From Construction Worker to College Grad

Posted by Maica Pichler on August 15, 2014 at 2:11 PM

Fernando Funes will be interviewing students this year to talk about their tuition debt stories – and what the dream of free college tuition means to them. Here’s his own.

Hell, if it was not for college, I’d probably still be working a brutal, back-breaking, construction job in my hometown of Santa Ana, CA. I’m grateful for the student loans that allowed me to focus on my education at Berkeley... but I’m starting to wonder how my economic future will be affected.

I’m about to cosign a private student loan for my sister because my parents cannot. They are nearing retirement, have their own debts and financial obligations to account for, and can’t assume the responsibility for the loan in their situation. I don’t mind doing this for my sister because I love her to bits. I believe in pursuing a higher education, and I believe you should attend your dream school if the opportunity becomes available to you. But I don’t get any relief from the fact that I’m adding an additional slab of financial responsibility to my already heavy and imposing student debt burden.

As a first generation college student and son of Salvadoran immigrants who came here for a better life, I’ve always wanted to make the most out of this incredible gift called American citizenship. Yes, I still believe in the American Dream, as corny and romantic as that may sound; and I still believe that a college education is the best way to bring that dream about, whatever it maybe for you. For me, it was the opportunity to have a future career that excluded manual labor or fast food.

Hell, if it was not for college, I’d probably still be working a brutal, back-breaking, construction rentals job in my hometown of Santa Ana, CA. It was a manual labor gig filled with long days in sun baked, space black asphalt that was cold and damp in the mornings and a walkable heat sponge for the sun at noon and afterward. The job made me into the man I am today, and I will always be grateful for that. But low wages, daily interactions with worn and weathered journeyman laborers, and a traumatic back injury at twenty quickly educated me about the realities about a career in construction. On the 2nd of January, 2008, my boss gave me one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received – he laid me off and allowed me to return to school to pursue a future free of heavy lifting and working for poor hourly wages. So I decided to return to school full time.

After seven years of undergrad (four years at the junior college and three years at UC Berkeley) I can say I now have two bachelors’ degrees, one in History and one in Political Science. Thanks to the (relative) affordability of the California junior college system, I was able to pay for my way through working two jobs (tutoring and tourism) and eventually qualified for the Board of Governor’s Fee Waiver, a fee waiver that pays for your units.  When I got to Berkeley, however, I needed student loans to pay for my living expenses while other forms of aid (grants and scholarships) paid for my school fees and tuition. But the student loans are more than a necessity to pay for living expenses: they free up your time to dedicate yourself fully to school, your classes, and those extra-curricular activities that serve as rehearsal spaces for your future professional endeavors.

I’m grateful for the student loans being there as a predictable and reliable source of financial assistance while I focused on my education at Berkeley, but I’m starting to wonder how my economic future will be affected by this world of student debt that’s on my shoulders. And here’s the kicker -- I’m not the only one. Across the country, millions of students, some with degrees and some just left with the debt of unfinished and halted dreams, struggle of what to do with their student debt. I am in locked in this struggle as well. As I do intend to pay off the loan (ASAP), I have to put some things off before I do that – getting married, having kids, buying a house, and becoming a predictable and reliable tax payer and responsible citizen for my community and my country. Sure, I could do all those things before my debt is paid off, but I don’t want to implicate anybody else in my financial burden; that’s my responsibility.

Now that you know who I am, you can join me as I chronicle the financial aid struggles of various Americans trying to get a higher education while wrestling with the reality of paying for it. I will show you how a program like the Campaign for Free College Tuition can benefit lots of Americans by engaging with the issue head on, one interview at a time, one American at a time. So please stay tuned!

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The Campaign for Free College Tuition is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization established in the State of Washington in 2014 to educate parents, students, the higher education community, policy makers and taxpayers about efforts needed to fundamentally reform our nation’s system for financing higher education. This website and CFCT’s educational outreach activities are made possible through generous individual and foundation support.