Who else remembers the days of cramped dormitory rooms and shared bathrooms that were generally key introductory fixtures to the college experience?
If it’s not the living quarters that entertain your memory, then maybe it’s the long hours of studying and completing assignments. Or perhaps, the recollection of various parties and other social engagements occupy that space.
The monetary burden of educational fees, housing, food, clothing and essential supplies can sometimes be too much for any student, especially in the absence of parental assistance.
Financial aid only goes so far. At best a student might luck upon obtaining work study or get a job on campus at some institutional facility, such as the cafeteria or library.
Those who are not so lucky find jobs off-campus at places like McDonalds or Waffle House. That’s only if they have extra time to put down a book and pick up a uniform.
Author Cal Lewis not only understands and empathizes with the financial and educational pressures of college students but not too long ago he was in a similar position.
While attempting to alleviate his financial burden as a graduate student, Lewis committed a criminal offense. After serving five years in a federal prison, he’s fortunate to be able to pick up where he left off.
Today, Lewis is continuing his education by pursuing an MBA and further exploring his newfound passion for writing. He recently released his first book, “Maxed Out,” a novel that tells the story of two young African American college students who are expecting a child.
Ramses and Anita have decided to take a temporary leave of absences from school to prepare for their baby’s arrival. To provide a better life for his family, Ramses decides that he wants to move to the suburbs.
Low on funds, his devotion drives him to seek the use of illegal activities as the solution to his problems. To obtain his objectives, he’s determined to pull off the biggest heist that’s never been done.
Though not directly parallel to Lewis’s life, the plot of “Maxed Out” is loosely based on his journey.
What is most consistent between the two is the theme of young college students getting hit by life and choosing the wrong method to deal with their problems. Also, the destitute of these students is a reality that is prevalent among a lot of postsecondary scholars.
Lewis’s own journey down the rabbit hole starts off with him graduating from Morehouse College with a degree in psychology.
Afterwards, he enrolled himself into a five-year graduate program at the University of Georgia, where he received a full ride scholarship to acquire a Ph.D. in industrial organization.
As a Black male graduate student in a predominately white institution, Lewis said he found himself in a different type of imprisonment before he was ever hauled off to a federal cell.
He considered himself an inmate in the University System of Georgia, confined to UGA, with a daily routine that included studying, research, labs and participating in social engagements that required him to network on behalf of the institution.
As an African American graduate student, he was the unofficial representation for all collegiate Blacks.
Meanwhile, his graduate program required him to undergo frequent evaluations. Through a ranked system, they accessed his intelligence, ability, and dedication.
Assessed against his fellow classmates, a poor rank could cost him his place in the program.
African Americans make up approximately 11-14 percent of the total American collegiate population. A report released by the United States Department of Education shows that they earn approximately 10 percent of all four-year degrees and 10 percent of all Master’s degrees. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, only 38 percent of African American college students receive their degrees within six years; the percentage is lower for males.
Even with a college degree, African Americans are more likely to earn less money and become unemployed compared to their Caucasian counterparts.
While Cal was a graduate student, he survived in graduate housing, eating ramen noodles and unable to have a car. He was so broke that he didn’t even have enough money to travel home for the holidays. That’s a little over an hour by car for the trip from Athens, GA to Atlanta.
In addition to being broke, he also slipped into a depression. Though his family, friends, and acquaintances showered him with praises for the possibilities that his education would afford him, he didn’t see things in the same way.
What he saw were people his age able to earn wages and start living. While he was stuck in cramp spaces with his head in a book or glued to a computer screen, they were out exploring the world and fulfilling desires.
Cal’s psychology degree from Morehouse would’ve allowed him to demand a starting salary of $30,000-$60,000. Though realistically, it’s just as likely that he would’ve found himself unemployed since he graduated from Morehouse not too long after the 18-month recession that began in 2008.
During that time, many graduating college students entered the job market with very limited options. Most became underemployed, taking on positions just to receive some type of income to survive.
Eventually, he took up alcohol as a form of self-medication and in doing so, allowed his mind to escape his control. In 2011, Cal was sentenced to 70 months (five years and ten months) for device fraud and identity theft, i.e. credit card fraud. With no prior history of criminal activity, his first ever offense was enough to enter him into the federal prison system.
Using his experiences, Cal has decided to champion the discussion of the postsecondary experience for African Americans. His novel serves as a catalyst more of these types of conversations to take place. The reality is that aside from finances, there are issues that sometimes threaten the success of these students.
Often times the conversation leans more toward police brutality and incarceration statistics, but where in all that chatter do we talk about the men and women who are fighting to better themselves and advance our community through the pursuit of a quality education?
Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) are notorious for providing support and empowerment to their students. However, what happens when an African American student decides to attend a PWI; or in Cal’s case continue their education with one of these institutions?
Even while attending an HBCU, these students can find themselves overwhelmed, by non-academic issues that can affect their educational experience.
We also have to remember that despite being 18 or older, college students are barely adults. Most are venturing out and learning how the real world works for the first time. Unassisted, one wrong choice can cost them everything that they’ve worked towards. Inability to perform is not the reason why more than half of African American college students don’t receive their degrees.
Fortunately, Cal is using his second chance to open a discussion that prevents others who are now in similar situations from messing up their first and only chance.
Through his work, he is providing familiar stories that are recognizable but virtually untold. For instance, what college student hasn’t experienced or known someone who has unexpectedly lost their financial aid. The battle of stocking the Financial Aid Office to sort out a misunderstanding and find a resolution is a common issue in colleges. However, it is rarely discussed outside of a circle of friends or cohorts.
It takes more than one empathetic professor, providing a listening ear and some advice to keep a wayward student on track. At least now we can start laying the issues out on the table and discussing them, instead of sweeping them under the futon.
Cal Lewis’ debut novel, “Maxed Out,” was released on Dec. 9 and is available for purchase on Amazon.com. He can be reached online on www.calwrites.com or @callewisatl on all social media platforms.