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Cory Brooks Headshot

Today's America: Working Your Way Through College Is a Myth

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WAITRESS
Betsie Van der Meer via Getty Images

I'm a young American, finishing my last year of college, looking down a road that gets bleaker every day. My family is dirt poor; people today seem to forget that in America today families still exist who don't have TV, who don't have A/C, whose electricity gets cut off regularly, and who can't afford to buy meat. That was -- is -- my family. I worked my ass off my whole life to get straight A's, while holding down a job to help out with bills and food; I applied for colleges from our local library because we don't have Internet, I studied with flashlights when our electricity went out, and when I was 18 it all paid off with a full-ride scholarship to George Washington University in DC.

And so I left. I left my family behind, I left my four younger siblings and my disabled sister with my single mother. I left because I didn't want the life I saw them struggling with every day. I left to be the first one to attend college, the first one to leave our state, and I had no idea how hard it would be. I left vowing to get educated, get a middle-class job, and come back to pull them out of this life. But financially stranded and on my own, I picked up two jobs my very first year in college and never stopped. Tutoring and waitressing were barely enough to pay my food and transportation in DC, not to mention my cell phone bill, and purchasing my laptop and dorm supplies.

Soon I was overwhelmed with a full course load, trying to keep my grades up for my scholarship, falling behind because I'd never had the private school preparation for the advanced courses; falling behind because I closed up the restaurant past midnight every night, and didn't get to the library until 2 a.m.; falling behind because I had to be up at 7 every morning to make my early morning classes, so I had my afternoons and nights free to work; falling behind because any classes scheduled between 9 and 5 were out of the question for me to take, as work came first. Soon my grades started dropping. I couldn't afford a tutor, and between the choice of working late for food or having time to study, the food comes first every time.

My friends always ask how I stay in such good shape, how I never gained the "Freshman 15." I smile and shrug, but what I really want to tell them is that being too poor to buy food is great for keeping the weight off.

With my grades dropping because I don't have time to study, I am on the verge of losing my scholarship. When I graduate, my GPA will be too low to get into graduate school, and these days a Bachelor's degree won't you anywhere.

I had planned on law school, but with all my tuition covered by scholarship I'm still barely making it, and I can't imagine that happening anymore; with my GPA so low from no time to study, from falling into bed exhausted at 3 a.m. only to wake up four hours later, chances of another scholarship for law school are nearly non-existent. Minimum wage isn't possible to live on in this city, but I worked too hard to get here, to get my education, to give it up. I'm caught in a vicious cycle of which I see no way to get out. I'm terrified of graduating and not being able to find a job again. Right now my housing is covered by my scholarship, but in one more year I'll be on my own, working minimum wage jobs, barely covering rent and food. And health insurance, well that's a distant dream and always has been.

I chuckle when I hear people complain about their eight hour shift; to me, that sounds like the easiest thing in the world. I work 14 hours a day, spend another six in class, and if I'm lucky get the rest to sleep. On weekends I work a full day and crash in bed the rest of the night to save up my sleep for next week. I don't go out with friends because I can't afford it, but also because my free time is spent desperately trying to give my brain enough sleep to reset for my research papers due every week, for my midterms, for my finals, for just enough to keep my GPA above the 2.5 I need to keep my aid. A 2.5 GPA should be nothing, but not when you average three hours of sleep a night, not when you miss classes sometimes to take an extra shift at work, and not when you can't afford the textbooks for a class and wouldn't have the time to do the readings anyway.

I used to love school; I used to love studying. Now I'm in college, where it's necessary, and I can't even make the time to crack a textbook. I can't remember the last time I've read an article for a class. I've started setting three alarms because my body is so exhausted that I sleep right through them, and consequently right though my classes. Little food and little sleep means I get sick easily, but I can't take time off and I can't afford a doctor; no one in my family has insurance except my disabled sister, who received it through Medicare.

I broke my foot two years into college, and hobbled for over a week because I couldn't pay hospital bills. I finally went to the ER when it began fusing together crookedly, and now am paying off $3,000 in medical bills with $60-a-month payments. I've never seen a doctor for the flu or the strep throat I routinely get because I don't get enough sleep or food; I've never had a check-up or physical exam, and I've never taken antibiotics because I can't afford them. On the weekends I stop by one of DC's homeless shelters for a free meal; sure, I get stares -- a young white girl -- but it's better than the pain in my stomach the rest of the day.

I like to think that I didn't make mistakes. I like to think that I did everything right, everything I could, but still it doesn't make a difference. I haven't gotten pregnant young, haven't dropped out of college, haven't saddled myself with student loans, yet haven't slept more than six hours a night for years. If I'm stuck in this at only 21, oftentimes eating one meal a day, what hope is there for the rest of us? Even after sacrificing everything for the last few years, it looks like I'll be going back home after I graduate to try and find an entry-level job that, maybe if I'm lucky, allows me to start having three meals a day again.

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Cory's story is part of a Huffington Post series profiling Americans who work hard and yet still struggle to make ends meet. Learn more about other individuals' experiences here.

Have a similar story you'd like to share? Email us at workingpoor@huffingtonpost.com