Ema Mora’s school day starts at 5:30 p.m. As soon as she finishes her data-entry work at a company in Hartford, she hops in her gold 1998 Toyota and drives the backroads of the old Connecticut city to avoid rush-hour traffic and reach her school, Capital Community College.
Mora -- who was born in Lima, Peru, and moved to the U.S. when she was 10 -- is one of 1,800 students who attend the community college full time in an effort to make a better living for themselves. Like most of her classmates, she’s older than the average college student, at age 28. And like most of her classmates, she receives financial aid to help pay for her tuition. At Capital, 58 percent of students receive Pell Grants, which typically means they earn less than $40,000 a year. (In 2008, 46 percent of the student body was low-income.)
Community colleges and other schools that tend to serve poor populations have lower graduation rates compared with top public and private schools -- sometimes dramatically so. Just 7 percent of students graduate from Capital within three years, according to the U.S. Department of Education. (The two-year school says another 23 percent transfer.)
The odds are much better for students at Trinity College, an elite private school that shares the same hometown as Capital, but in terms of student services, money spent on education and physical appearance, it's worlds away. A recent examination of the learning divide in higher education by The Hechinger Report and The Huffington Post found it is increasingly difficult for low-income students to get into top colleges such as Trinity.
But Mora is determined to prove that statistics can be wrong. “It doesn’t have to be like that,” she told HuffPost while on a recent lunch break from her job. She said it is up to students to make the most of their studies and their life -- and stay focused on their dreams.
Mora said she rarely sees the sun. Her workday starts before sunrise and her classes -- she is majoring in communications -- end when stars are twinkling in the sky.
She’s optimistic her efforts will pay off. “I just have to suck it up and keep working and going to school until I’m done,” Mora said. “I am very grateful for the opportunity that I have.”
Next year, she said, she plans to transfer to a four-year college and pursue a degree in psychology and communications. Her dream is to attend Trinity, where she has already taken a few classes.
In the photo diary below from Dec. 15 and 16, Mora illustrates and narrates her typical day, juggling her responsibilities at work with classes at Capital, which is housed in a former department store. It is a routine made of empty corridors, artificially lit libraries and deserted parking lots.