September 9, 2009

Camping Out: Economy Renders Student Homeless

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Zach Biegun ’11 is not your typical Cornell student. He does not really like to drink or go out. He is 24 years old. He postponed college for three and a half years to pursue his passion in ballet. He is the 12th person in his family to attend Cornell: His sister majored in anthropology, his brother in mechanical engineering, his mother in art history and his grandfather in animal food science. He works two jobs, as a yoga instructor in Helen Newman and as an Emergency Medical Technician in Boston on weekends. Oh, and he’s homeless.[img_assist|nid=37911|title=No direction home|desc=Zachary Biegun ’11 stands outside his tent where he often sleeps this semester. On Monday night he camped out behind the Africana Center.|link=node|align=left|width=336|height=224]
The sticker price of a college education is over $150,000. The sacrifice to attend college, however, varies for every student. For some, it is being away from home for the first time. For others, it is saying goodbye to childhood friends. For many, it is foregoing high-paying jobs and replacing them with crippling loans. For Biegun, it is sleeping in the library, on a friend’s couch, or in his tent — at least for a semester.
When Biegun first came to Cornell at the age of 19, he was “miserable.” As a freshman with an undeclared major in the College of Arts and Sciences, he “had no idea what [he] was doing.” After finding Cornell’s ballet program deficient, Biegun left in the spring semester of his freshman year to follow his dream of becoming a dancer. When his old ankle injury resurfaced, however, he was unable to further pursue his career in ballet.
“I’ve had several surgeries, but it just wouldn’t hold up anymore,” Biegun said.
After hanging up his ballet slippers, Biegun worked as an EMT for two years. It was there, he said, he realized that he wanted to complete a college education.
“For me, it’s not about the diploma,” he said. “When I worked as an EMT, I worked alongside people who went to college as well as people who didn’t. Everyone was making around the same amount of money. Money wasn’t a problem for me. I was making $50,000 a year. But I found that even these people with the same jobs, life was just less stressful for the people who had received college educations. Their decision-making processes were a lot more rational. Four years of thinking and learning changes how you interact with the whole world. Coming back to Cornell is more about getting the education and growing as a person.”
Although Biegun returned to Ithaca last year with a newfound sense of purpose, his financial situation had taken a turn for the worse. While his grandmother’s pension funded his private high school education at The Commonwealth School in Boston, the recent financial crisis reduced his grandmother’s fund by 40 percent. Biegun’s mother needs the remainder of the money to support herself.
“The pension fund is for my mom to live,” Biegun said.
While Biegun is now financially independent from his parents according to the Department of Education’s office of Federal Student Aid, because Biegun began college at the age of 19 he is still considered a dependent. Thus, FASFA takes into account Biegun’s parents’ financial situation when considering Biegun’s eligibility for aid.
“I appealed Cornell so now they consider me independent from my parents but FASFA still doesn’t,” Biegun said. “My dad retired this past year and got a pension. This is money that he needs to live but FASFA thinks that he can give me $16,000 that he doesn’t have.”
Thus, Biegun’s living situation is a precarious one. On most nights, Biegun said he pitches his tent near Cayuga Heights. Some nights he pushes two chairs together in the cocktail lounge of Uris, the only 24-hour library on campus. When the weather is nice, he sleeps out on the Slope.
“No one has told me to move yet,” Biegun said. “I usually don’t pick the obvious locations. The Arts Quad would be too obvious and it also has sprinklers at night.”
As for his other belongings, Biegun has strategically placed them around campus. As a Fiber Science and Apparel Design major, Biegun has two cubbies in Martha Van Renssalear Hall where he keeps his schoolbooks; and as a yoga instructor in Helen Newman, Biegun has a basket for his toiletries.
“I don’t really mind,” Biegun said. “I would like a kitchen because I really enjoy cooking. But college life is all over the place anyway. I’m in class and in the library. My tent is just where I sleep. It is a big sacrifice but it doesn’t feel like a big sacrifice.”
To help himself cope with his stressful living situation, Biegun turns to yoga.
“If I didn’t do a lot of yoga, being homeless would bother me more,” Biegun said. “Yoga helps me focus on what I care about and what I need. It would be nice to have an apartment, but I’m fine without one.”
Besides working as a yoga instructor on campus, Biegun drives to Boston every weekend to work as an EMT. Only in Boston can Biegun sleep on the clock and earn pay for 24 hours, working from midnight to 8 a.m. on Saturday — taking a break from 8 p.m. to 4 p.m. — and from 4 p.m. to 8 a.m. on Sunday.
“I’m able to work overnight, sleep and do work during the day. … I couldn’t find a job in Ithaca worth it,” Biegun said.
While Biegun makes great sacrifices to be a Cornell student, he does not see the system of higher education as unfair or unjust. He understands that “if you want a really good education, you have to pay.”
What Biegun does see as “ridiculous” is that he was able to receive a loan for a $2,000 MacBook Pro but not for an apartment.
“Since the MacBook has to do with my education, I can get a loan for it, but they won’t give me the same loan for a place to stay,” Biegun said. “I was thinking of returning the computer and taking the money but then my finances would be the least of my worries.”
As for Biegun’s family, he says that they are very supportive.
“My sister was the one who suggested the idea. She told me I should just live in Uris,” Biegun said. “My mom is always interested to know where I slept last night.”
In spite of his struggles, Biegun remembers why he is making such sacrifices to remain at Cornell University, one of the world’s leading institutions of higher education.
“It’s all about how much you’re willing to sacrifice for it.”