Merisenda “Meri” Bills might appear like your typical college student. But behind her effortless smile is a 20-year-old struggling with family responsibilities and trying to make ends meet.
Meri is a junior at the University of Southern California majoring in broadcast journalism. She is the oldest of three children. Raised in Anaheim, California, she moved as a teen to the Bay area with her family.
Like other college students across the country, Meri is struggling to pay for college. Working 20 hours a week, maintaining an internship, being a full-time student, mentoring her younger brothers, and trying to manage a social life would make any person crumble. But Meri does it and more.
And that's despite the fact that both her parents recently got laid off.
Meri now has to support herself financially. And the stress of trying to pay for expenses almost forced her to dropout.
Yet something has kept her going.
That something was her dedication to her family.
Meri says that the sleepless nights were all worth it and advises students in a similar position to invest in their future.
Below, Meri talks with Youth Radio's Adam Perez.
YR: What has kept you going in the face of such challenges?
Meri: It would be pointless to give up now. Because I have already put so much into it. I’m just one of those people that once I start something I need to see it to the very end. And I want to be a role model for my brothers who also feel like that sometime, like what’s the point? Why should I do this? Even my little brother feels like that because he really wants to help out at home with my parents. He is trying to find a job but he’s 16 and no one is hiring. I just really try to be a role model, but it’s also for my personal betterment. I know to my parents it means a lot. To my mom especially, she has always stressed the importance of having an education because its one thing she never got to accomplish.
YR: What are some things you do to be a role model for your brothers?
Meri: When I go back home to visit my brothers are always asking what its like to be college, what classes they should to take, and how they should prepare. My little brother especially, he’s 16 going on 17, he’s going through the whole teenage experience with trying to fit in and find out who he is and what he wants to do. He feels the pressure. He feels like he needs to know everything already.
YR: What are some of the challenges you face juggling both school and work?
Meri: I remember, maybe, my spring semester when I was taking reporting for print and reporting for broadcast. There was so many obligations, time spent outside of class. I wanted to produce really good stories because these are my assignments, and my grades depended on my work. But at the same time I couldn’t take time off work because I need money to live. There were times I would get stressed out and freak out and be how am I going to go on with this. I feel like my first priority should be being a student, getting my work done and focusing on my grades. But there is also that huge nagging thing, but oh I need to make a living somehow because I need to pay for groceries.
YR: How did it feel when you learned you lost your financial aid?
Meri: It was kind of scary for a bit because I had talked to a lot friends and their aid was getting cut. Everyone thinks that whoever goes there [USC] must have a lot of money, but the reality is that a lot of people can only go there because of financial aid. And there were a lot of problems with the financial aid office itself. My actual financial aid was not told to me until, maybe, one or two weeks before school started. So the entire summer I was agonizing not knowing how much money I was going to get.
YR: What did you do?
Meri: Me and a friend of mine, we created this Facebook group called "USC Students Facing Financial Aid Uncertainty." We just lobbied for change. We kept writing letters to president Sample and the financial aid office asking them to let us know what is going on, to address the issues happening to us. And I think because we were so persistent in trying to get them to talked to us, to let us know, to no just leave us in the dark, that they were a lot more receptive and helped us out.
YR: What are your future plans?
Meri: I really want to go into online media. Journalism, but also combining that with social media of some sort. I want to be an independent freelance kind of person. I want to travel. I want to have travel to a lot of places by then. I want to have seen the world.
YR: Any advice for students in the same boat?
Meri: I think a lot of students get overwhelmed. They think, ”I’m going to have to take out loans, or my grades aren’t good enough.” They just make excuses. I think if you're making excuses, then you're not really helping yourself.