College Apps: Technology and Homelessness

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April 26, 2016 by poverty2professional

“At least I’m not running low on minutes. Hey? Hello? You there?”

The call dropped for the third time and I tried not to groan out loud. I didn’t squelch my frustration out of self-restraint as much as I didn’t want the shelter’s night staff to notice that I was up past my own curfew and in the Parenting Room. Write-ups, remember?

When my father and I lost our home I knew right away my laptop would be my lifeline. I even gave it a name. Junior. I’d received Junior as a birthday gift in 8th grade and now, three years later and in the midst of homelessness, he was proving his worth as a little workhorse. That laptop got me through almost every essay, report, and project slammed my way.

When we were homeless, having a laptop meant I was liberated from the cut-off times libraries enforced on their terminals. At my public library, it’s about 2 hours a day. With a laptop, I could take all the time I needed to finish my next essay draft or rework a report at the Pound on my own time. More than a couple of my teachers had a fairly strict “must be typed and double-spaced” policy for final drafts. I needed regular and consistent access to a word processor.

What my laptop couldn’t account for was the lack of open WiFi at the Pound. If I had to research a project for school, that research had to be completed quickly and, despite the haste and urgency of my situation, as accurately as possible. Before we were evicted, my home didn’t have the Internet, but we did have a full stock of encyclopedias. That library was now either trashed or buried in storage. My resources were limited in several ways. The Pound also lacked printers and, for that God-awful week that Junior was infected with a virus he picked up from the library’s WiFi, functional computers.

“You’ll have to use the computer lab,” a shelter staff member told me during that bleak week my PC was out of commission.

I cringed. The Pound’s computers were stuck in yester-century. I could live with them being big and clunky. Fashionable, sleek devices weren’t the issue here. The machines’ total inability to print as much as a semicolon without jamming was. Four computer terminals and a lone printer crowded the tiny room. Half of the computers didn’t work and, if you weren’t in any hurry, that left two shots at trying to cloy the printer into spitting out one page of a final report. I always tried to skip the cover.

Getting around this meant investing in a flash drive. Portable, secure, and able to store a whole gigabyte of data (2007-2008, remember? It’s still a new thing), my flash drive was almost as valuable as my laptop. Because when I couldn’t print at the Pound – which was often – my first stop was my high school’s computer lab. Are you thinking about making a donation to a homeless shelter or a nonprofit that serves homeless youth? Please, please, please donate some flash drives! These little babies are lifesavers.

When Junior returned, he had lost 27% of his memory. I was heartbroken, mostly because I used to store my creative writing on him. Fortunately, by necessity of transporting my work from one station to another without email access, all of the flash drive held all my up-to-date work: projects, student bio, and – most important – my essays and personal statements for college applications.

Which brings us back to the opening scene of this post: Me frantically trying to redial and keep a signal on my dad’s little flip-phone. I was applying to QuestBridge, an organization that provides high-need (i.e. low-income) students with a full scholarship if accepted at their highly selective, mostly private partner schools (Columbia, Stanford, Duke). The first application round alone is intense, requiring two essays, several short-answers, and two letters of recommendation. I hadn’t known about QuestBridge until I was already several weeks into my senior year. The application’s late September deadline crept up on me fast.

“Wait! I’m not done yet!”

“We gotta go now! If we’re not back in time, that’s a write-up. You can’t apply to colleges if you don’t have a place to sleep.”

Why do I have to choose between my present and my future? My dad dragged me out of the library so we could make curfew time at the Pound, but I hadn’t finished my essays’ final revision. So, once we were back at the shelter and after I had completed both application essays while my dad asked if I could get access to either a staff computer with Internet or the WiFi just this once. The answer was exactly what we’d expected: No. So, I did what most contestants on a popular gameshow do: I phoned a friend.

Already after hours, I moved as far back into the Parenting Room’s closet as I could so the night staff wouldn’t overhear me. Word by word, right down to punctuation, my friend transcribed my whole application. Whenever I lost signal, I just called back and she picked up right where we’d left off. …Then my dad’s cell phone died. Shit. On tip-toe, I crept back to his bunk and tried to silently search for the charger. Let’s just say I would have failed a James Bond casting call.

My dad woke up and handed me the charger. I ran back (quietly-ish) to the closet room, plugged in the phone, and dialed. My friend and I finished the essays, hit submit and…I was told that the server for the site was down. The sky-high numbers of my blood pressure cannot be overstated.

I staggered into school the next day after staying up late – first from dictating, then from freaking out and getting only fitful hours of sleep – and logged into my QuestBridge profile. When I saw the notice, I immediately perked up. The deadline had been extended! Mostly because the server had crashed when everyone had tried to apply at the night of the deadline like I did. I almost cried. Then I remembered it was October. I had less than 60 days to apply to my in-state (QuestBridge only had two California schools) options: the University of California system and the Cal States. Local campuses that, even if my family were still homeless the following year, would mean that I would at least be accessible and nearby.

Being low-income in the college applications process is not an easy identity to shoulder. According to the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation’s (unprofessional side note: GREAT scholarship resource!!) latest report,  “True Merit,” students from families in the bottom economic quartile comprise only three percent of enrollment in the most competitive schools (i.e. Ivies), while those from the top economic quartile comprise 72%. However, if you go to a highly selective school and you’re low-income, you’re more likely to graduate because of the attention devoted to students at these caliber of schools. Selective schools are more likely to provide specialized counseling services, have smaller class sizes, and more student resources in general. It’s also at highly selective schools where top employers typically recruit. 49% of corporate industry leaders and 50% of government leaders graduated from only 12 selective colleges and universities (see report’s Footnote 17 for appropriate citation). So, if you want to scramble out of a low socioeconomic class your best bet is to go to a selective school. Doesn’t have to be one of the big 12, but it should be competitive enough to ensure the attention, resources, and support to succeed.

However, low-income students are less likely to apply to these schools. It’s a phenomenon called “undermatching.” High-achieving low-income students think that they won’t fit in at a highly selective school and then freak out when they see the price tag. Before anyone else sends a rejection letter, they’ve already told themselves NO.

If you’re a student and reading this, don’t let that be you! Don’t be the first person to tell yourself “no.” There’s enough stacked up, so why not be your own best advocate? If you go by sheer odds of statistics, even if you’re a high-achieving low-income student, a C-average high-income student is more likely to go to and complete college than you are.

Mercifully, I was terrible at statistics. And I wasn’t about to be inconvenienced out of an education. Especially not by a computer.

The same friend who had transcribed my QuestBridge application, then let me use her computer at home to finish my college applications. I applied to four Cal States and four UCs. Four of each system because that was the maximum amount of campuses you could apply to for free if your family was broke. My essays for the UC system took in the most revisions. I remember sitting at the computer in my friend’s house, palms sweating and hoping I didn’t click the wrong button and suddenly vaporize all my efforts. I finally reached the confirmation screen. With just two days before the end of November, just over a year since my family lost our home, I was finally done with my applications to the University of California.

I exhaled my relief. Then I realized I should probably tell my dad. He filed the night pass at the shelter so I could spend the night at my friend’s house and finish my apps. Turning to my friend, I asked, “Can I borrow your cell phone?”

The iPhone was already in its second generation, but I wouldn’t get my personal cell phone until I was 18 (flip-phone like Dad’s, mind you). We’d finally saved up enough to secure me a good three months on a basic monthly plan. I remember asking my father, “Do you think people will think it’s weird that we’re homeless people with cell phones?”

“Don’t be stupid,” he said. “Haven’t you noticed everyone at the Pound has them? They ain’t stupid. They know their families need these things.”

A laptop, a cell phone, a flash drive, a printer, and Internet access. These were all modern-day technological resources that I needed, and many (if not all) homeless folks need, to function. Think about. When was the last time you handed in a job application in person? Or didn’t use social media to further a professional connection? The online world is deeply integrated into our society. But for some reason other people forget that being homeless doesn’t mean you live in a different era. “You’re homeless, but you can afford a smart phone?” It’s slung like an insult. Technology seems to be yet another vestige of social divide, of class superiority over something so ubiquitous. “I have this, so you cannot.” To further marginalize poses no hope for reintegration or reestablishment into our system.

In addition to searching for work, smart phones are used to connect with resources. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t use a Google Map to navigate themselves around these days. Can you imagine what it must be like to try and find some of the smaller resources? Food pantries, shelters, counseling – there could be a wealth of support, and lack of technological resources means another barrier. And yes, there’s the leisurely scroll through the Facebook feed. And I would condone that. Why? Because, as one homeless individual observed, it makes you feel and look normal. Social media connects us with our friends, keeps us in the know. Social media is (a little ironically) humanizing. And sitting around and toggling through a phone is considered normal. Loitering tickets are issued to homeless folks to shuffle out of the area, get off the sidewalk. But having a phone makes you look busy. You’re not loitering, you’re texting! You’re checking email, making a call, playing Angry Birds. No one’s going to ticket you like a parked car for that. For homeless teens, having a cell phone, this connection to society, is valued as highly as food; about 62% of teens in homelessness own a cell phone.

Being homeless and without technological integration is another debilitation in a society that is so digitally connected. Being without technology while homeless and applying to college can almost assuredly keep you in your straits.

In a process that is already wrought with stress, I managed to apply to college while homeless and finish on time at that. But how much easier would the whole process have been if I’d only had something as simple as Internet? How many kids in positions similar to my own have and will have fallen through the cracks because they didn’t? How many people in homelessness could benefit from having updated resources in their lives? From feeling normal and included? For all the technological advancement in our society, when it comes to harnessing innovation for social welfare we’re stuck in the Dark Ages.

Thanks for reading! Thoughts are always appreciated. P2P updates every Monday.

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