Katy Sorto

Part 1, 2

Katy does a lot for her family. One time she calls me from a dentist's office. She's taken her younger brother to an appointment. Another time she tells me she's on the way to her high school. Her brother's cell phone was taken away during class, and she has to retrieve it from the teacher. She has two younger brothers and a younger sister. One is in high school, the other two are in middle school. She goes to their parent-teacher conferences. She says she wants them to do better than she did.

And she says her parents work all the time, they can't go to all the appointments and school meetings. Katy's mother runs a home day care business. Katy says the babies arrive at the house early in the morning and are sometimes there until late at night. Katy's father works construction. "Work and work and work, like animals," she says. Her tone when she says this is part frustration, part regret. And determination. This is the life she's trying to avoid.

But college is hard. I see Katy again in November, just before Thanksgiving. I'm worried about her. She seems anxious, and very, very tired. She is wearing jeans, loafers, a sweatshirt and a hooded jacket. Her thick, dark hair is pulled back in a ponytail. She's wearing no jewelry, no makeup. She says at the beginning of the semester she made more of an effort to look nice, but she doesn't really care anymore.

Katy says she's been going to see Professor Donahue for extra help every week. She's also been meeting with a group of her classmates to study. She likes them, especially a woman named Mona. She says they don't have time to hang out after class, but they get along really well.

Today is the last day of her "First Year Seminar" class. It's only a one-credit class and doesn't last the entire semester. Today is the day the students are supposed to present their "educational plans" to the rest of the class. Katy is stressed; she says she does not like public speaking.

There are 15 students in the class. Several saunter in late. Their assignment was to map out all of the classes they will need to take to get their associate's degree from Montgomery College. Then they were supposed to do research on schools they could transfer to and to list at least three options and information about the schools including majors offered there, costs and scholarship possibilities.

The instructor asks for volunteers and no one raises a hand. A couple of guys in the back row are slumped low in their seats, with their jacket hoods up over their ears. The instructor says he'll just start calling on the class in alphabetical order when a student named Tanya volunteers to go first.

Tanya is planning to major in graphic design. She has all of the courses she will need neatly mapped out on her paper. But when she gets to the part about where she wants to transfer to she says, "All the art colleges are really expensive." So she's chosen a couple of state schools that seem to have good art programs.

Cost comes up a lot as the students present their plans. The instructor gives advice on finding scholarships. He also advises them to stay at MC for as long as possible. Tuition here is about $4,000 a year for a full load of classes.

Katy has her educational plan laid out on the desk in front of her. She has listed two colleges she might transfer to, and Georgetown is not one of them. The University of Maryland, College Park is one and Bowie State is the other. She has noted that tuition at these schools will be between $12,000 and $16,000 a year - before books or living expenses.

In terms of what she needs to graduate from MC, Katy has her courses laid out for the next two semesters, but then a bunch of blank spaces and question marks.

She still has six more classes to take in what is called the American English Language Program (AELP). These are the classes for non-native English speakers and they do not count for credit towards an associate's degree. Katy can take some of these as paired "learning community" classes like she is doing now. But even if she pairs up and takes courses over the summer, it will be at least another year before she is ready to take an English class that counts for a degree. And most of the other courses she will need for a degree will also have to wait until then. Students who are non-native speakers must finish the entire sequence of AELP classes before they can take most of the other classes required for their major.

And Katy is not sure what she wants to major in yet. She has "General Studies" listed on her paper. She says she still wants to be an ESOL counselor, but she's not sure what that means she should study.

The students in Katy's class continue their presentations. One is planning to go into broadcast communications, another into business management, another wants to do Latin American Studies. There are two people who want to be graphic designers, and four who want to be nurses. The presentations go long. Class is nearly over and several of the students haven't presented yet, including Katy. The instructor asks if students can stay late. Katy doesn't say anything, but when the next student begins she quickly gathers up her things and bolts out of class. She is late for a tutoring appointment with Professor Donahue. And she says she really didn't want to do that presentation anyway.

"I'm getting worried because like I'm starting from the bottom and I'm like 19 already and I think that I'm not going to finish 'til I'm 25, 27 I guess."

It's a few days before Christmas. The fall semester is over and Katy has come to campus to meet with her adviser. I catch up with her before the meeting. "I just want to have my career, my little house, my car and be independent. That's what I want," she tells me.

The goal is so clear in Katy's mind: She wants a different life from what her parents have. She says college is the way to that different life. But it's turning out to be a very long, hard haul.

She says in her English class she got a C for writing, and a B for reading. She doesn't know her grades yet in the first year seminar or the keyboarding class but she's sure she passed them both. She says the keyboarding class helped a lot. "Oh my God it was wonderful! I was really bad in typing and now I'm a little bit better." She says the first year seminar didn't help. "I improved nothing at all" in that class she says. But overall, she says, school has been "good." She's especially grateful for the help with writing from Professor Donahue. "She was really patient. She helped me a lot."

We go to the college-counseling center to meet with Katy's adviser. Katy wants to make sure she is registered for classes before leaving town. She is going to El Salvador for a few weeks after Christmas. Over the summer she met a man there named Marvin. She says they're engaged. She has a small diamond ring on her finger and a picture of him in her wallet. She says he is going to university in El Salvador, studying to be an English teacher.

"He fell in big love with me," she says, smiling. She says Marvin is trying to get a visa to come to the United States, but "I have to ask if his degree is useful here." She seems a bit conflicted about him. She says she definitely doesn't want to get married until she has finished school, but she's not sure he will wait.

Katy's counselor is Andrea Milo. Some students meet with whatever adviser is available when they walk into the counseling office, but Katy makes appointments ahead of time so she can be sure to see Milo. She says she likes having the same face to come back to.

"Come on in, have a seat," Milo says.

Milo helps Katy register for her spring classes. She shows her the list of all the English classes she will have to take before getting credit toward a degree, but she doesn't spell out how many semesters it will take. Katy looks kind of confused. Then Milo says, "Remind me what we're thinking for major, you know, when you are done with your [English classes]?"

Katy mumbles, "Guidance counselor."

"OK, OK," Milo says brightly. "Now with that you certainly could do something like psychology, something like social work. But typically to be a counselor, usually you need to get up to that master's level. So you're going to get your bachelor's degree, and then you'll go onto grad school for, ahh, usually around two years or so, give or take."

Katy is nodding, mumbling "Oh, OK." When the meeting is over she looks a little stunned. The road to the life she wants is turning out to be a very long road indeed.

I ask her if she's feeling discouraged and she says, "Oh no, I'm OK." But then she pauses and adds "hopefully."

I don't hear from Katy again until the end of February. She tells me school is OK. She's been really busy. She's still working nights cleaning offices downtown, and she has started volunteering once a week at a local community center. She is working with ESOL students in an after-school program. They are making books to send to children who are in the hospital.

I meet her at the community center one afternoon in April. She looks great, tan and relaxed. She's just returned from a spring break trip to Miami to visit her friend Thalia's family. She says she's not as tired these days because she isn't working anymore. She says the other workers complained that she was getting special treatment. Her boss was letting her leave early some nights so she could go home and study, and they said it wasn't fair. The boss told her she would have to leave for a while, but promised he would re-hire her once things cooled off with the other employees.

And Katy says she really likes the volunteer work she is doing. She is working with a 2nd grader named Vanessa. She warns me that Vanessa is very shy. She probably won't say anything.

And she doesn't, at first. But Katy is wonderful with her, patient and encouraging. Eventually Vanessa is talking quietly, laughing a little. She and Katy have been writing a story together. They finished it last week and they're getting ready to send it to the children in the hospital. The story is called "A Zoo Dream." It's about a little girl named Lola.

"You want to read the story Vanessa?" Katy says. "You can do it!"

But Vanessa just looks at her, then at me with my microphone, and she shakes her head no.

So Katy reads the story. It begins: "After a long day at school, a little girl named Lola went home very tired. She quickly fell asleep and began to dream that she was at the zoo."

Lola meets a bilingual giraffe ("She almost fell over in surprise when the giraffe say, 'Gracias.'"), a monkey from Madagascar, a parrot from Panama and a lion from Ethiopia. When Lola wakes up she tells her mother about the dream. Then we find out that Lola has never been to the zoo. And the next Saturday, her mother takes here there. "The animals looked exactly like the ones in her dream," Katy reads, "and the parrot even said 'Lola' when she walked by."

Two things stand out to me as I listen to Katy read. The first is that it's not easy for her to read this story. She stumbles over some of the words, struggles with the pronunciation of the word "giggling." Also, it's hard not to hear this story and think it says something about what Katy wants: new friends, new experiences … and relief from long, tiring days at school.

But Katy surprises me by saying school is going really well. She says her English class "is a little bit easier" this semester. She's been going to the professor every week for help. "She's lovely," Katy says. The professors at MC "got me back on track" she says. She's also taking a drawing course that she likes. And she's thinking about signing up for a public speaking class over the summer; she wants to confront her fear. But she's not sure the summer session timing will work out because she's going to El Salvador to visit her fiancé Marvin.

The English class she is taking is a "learning community" that combines a reading class and a writing class in one. Many of the students from Katy's fall semester learning community are together again for the spring. And you can tell when you walk in that everyone knows each other well. There's a lot of laughter and friendly chatter.

"So let's start by checking the homework on outlining," the professor begins. Katy leans over and asks her classmate something Spanish. Then she pulls out her homework and makes a note at the top.

The class is focusing today on distinguishing between general and specific information and creating an outline. Their homework assignment was to write a paragraph about "a layer of your cultural identity." Students are called on to read their writing out loud. Several people wrote about their religion. We hear about Islam and Catholicism. One woman reads about how being a mother is an important layer of her cultural identity. Then the professor calls on Katy. She has a deer-in-headlights look at first, but takes a deep breath and stands up.

"One of the most important layers for me is the languages I speak," she reads. Her paragraph is about the different ways that she uses Spanish and English. She writes that Spanish is the dominant language of her daily and personal life. "Every time I call the bank to make an appointment or any other company who have the option to choose between English or Spanish, I always choose Spanish," she reads. "And I also listen to the Spanish radio station and I watch the Spanish channels." She says she is most confident about herself when she uses Spanish.

But, she reads, "English is an important layer in my life because it is part of my other identity - which is being an American. Also, I have to learn the language so I can survive," she reads. "English would never leave me alone!" The class bursts out in sympathetic laughter.

I don't laugh though, because I am not sure what she means. Does she mean that English will never leave her stranded, that she can always rely on it to get by in the world? Or does she mean that she can't get away from English, that the language is always after her, never leaves her alone?

I think the class is laughing because they feel the latter - sort of haunted and hunted by the English language. It's like this big beast they all have to slay before they can really get on with what they came to this country for - more opportunities, a better life.

And it's the beast Katy has to conquer, even though she has been living in this country and going to school here for eight years now.

Later I am sitting with Katy and her friend Thalia and I ask them if they ever feel like giving up on this whole college thing. Katy sighs and before she has a chance to say anything Thalia responds, "Almost every day."

Katy shakes her head no. "You get used to it," she says. "After a while, you have to."

Katy says she is determined to make it. She says her mom is really pushing her now, she's proud. But her dad still doesn't really get it. Thalia disagrees.

"I think I talk to your dad more than you do," says Thalia, laughing. "I talk to him a lot like when I go to her house. He's really nice. And I think he's proud of you. He just doesn't say it. But deep inside, he's really happy. And I bet when you get your diploma he's going to cry."

Katy rolls her eyes. "Oh man," she says. "It's going to be a long time for that."

Katy is now in her third semester of classes at Montgomery College. And it will probably be at least another two and a half years before she's done. That's nearly five years to get what most people think of as a "two-year degree."

But almost no one does it in two years. To get to graduation, the typical community college student goes to school full time for three and a half years. That's because the vast majority of them - more than 60 percent - have to take remedial classes before they can begin earning college credit. A lot of community college students are paying to basically take high school over again.

And Katy has the added hurdle of all the English language classes. She won't be done with those classes until the end of next semester. Only then can she begin taking English courses that will count towards her degree. So, next fall, exactly two years after starting college, she will finally begin taking college-level English.

And she has math to worry about, too. Katy says she was a terrible math student in high school. "I'm scared of math," she says. "I don't know what I am going to do about math."

She will probably need to take two remedial math classes - and then at least two college level courses - before she can graduate. I ask her if she has talked to anyone at MC about that yet and she says, quietly. "No, no. Not at all."

A lot of community college students avoid math for as long as they can. And it's what trips a lot of them up in the end. A recent study found that 69 percent of students who come to college and test into remedial level math classes never end up finishing their required math courses.

But Katy has already beaten the odds in many ways.

First by graduating from high school. Katy told me that she started high school with 20 other students in her ESOL class. She says only five of them made it to graduation.

And now by still being in college. Nearly 40 percent of Hispanics who go to community college have dropped out after three years. Some of them come back and give it another shot. But most of them never get a degree.

So why is Katy succeeding so far when so many like her fail?

Katy says, "Because I want to go higher."

But that's what a lot of students say. In response to the statement, "I have the motivation to do what it takes to succeed in college," 68 percent of entering students strongly agree. But just a few months later, a lot of them have given up. And five years on, the vast majority have dropped out.

Nearly half of those who quit cite money as the reason. And Katy still worries about money a lot.

Last year she worked out the paperwork and ended up paying nothing for her classes. She says financial aid covered everything. And her aunt came through with money for books.

But she says her aunt got sick. She moved back to El Salvador. And she's not sending money anymore.

And Katy says she just got another big bill from the college. She says she owes $700. For some reason grants and scholarships aren't covering that part. She's not sure why. The financial aid office gave her information about loan programs, but she doesn't want a loan. So she's going to come up with half of the money - and her mother is going to cover the rest. And they're not talking about it with Katy's dad. "As long as he doesn't hear about the money, he's OK, he's OK," she says.

But she says she is really stressed. She's back to cleaning offices five nights a week from 7 to 11 p.m. She says she's exhausted. But she's determined.

"I can try my best," she says. "When I want to do something, I try. And this is the case that I'm going to try. I have to try."

Back to Rising by Degrees.

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