what came next.
On a whim, she ventured into lower Manhattan's Zuccotti Park and set her sleeping bag down alongside dozens of other Occupy Wall Street protesters. And in the four weeks since, Hollingsworth hasn't really left.
"This is exactly the kind of experience I left school to go in search for," said Hollingsworth, who doesn't plan to venture home again until Thanksgiving. "In the past month, I've learned more about the world than I ever learned during an entire year of college."
Citing increasing amounts of student loan debt and rising rates of underemployment among their classmates, many college students have gravitated toward the Occupy Wall Street movement.
While an estimated 150 campuses nationwide have staged formal protests and walkouts, another contingent also occupies Zuccotti Park -- college dropouts who are voicing similar frustrations and worries about their own uncertain futures.
George Machado, 20, is one.
Machado, a philosophy and international relations major, dropped out of American University last spring with $53,000 in debt. If headed in a similar trajectory, Machado reasoned he would owe more than $200,000 in student loans come graduation day.
Three weeks ago, Machado started sleeping in Zuccotti Park. At first, he wondered if it was merely a bunch of privileged kids posing as activists. But something about the sense of community quickly convinced him otherwise.
"I've been waiting for this my whole life," said Machado, who grew up in New York and believes that higher education should be free. "This is a revolution that's been needing to happen and has finally begun. I've joined the revolution," he said with a smile.
Machado stood alongside his friend, Nicole Carty, who graduated from Brown University in May of 2010.
The sociology major now works as an independent contractor, a position that includes neither benefits nor health insurance. Carty worries for the millions of well-educated young Americans unable to find decent-paying jobs.
While Carty, 23, owes $14,000 in student loans, she can only afford $50 monthly payments. At that rate, including interest, she said she envisions paying off her student loans until she's well into her eighties.
Standing in the middle of Zuccotti Park on Tuesday morning, Jorden Eck and his friend passed out free slices of apple and pumpkin pie to passersby.
Eck, a 20-year-old from upstate New York, dropped out of the State University of New York, Binghamton earlier this year after not being able to come up with enough tuition money to continue.
Since dropping out of college, the only job Eck could find consisted of selling knives for Cutco, a cutlery vendor. Yesterday marked his 25th day of sleeping in the park. Despite the chillier temperatures that soon await, Eck vows to remain in Zuccotti Park until his demands are met.
As for Hollingsworth, who plans to stay on until the end of November at least, she's still weighing her future options. Finding a job figures prominently, as does the question of whether or not to reenroll in college at some point.
Hollingsworth describes her upbringing as "solidly middle class," with a father who worked as a financial planner. Her mother's family operates a yarn shop and a blackberry farm on the outskirts of Lexington, Va. While her parents have expressed concern for their daughter's safety, they've been generally supportive of her participation in the movement.
For Hollingsworth, the fight over the affordability of higher education is one of the main reasons why she rearranges her sleeping bag each night.
"Our parents always told us to go to college and that if we went to college, we'd get good jobs," said Hollingsworth, who said she is anxiously awaiting the arrival of new tents later this week. "I'm guess I'm really just not so sure that's going to happen anymore -- and that's why I'm still here."
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