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Car Eases Road To A Degree For San Diego Teen

Evening Edition

Above: Thousands of people in San Diego County are working and going to school, hoping that pursuing higher education will pay off in the future. KPBS education reporter Kyla Calvert brings us the story of one such student, whose particularly tough road to a degree just got easier.

— It’s 6:30 in the morning and Jorge Palacios is already rushing. He can’t miss the bus pulling away from the curb at 37th Street and University Avenue in San Diego’s Mid-City area. He jogs up to the bus door and taps on it just as the bus is starting to move.

Aired 2/26/13 on KPBS News.

Thousands of people in San Diego County are working and going to school, hoping that pursuing higher education will pay off in the future. One student's road to a degree just got a little easier.

Jorge Palacios beams as he looks gets his first looks at his new car at Caliber Collision in Kearny Mesa, Feb. 22, 2013,

The door opens and he hops in, greeting the driver with a, "thank you, sir."

This is only the first of a three-leg journey Palacios takes to get to class at Southwestern Community College four days a week.

This bus takes him to the trolley stop at C and 12th Streets downtown. He rides the trolley south to Chula Vista, where he catches a crowded express bus to campus.

If everything works out just right, the trip can take just 45 minutes. Some days it lasts an hour and a half. His daily travel time got longer this semester because he couldn't get into classes on Southwestern's National City campus.

Today he has time to stroll, not sprint to his 8 a.m. math class.

Palacios has a clear idea of where he hopes his long commutes are taking him.

“Right now I’m trying to get my associate’s – EMT, Paramedic," he says. "I was thinking about, maybe later on, pursuing a career in medicine.”

He'd like to go to medical school, he says, and study public health.

Today is one of the easy days. Palacios only has one class. Some days he has two and a shift to work at SmashBurger in Hazard Center, which can be a two hour bus and trolley trip away.

“I have to like literally run from here to my classroom to the bus station," he says. "Sometimes the bus is there, sometimes not. Even though if you check the schedules and everything -- it can just change. Then [I'm there] sometimes from 12 to 8 and then get back home. But usually I work from 6 to 11 -- to closing.”

Another long ride home means Palacios often doesn’t finish his day until 12:30 or 1 a.m.

But if he achieves his goals it will be in spite of much more than a daunting commute. Palacios moved to the United States from Mexico with his mother, father and brother four years ago. In 2010 his father passed away and the stress and grief of his passing eventually tore apart Palacios’ relationships with his mother and brother.

“It ended up one day with me, I remember I was on Fairmount Avenue and University with my guitar case, but I filled it up with clothes," he says. "I was just on the corner. ‘What am I supposed to do now? What should I do? Where do I go?'”

He was a junior in high school and he was homeless. He spent that night in a park and after that relied on friends and teachers for support.

“I was one, two, three days here, another day there. I was living, like, day by day,” he says.

Aside from a stint staying with an aunt, living day to day is how Palacios has spent much of the last two and a half years. But – he says having hope is the only way to weather his situation.

“I always have this mentality of ‘it could be worse’ and also ‘my situation can improve’ so, that always keeps me going.”

And his situation is improving. He is now staying with a friend permanently. He says the cheapest studios he has seen rent for $600 to $700 a month - roughly what he earns each month working in the kitchen at SmashBurger but he hopes to save up enough for the first few months' rent in a place of his own.

And his days of anxiously anticipating when the next bus or trolley might come are also coming to an end.

The San Diego Unified School District has a team of traveling teachers who work with homeless students. The district is serving about 4,100 students who are or have been homeless this school year. The teachers focus their efforts especially on students who are homeless and on their own like Palacios was during his last years at Hoover High School.

Thanks to those teachers, Palacios was chosen to get a car through a National Auto Body Council program called Recycled Rides.

As a silver Mazda 6 station wagon pulls out of the garage at the car unveiling a few days later, it is clear Palacios’ story has struck a chord with the technicians and staff who donated time and their own money to get the car ready.

“How could we not do this?" says Michael Quinn, head of community relations for Caliber Collision. "I mean – this young man’s persevering and just really pushing past all the barriers and this one gift will help him.”

Caliber gives away one or two cars a month through the Recycled Rides program, Quinn says, but the staff often don’t feel like the car is enough.

“There’s a lot of associates, a lot of these team members that kicked in money, that reached in their pocket for $20,” he says.

Those personal donations added up to gift cards, cash and a laptop that Palacios finds when he opens the car’s trunk. Without a computer of his own, Palacios has had to go to the library every time he needed to use the internet.

But when Palacios takes the car for a test drive, he’s more impressed by the people than the gifts they’ve given him.

“It’s pretty awesome just to meet all of these people that were helping me out a lot and I didn’t even know what their faces looked like,” he says.

The car will save him time, which Palacios says he’ll use to pick up one or two more courses in coming semesters. That could cut a year or more off his time to an associate’s degree. He says he'll feel safer driving than waiting on the trolley platform at midnight after a closing shift. But it means even more to him.

“It’s like a sign saying that I’m doing things right and that I should keep on going,” he says.

Now he’ll just be getting there faster.

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