Katy Sorto, photographed at her home in August 2018.

Divided We Learn

Nine years to earn a degree: Was it worth it?

For Katy Sorto, college seemed like the way to a different life. But she had no idea how hard it would be.

This story was produced by APM Reports and reprinted with permission.

When Katy Sorto graduated from high school in 2008, many of her friends and family asked her the same question: How do you feel? “Like it’s something big,” Katy remembered. In some ways, it was a big deal. Katy, who grew up in New Carrollton, Maryland, a few miles outside of Washington, D.C., was the first person on her mom’s side of the family to finish high school. Lots of her friends had dropped out.

But Katy wasn’t satisfied. She knew she needed more than a high school diploma. “I want to go higher,” she said. “I have a dream.”

She’d nurtured that dream while working her night job cleaning offices at a law firm in D.C.

As she was emptying waste baskets, she’d notice the diplomas on the walls of the lawyers’ offices. Katy liked to imagine the lives they had. “They’re rich, they have money, they have beautiful offices, and I’ve been seeing pictures from their weddings, and it’s beautiful,” she said. “It’s just, it’s nice.” She wanted to have a life like that. To get it, she was going to go to college.

Back in 2008, I documented Katy’s first year at a community college in Maryland. She faced long odds. More than a third of community college students quit by the end of their first year. Just 15 percent complete a bachelor’s degree within six years — and the rates are even lower for black and Hispanic students. In 2018, I tracked Katy down to find out what had happened to her. This is her story.

The challenge

On her first day at the Takoma Park/Silver Spring campus of Montgomery College in September 2008, Katy was nervous. Luckily, her best friend from high school, Thalia Navarette, was with her. Katy and Thalia were both 18; neither of them thought they were ready for college. They said their high school teachers hadn’t expected much from them.

“They just let you sleep in class,” said Thalia. “They don’t teach you anything.”

Katy saw it a bit differently. “I didn’t pay attention,” she said. She regretted not trying harder.

Katy was headed to her first class. She’d been assigned to an English as a second language class based on the results of a placement test. It wouldn’t count for credit toward her degree, and she would have to take six more ESL classes before she could take college-level English.

Related: More Hispanics are going to college. The bad news? They’re still behind

Katy was born in the United States but moved to El Salvador with her parents before she started kindergarten. She returned to the States in middle school. And even though she went to American public schools for seven years, she ended up in the lowest-level ESL class at Montgomery College.

Katy Sorto with her son Elias, 2, in the yard of the home she and her partner recently bought in Laurel, Maryland.

Katy Sorto with her son Elias, 2, in the yard of the home she and her partner recently bought in Laurel, Maryland.

Her classmates in the ESL class were new arrivals to the United States. During a class break, I assumed Katy was going to tell me she’d been misplaced. She couldn’t possibly belong in an English class with people who’d recently arrived in this country.

But she didn’t. She thought the class was exactly right for her. “The people there is with the same condition as me,” she said. “I am not a good grammar girl.”

As we walked to the campus center for a snack, Katy noticed a maintenance worker emptying trash bins. “Buenos dias,” she called out. Then to me she said, “Somebody’s going to be doing that for me” someday.

“My God, I gotta work hard for that,” she added quietly.

‘People say we’re not going to make it’

By the middle of her first semester, Katy was still cleaning offices at night. And she was helping her mom out a lot, translating things, taking her younger siblings to appointments, going to their parent-teacher conferences. Katy has a younger sister and two younger brothers. She wanted them to do better in school than she did.

Katy was worried about money, too. She had financial aid but something had gone wrong with some paperwork, and she received a bill for $800. Plus, there were other costs associated with college that she hadn’t thought of — transportation and books. Katy lived with her parents. Her mom ran a home day care; her dad worked in construction. They couldn’t afford to help Katy with tuition.

“They just know I’m going to college and that’s it,” she said. “My dad feels like I can’t really do it. ‘Who’s giving you the money?’ That’s the worry, the money.”

Katy’s goal was to become a high school counselor. “I know that being a counselor doesn’t make much money,” she said. “But I have a desire to help my community.” She wanted to work with immigrant kids.

Katy planned to attend Montgomery College for two years, then transfer to a university for another two years to get a bachelor’s degree. But she soon realized that with all the ESL classes and some remedial classes she had to complete, it would take her a lot longer.

“I’m getting worried because I’m like starting from the bottom,” she said. “And I’m like 19 already, and I think that I’m not going finish until I’m like 25, 27.”

Her friend Thalia was feeling frustrated too. “You get your hopes up saying, ‘Wow, in two years I’m out, I can move on to another college,’ she said. “But it’s all a lie.” Almost every day, she felt like giving up. Katy felt that way too.

But Thalia and Katy said they couldn’t quit. They would look around at what their friends and cousins were doing — having babies, living in tiny apartments, working at fast food restaurants and dollar stores. Going to college was Katy and Thalia’s way to avoid that life.

Related: These formerly homeless single moms beat the odds and are now college grads

Katy Sorto outside the student center at Montgomery College in June 2008, a few days after her high school graduation.

Katy Sorto outside the student center at Montgomery College in June 2008, a few days after her high school graduation.

“Either you go to college and you do something or you stay home and you help your mom until your mom tells you, ‘OK, you got to leave,’ and then you have to go find a man and stay in like a little room, like a basement, and have their baby,” Thalia said.

“We don’t want that for us,” Thalia said. “We want something better. Even though people say we’re not going to make it.”

I interrupted. “Who says you’re not going to make it?”

“Family, friends,” they chimed in together.

“Everybody,” Katy said.

Refusing to give up

Katy was determined to get a degree. She made it through her first year by visiting her professors during office hours and getting extra help. She said her dad still didn’t really understand why she was in college, but her mom was now quietly rooting for her. “She’s proud,” Katy said. In fact, when Katy got a $700 bill from the college that financial aid didn’t cover, her mom offered to pay half. But they didn’t tell Katy’s dad. “As long as he doesn’t hear about the money, he’s okay with college,” Katy said.

“I think he’s proud of you. He just doesn’t say it,” Thalia said. “But deep inside, he’s really happy. I bet when you get your diploma, he’s going to cry.”

Katy rolled her eyes. “Oh man,” she said. “It’s going to be a long time for that.”

When I finished reporting on Katy’s story back in 2009, she was in her third semester of classes, still at least two and a half years from completing all the credits she needed for an associate degree. And she hadn’t even started taking the required math classes yet, a prospect that terrified her.

“I can try my best,” she said. “When I want to do something, I try. I’m going to try. I have to.”

Ten years later

When I caught up with Katy again in 2018, we arranged to meet in the campus center at Montgomery College. She wanted to stop by the English department office. Some of her favorite people were there, staff and professors she loves plus her younger sister, Kimberly, who was the student aide in the department — the same job Katy had when she was a student.

Katy Sorto and her friend Thalia Navarette on the first day of classes at Montgomery College, fall semester 2008.

Katy Sorto and her friend Thalia Navarette on the first day of classes at Montgomery College, fall semester 2008.

Katy was a student at Montgomery College for six years. “My parents used to ask me when it was going to be over?” It was finally over in the spring of 2014, when Katy graduated with an associate degree in general studies.

Why did it take Katy so long? One reason: She was determined to have no student debt, so she was often working two jobs and fitting in classes as she could. But a big reason it took six years is that Katy struggled academically. She failed several courses and had to take them again. Her teachers noticed, and some suggested she might have a learning disability.

A full evaluation for a learning disability can cost thousands of dollars. But faculty and staff at Montgomery College helped Katy find a nonprofit that would do the evaluation for free. “And I took the test and there it was,” she said. “I had a learning disability, and I honestly wished I had taken that test before.”

In her entire K-12 education, no one had suggested she be tested. It’s not uncommon for students from low-income families to get to college and not know they have a learning disability, said Brad Stewart, the provost of the Montgomery College Takoma Park/Silver Spring campus. “If you’re from an upper middle-class family, and you’re a third-grader and you’re not doing well in reading, one of the things your parents are going to do is, ‘Oh maybe he [has] ADHD, maybe he’s dyslexic,'” he said.

Those parents will push for their kids to get tested and pay for them to get help if necessary. Children from low-income families are more dependent on schools to identify and remediate learning issues. If schools don’t, those children fall further behind

By being diagnosed with a learning disability, Katy got support and more time on tests. College was still hard. She thought about quitting many times. “But you know, God had a plan for me,” she said. “Because he always put someone in my path to push me, to tell me the words I needed to hear.”

Katy had a strong support network at Montgomery College. “I had a lot of friends, and I got to know a lot of people here,” she said. “So I had a lot of people cheering for me, and I couldn’t give up.”

Lots of her classmates did give up, including her friend Thalia. Katy wouldn’t go into details, but she said it was taking too long, costing too much money. Thalia is a stay-at-home mom with a baby boy.

Katy and her partner have a son, too. Getting pregnant almost derailed Katy’s dream of getting a bachelor’s degree.  After graduating from Montgomery College in 2014, Katy transferred to the University of Maryland, Baltimore County to pursue a degree in social work. Near the end of her second year there, she found out she was pregnant.

“I told my mom, ‘I don’t think I’m going to be able to do this,’ and she said, ‘No, you have to finish. I’m going to be here to help you.'” Katy’s mom took care of the baby and, in May 2017 — at the age of 27, nine years after she started college — Katy completed a bachelor’s degree in social work. She didn’t say whether her dad cried at graduation, but he did take the entire day off from work to be there. And that was a huge deal, she said, because he almost never takes days off.

The next generation

Katy Sorto lives in Laurel, Maryland, with her partner and their son, Elias, 2. Sorto finished community college and went on to receive a bachelor's degree in social work from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Katy Sorto lives in Laurel, Maryland, with her partner and their son, Elias, 2. Sorto finished community college and went on to receive a bachelor’s degree in social work from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Katy is a stay-at-home mom now. Finishing college with an infant was so stressful and exhausting that once she was done, she needed some time to relax and be with her son.

Fortunately, her partner makes a good living — he owns a home remodeling business — and he and Katy recently bought a house. She doesn’t have to work, but she wants to. She’s still hoping to be a school counselor someday. But like a lot of women who can afford to stay home when their kids are little, Katy’s feeling a bit lost about how to get back into the workforce.

“It’s not possible that I’m going to stay home forever,” she said. “I have to do something with the gift you gave me.” The ‘you’ she was referring to was God. “I’m pretty sure you didn’t push me this far with my education, knowing that I hated writing papers and the math, and not do anything with it, you know?”

Ten years ago, when Katy was cleaning those offices at night in D.C., she was dreaming of moving up, making more money than her parents, doing better.

She’s in a better financial situation now. But it’s not because of her college degree; it’s because of her partner’s successful business, and he doesn’t have a degree. And for all her youthful longing for a different life, she looks back now on her own childhood and realizes she had it all. Her family didn’t have a lot of money, but her life was good. “Maybe I just ate beans and rice and eggs all week long, but I still had food on my plate,” she said.  “And I had a loving family.”

Though she’s not currently using her degree, she doesn’t regret the years she spent in college. In fact, one of the things she learned is how important it is for children to get a good education starting young. Her little boy is 2, and she is already thinking about where he’ll go to kindergarten. She said she plans on having just one child so if she has to pay for her son to get tutoring or go to a private school, she can.

“I hope he doesn’t have the difficulties I had in school,” she said. “But I’m gonna try my best to give him the best education I can so in the future we don’t say, ‘Oh we didn’t give him the best.’ Or, ‘What did we do wrong?'”

She wants her son to go to college if that’s what he wants. But if he wants to skip college and take over his dad’s business, that’s fine with her, too.

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