Stevani Flahaut’s university experience is not that of living on a picturesque campus, rubbing shoulders with classmates fresh out of high school.
The 27-year-old Austin Community College student, the aspiring restaurateur combines a full-time course load with two jobs. While community colleges are sometimes seen as the stepchildren of higher education, for nearly 700,000 Texans like Flahaut, they are bitterly fought professional springboards, an avenue for the aspirations of working parents or older students.
When the coronavirus pandemic struck, it was not only the education of these students that was turned upside down, but often their entire lives.
“Our students are not your average students,” said Jan McCauley, professor of political science at Tyler Junior College. “Most of them work. Many of them are parents. Now they are home and have to teach kids online.
Community college students often have a need for reliable child care and have regular jobs. As the new coronavirus spread, these schools didn’t just have to figure out how to offer virtual lessons. They rushed to support students like Flahaut when the threads of their lives began to unravel.
Many community colleges connect students with daycares or pantries, meeting needs beyond education, said Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Across the country, 42% of students who are parents enroll in community college, according to the Women’s Policy Research Institute.
McCauley said the pandemic has taken many of his students to one of two extremes: either scrambling because they lost their jobs, or working more hours than ever in health care or grocery stores. She adapted to the changing schedules of her students by recording her lessons and keeping an eye on her emails.
Flahaut lost almost all of the income from his two jobs when the hospitality industry shut down. But she still had rent to pay.
Austin Community College has a community-raised student emergency fund and $ 14 million from the federal coronavirus bill, and Flahaut received $ 2,100, enough to pay two months of rent. The school has sent money to over 2,000 students, President Richard Rhodes said.
“When the president sent the email saying that I would not be affected and that I could continue to take classes online, I felt relieved,” said Flahaut. “It made me feel safe.”
Online courses have pushed Joshua Ledesma to the brink. The electrical engineering student at Amarillo College said he tried to drop out of classes and wait for things to return to normal – going to his teachers after class and studying in the computer lab.
But since Ledesma, 23, of Dimmitt, had already paid for his classes, he struggled through the end of the semester, tapping into virtual tutoring, spending 10 minutes just sending the tutor the job he needed help with.
“I don’t have the luxury of being able to concentrate in my house,” said Ledesma. “It was really terrible for me.”
Pasquerella said the pandemic has had a “disparate negative effect” on community college students. And some of the vital resources offered by these schools might be less readily available.
Alvin Community College usually partners with the Houston Food Bank. Eligible students receive up to 60 pounds of produce, meat and other food every two weeks, said Christal Albrecht, president of the school. But that partnership has been put on hold as Texans flood food banks.
“We had our own pantry of dry goods,” Albrecht said. “We made two food distributions until we ran out of food. We refer them to other resources they could use to access food.
The pandemic has also exposed a disparity in internet access in rural Texas, said McCauley, a professor at Tyler Junior College. Proximity and affordability attracts many rural students to community colleges.
McCauley’s students often went to campus only to access the internet from Wi-Fi hotspots located in parking lots, she said. Even in urban areas like Austin and El Paso, not everyone has Internet access, and community college service areas often reach rural communities.
Since virtual education requires technology, Austin Community College has rushed to order iPads and laptops – 1,000 each – to put them in the hands of students, Rhodes said.
Statewide, at El Paso Community College, students collected school laptops. When that supply ran out, the school ordered 150 additional laptops for teachers and students, said William Serrata, president of the school.
Ledesma, the student at Amarillo Community College, was planning to transfer to West Texas A&M University this fall, although those plans are in full swing, he said. If schools stay online for the fall semester, Ledesma said he plans to take a break from his studies until he returns to teaching in-person.
But many community college presidents encourage students to prioritize their education during this time. Austin Community College isn’t raising tuition fees in the hopes that students won’t drop out, Rhodes said.
Albrecht from Alvin Community College agrees.
“We are going to be part of the solution for economic recovery throughout the state of Texas,” Albrecht said. “We can help people get back into the workforce. We are part of the solution. We are not part of the problem.
Disclosure: The Austin Community College District, Amarillo College, El Paso Community College, and West Texas A&M University have financially supported The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, non-partisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial support plays no role in the journalism of the Tribune. Find a full list of them here.