Lots of students work during high school. But what happens when they support an entire family? Some teens burn out — but many catch fire
Aldo Ayala rises at 5 every morning. The Desert Oasis High School senior washes his face and brushes his teeth before rousing his little brother Alex to get ready for school.
If his parents are working, Ayala makes scrambled eggs for himself and his brother, and then he packs their lunches. After cramming in some extra homework to keep up his 3.75 grade point average, he stuffs his books into his backpack, as well as the uniform for his full-time job at Albertsons. Then it’s off to Desert Oasis High School for another whirlwind day of classes, some cramming here and there, and strategically scheduled naps.
“I try to see how I can orient my day to get more homework done during other classes and catch sleep where I can,” he explains. “I get about five or six hours on a normal day and, on the weekends, I can get six or seven hours of sleep. There’s not enough time with work and school. But it’s not bad for me. I’m working for the payoff later.”
Ayala is nothing like the stereotypical teen snoozing his life away or killing endless hours in front of the XBox. Ayala, the son of Cuban immigrants, attends school, works full-time, helps take care of his brother, and is one of the emotional and financial pillars of his family. He’s a teen breadwinner.
The high school or college job is practically an institution, a rite of passage, in America — the summer spent flipping burgers, the after-school gig cashiering at the mall. According to one joint survey by Citigroup and Seventeen magazine, four out of five students in the U.S. work at least part-time through school. That’s a good thing, mostly. According to the Child Trends DataBank, working part-time during school can teach responsibility, time and money management, and help teens develop real-world skills. But when work becomes a full-time grind, things go south: Also according to Child Trends, students who work more than 20 hours a week may bring home lower GPAs and be more likely to drop out than students working fewer hours. Some studies show that these full-timers tend to be minority and disadvantaged students.
And yet there’s a subset of students — ones perhaps not reflected by such statistics — who work full-time not to save up for the latest iPhone or PlayStation, or even necessarily just for college, but in order to bring home a paycheck for their families. In turn, their families and schools offer what support they can, whether it’s through a sense of generational connection or programs designed to ease the burden. These student workers live intense — and sometimes lonely and numbingly routine — lives, but their stories also suggest that they derive a deep satisfaction and pride from working to support their families and to clear a path to college.
Aldo’s parents, Aldo Sr. and Janet Ayala, don’t speak fluent English, but through Aldo, they say, “We are proud first for (him) being our son, and second for being a son who is responsible, caring, scholarly, family-oriented, optimistic, mature, and someone who is learning to make good choices in life.”
Says young Ayala: “I have to work to help my family, but it’s also good for my future. ... I try to be the best at all my classes because I write my own destiny. I am the only person who can create a good life for me and for my future family.”
‘You want to help them’
Ayala is not a rarity at his school, and the administration knows it. The staff at Desert Oasis High School in Enterprise realized they had a large group of students from low-income families who were on the path to college — all while working full- or part-time jobs. The Desert Oasis staff started an ACT boot camp to prepare these students for the college prep test. Students paid a fee and spent 20 hours studying for the ACT over three days.
“It cost them money and time, and they came on Friday night and Saturday and Sunday day,” says Sean Abid, a counselor at Desert Oasis High School. “We see kids this ambitious, and you want to help them.” Desert Oasis has 550 seniors, half of whom come from low-income families, and Abid hopes to get a majority of them through the ACT boot camp by graduation. “These kids really appreciate what we can offer, the boot camps and the support. They can see it. They can see their future will be brighter and they are hungry for it.”
One of Abid’s students, Noriya Bragg, was bringing down Cs and Ds in her first few years of high school.
“We see that a lot,” Abid says. “You can see them catch fire in about their junior year and see the growth in their desire to make a better life for themselves and their families. They know that college is a way to better their lives, and their families’ lives. It’s just amazing the hoops they have to jump through to get there.”
As Bragg tells it, the need to support her family, the desire to excel at school and the dream of a college career weren’t competing demands — rather, they were inextricable. Her family had moved from Compton, California to Las Vegas when she was just starting school, to give their daughter a better life.
“I have two hardworking parents,” she says. Their struggles to keep their family afloat made her realize she could do more to help. “I really want to inspire the younger generations in my family to work hard in school and really push themselves to be the best they can be.” She hopes to attend University of Nevada, Reno to study to be an equine veterinarian.
But it’s not all dreams and inspiration. Creating a balance between work and studying has created some tension in her friendships, forcing her to consider her choices carefully.
“I’ve had to learn how to manage being a good student as well as being able to work, so it can get pretty hard at times,” says Bragg, who works the counter at a southwest area Taco Bell. “I feel like with hard work, nothing is really impossible, so I try my hardest to stay motivated and know that it will all pay off.”
Her support network at school has helped when she’s felt overwhelmed and on the verge of burnout. “I find myself getting distracted sometimes or losing track of what I’m supposed to be doing, as any teenager would at times, and then when I go to school, my teachers and counselor motivate me to stay focused and really keep me focused.”
Friday night lights out
But Bragg does sometimes think about missing out on typical teenage adventures: a Friday night football game, or a lazy Saturday afternoon hanging out with friends. A typical Friday night for her? Spent on a shift at Taco Bell or catching up on studies — and, of course, sleep.
“I don’t really have time to hang out with my friends or even family as much as I’d like, but they’re all pretty understanding about it.” Her parents worry she may be overdoing it at times, but they’re also the reason she continues to work so hard. “Not only do I want to go to school to be able to achieve my goals, but it’d mean a lot to me if I could make my mother and father proud, so ultimately they are my biggest inspiration,” she says. “School is important to me because I feel like it helps to prepare us for the real world and responsibilities, and any adversity we may face as adults.”
Sometimes, that adversity is more than the garden-variety hassles of adult life — traffic jams, annoying work colleagues. After a car accident left her hardworking mother bedridden, Luz Diaz-Ontiveros walked to her neighborhood McDonald’s and asked for a job application. At 15, Diaz-Ontiveros became a financial pillar in her family — and when construction work for her father was slow, she was the household’s sole supporter. At the time, she was a student at Sunrise Mountain High School.
“My mother is not from here and she doesn’t have the (skills) for a very high-paying job,” Diaz-Ontiveros explains. “My dad is in construction and we sometimes scrape by. After her accident, she couldn’t do the physically strenuous jobs she could before. That really hurt us.” With a younger sister at home, Diaz-Ontiveros felt a responsibility to add to the family’s finances. “When you reflect on your childhood, and I had a good one, and I knew if I worked, my little sister could have the kind of childhood I had that my parents could no longer (provide), for now.”
Sleep was in short supply that year, she said, but she kept her eyes on the future. “I knew work would teach me responsibility, how to manage my time and that McDonald’s had some scholarships and cared about kids going to school while they worked,” says Diaz-Ontiveros, who recently won a Ronald McDonald House Charities scholarship.
Managing her time meant giving up TV most nights and surfing online for hours after school with her friends. Instead, she rises early to fit in any homework she was too exhausted to complete the night before. She makes sure she has a clean uniform before taking the bus to school, which is another opportunity to brush up on her favorite school subjects, such as government.
Her mother’s back surgeries resulting from her car accident had a silver lining. “I would study when I would go with her to appointments, and I’d see how much the nurses and doctors helped her, helped other patients.” She began fitting volunteer work at Valley Hospital into her tight schedule, and is planning on studying to become an orthopedic surgeon.
“When my mom got her surgeries, I was there every step of the way,” Diaz-Ontiveros says. “When she has to do it again, hopefully I can do it for her as she ages and needs cartilage replaced.” Now 18 and out of high school, she has no regrets. “Because I sacrificed, because I worked hard for my family, I will have a better life.”
‘It’s going to be worth it’
Sacrifice is a common theme among these teen breadwinners. Mariana Dominguez, a recent Western High School student and another Ronald McDonald House Charities scholarship winner, started working her junior year in high school so she could afford school trips and athletic equipment. But some of that money she earned working the counter at a neighborhood Popeye’s went to the family bank account for bills and groceries. “My family would have random financial problems,” she says. “I didn’t mind helping out.” She dropped wrestling training so she could work more hours. Now in her first year at UNLV as a business major, Dominguez still works — in a juice bar at a gym where she can get a discount membership — and saves money by buying used books from friends.
“I’m still working hard for the rest of it, for all I need to do to go to college, but I know it’s going to be worth it,” she says. “That’s what working at a young age and being responsible for helping my family taught me.” Not that there’s any added pressure as the first in the family to go to college. “It was really overwhelming since no one in my family ever went to college,” she says. “I had so much support from my teachers and I’m so grateful for that.”
But looking back, college life seems easy compared to her high school career, where she juggled classes, a voracious interest in sports — running, swimming, wrestling — and worked more than 25 hours a week.
“My junior year was extremely stressful,” she says. “I don’t know how I kept going. I was so tired. A big part of it was wanting to do better and having people around me who wanted to do better. We were all working for the same thing.” She surrounded herself with students who were on the same path — and, yes, dropped a few friends who didn’t share her goals. Leaning on friends and her parents helped with the stress, and knowing that even if she may get testy, as any teenager does, she could depend on them to understand.
“I learned to manage my stress and move forward,” she says. “I wouldn’t have that if I didn’t work so hard.”
Family ties, family time
Managing stress is one of the hardest parts of juggling the roles of full-time employee, student and teenager. Part of the secret: knowing you’re not a super-hero. “There are times where I have been stressed out, had to cut my hours because my education is everything, but you can see how much it’s worth it,” says Nicole Webb, currently studying communications at UNLV on a McDonald’s scholarship. “I learned responsibility quickly and had a (network) of people who cared about education.”
And often, at those stressed-out breaking points is where one of the biggest pressures turns into one of the biggest assets: family.
“Having support for these kids, many of whom are the first to go to college in their families, makes the difference of if they go to college or not,” says Desert Oasis counselor Abid. “I give these kids credit because it’s a lot of work, and many don’t have that support at home that can help them get through the process.”
“You have to surround yourself with people who are trying to do the same as you, better themselves,” Desert Oasis student Ayala says. “It can be tough.”
After a 25-minute bus ride home from school — and after working an hour at his brother’s middle school, where, fittingly, he helps students with college prep — Ayala gets home for an early dinner with his family.
“We eat, we talk at the table, and that keeps me going.” That shot of family time is enough to get him to work by 4 p.m., feeling rested. At 9 p.m., he returns home to finish homework, and it’s lights out no later than 11 p.m.
“I know I do a lot for my family, maybe more than most teenagers,” he says. “I don’t know anymore when I get to be a kid. But it’s necessary, for now, to do what I’m doing for my family and for me to prepare myself for college. All this is helping me train for my career in medicine.”
Ayala hopes to attend University of Central Florida and possibly return to his home country of Cuba. Until then, he plans to attend UNLV on some well-deserved scholarships.
“I’m exhausted, but there will be time to sleep later. I have more in my life because I have goals and I have ambition. I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished as a teenager.”