Her parents, immigrants from El Salvador and Guatemala, always told her that a college degree was the key to a better life. But in 2009, when Aura Perez, now 25, graduated from the University of California, San Diego, that no longer seemed the case. Aura majored in human development, planning to pursue a career as a preschool teacher. After graduation, she moved back in with her parents in Los Angeles, where the only job she could find was as a cashier at Kohl’s. She took it because, like so many of her peers, Aura graduated with substantial debt, and she was determined to meet her obligations. “My deferment on my college loans was about to end, and I needed to start making payments,” she says.
Between shifts on the cash register, Aura continued to hunt for more rewarding work, and after six months, she found a job at a tutoring center. Finally, in March 2011, after nearly two years of searching, she landed exactly what she was looking for, a position teaching at a nonprofit preschool in Encino. Still living at home, Aura is also working toward her master’s degree in early childhood education at California State University, Northridge, adding to a loan debt that now totals $24,000. “It was always in the back of my mind to go to grad school,” says Aura, who values education above all. “During breaks at Kohl’s, I would study for the GRE.”
A professor at Northridge has encouraged Aura to pursue a PhD. “I was shocked that she saw that in me,” Aura says. “It was always a goal of mine, secretly. I didn’t want to tell anybody.” But, Aura says, “if she sees the potential in me, then I think I can really go for it.” Ten years from now, she says, “I see myself as a professor. I see myself as being completely financially independent from my parents. I will be able to afford to live in my own apartment. I also see myself helping out my parents financially, instead of being a burden.”