While some independent students age out of foster care, others can be emancipated minors or classified as homeless. Most are financially responsible for themselves and do not receive the family support a majority of students find comfort in. This story is one of a three-part series aiming to bring attention to the independent student experience. The name in this story has been changed to protect the subject's identity.
In an emptied 35-ounce cheese ball container, she saved dollar bills and coins earned from tips at the local pizza joint. After her senior year, Martha Cortez brought the tub to the bank and cashed in her college fund — it was enough to cover her expenses at UT.
As soon as she turned 16, Martha got a job at McDonald’s to support her family financially. In high school, her single mother faced lingering effects of Martha’s abusive father and underwent multiple surgeries to treat gallstones, hernias and ovarian issues. Once, when Martha was in third grade, she came home to find her mother bleeding and trying to conceal a blackened eye, while her two brothers ran out of the house. Later, the police showed up and her father was arrested. Throughout the rest of Martha’s life, her father was incarcerated on multiple occasions and her family visited him periodically. Martha said she thinks her mother still wanted her children to have a father figure in their lives.
“Now I see what kind of person he is, so I’ve stopped talking to him altogether because I’m afraid of what he can do,” Martha said. “I think I just didn’t want to see him as a bad person. Maybe I didn’t want to believe it.”
Eventually, her mother missed so much work due to her hospitalizations that she lost her job. In order to pay for her surgeries and medical bills, Martha took on another position at a pizza restaurant nearby. But Martha’s funds weren’t enough.
They could no longer afford their home and had to give up many of their belongings, including their dog. Her older brother moved to Austin to attend UT and her younger brother went to live with a family friend. For a few weeks, she and her mother moved in with her mother’s boyfriend.
“I remember one day, I came home from work and my brothers were telling me I had to pack,” Martha said. “There were times before when we were going to lose the house and we didn’t, and it never really sunk in that we were actually losing it. I just remember everything got packed up really fast and everyone split.”
She and her mother woke up at 5 a.m. each day to commute to Martha’s high school. Had she transferred to a closer school, she would have lost her GPA, along with her chances of getting into UT.
But the commute wasn’t sustainable. Martha moved in with a family friend in order to finish her senior year at the same school, where she began applying for colleges and scholarships. It wasn’t until she was checking boxes on an application in her guidance counselor’s office that she realized her situation: She was homeless.
“That’s when it sunk in, that I really didn’t have a home,” Martha said.
Her counselor helped her become classified as an independent student, and when she got into UT, her tuition was waived and she was able to apply for
reduced-cost housing options off campus.
She said the first time she stepped onto campus, a huge weight was lifted off her shoulders. She had made it.
“I kind of wanted to get away,” Martha said. “My senior year, I was so worried about tomorrow and not really where I would be in a year. It was really exciting getting onto campus.”
Still, Martha needed an additional source of income, so she got a job on campus, where her paycheck went toward food and other
expenses. She also sends money to her mother for her medical bills and to pay for the storage unit where they keep their things.
Although she adapted to working 40 hours a week while going to school, Martha said things often get stressful during finals week or when she gets a call from her mother telling her she needs yet another surgery.
More than anything, Martha said she wishes people would be more understanding of her situation.
“A lot of people assume that you’re well off, even if you’re not,” Martha said. “I usually don’t talk about it because a lot of people don’t understand. I wish people would just listen.”
Today, Martha is studying abroad in Australia. This is her second time in the country, where she hopes to return after she graduates.
Martha said she isn’t exactly sure what is in store for her future, but she wants to get her Master’s degree and doctorate.
“Anything that sounds fun or that will be awesome, I’m on board all the time,” Martha said. “I might take a year or two off to figure out what I want to do. Since I’ve been abroad, I really like meeting new people and experiencing new cultures. I’m pretty much open to anything.”