by Gloria Hillard
For many college students and their families, rising tuition costs and a tough economy are presenting new challenges as college bills come in.
This has led to a little-known but growing population of financially stressed students, who are facing hunger and sometimes even homelessness.
UCLA has created an Economic Crisis Response Team to try to identify financially strapped students and help keep them in school.
'Some Sense Of Being Clean'
Diego Sepulveda, a 22-year-old political science major who transferred to UCLA from a community college last fall, is the first in his family to attend college.
"That's why it's so surreal for me to be here, and that's why my parents are so proud," he says.
Sepulveda comes from a blue-collar, working-class family and has always had a job — sometimes holding down two to help pay for his education.
"You're always thinking, 'How am I going to pay for next quarter? How am I going to get through the rest of the days here at UCLA?' " he says.
His full-time Subway job wasn't quite cutting it, and then he lost that job. That's when he turned to the campus library and friends.
"I would sit at these tables and basically try to do my work," he says.
Nearby sofas offered a few hours of sleep. Sepulveda would rotate — a night at the library, the next two nights on friends' couches. His other part-time home was the Student Activities Center, where there's a pool, a locker room and showers.
"I would shower, and it would give me at least some sense of being clean," he says.
'God Bless You All'
The university first started hearing stories like Sepulveda's in the fall of 2008 — a student who lost a job, or a family that used to be middle class and now their parents don't have a job, homes being lost.
Antonio Sandoval, head of UCLA's Community Programs Office, says he doesn't have the exact number of students experiencing the day-to-day hardship of food and shelter because they often keep it hidden.
"It's very affluent here, it's Westwood, Bel Air, Beverly Hills," Sandoval says. "Students who come to UCLA want to fit the norm here, so they're not going to tell you they're homeless, or they're not going to tell you they're hungry.
Just down the hall from Sandoval's office is an unmarked door. Inside is a converted utility closet filled with food. There's a refrigerator stocked with fruit cups, yogurt, juices and milk. Next to the fridge is a pantry.
"It has a lot of soups and main meals you can cook like macaroni and cheese," explains Abdallah Jadallah, a 22-year-old engineering student.
Jadallah says he got the idea for the food closet after noticing a number of students were going hungry. All of the food is donated, and sometimes students leave comments in a notebook for Jadallah to read:
Thank you so much for the food and small items like soap and shampoo. It really does make a difference in my life. God bless you all.
More Students Struggling
There's a definite increase in the number of homeless students nationwide, according to the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth. But nobody has firm numbers.
"What we're hearing from the college presidents and leadership [is] that more and more students are struggling," says Michelle Asha-Cooper, of the Institute for Higher Education Policy in Washington, D.C.
"Some are taking out pretty large amounts of student loans to finance their education as well as their living costs. Some are enrolling part-time, some are even dropping out."
Diego Sepulveda has another year before he graduates.
"Nothing is going to stop me," he says. "I'm going to reach my goals no matter what people say."
Friends recently offered him a place to stay. His parents help as much as they are able, and he's looking for a part-time job.