As many students are getting ready to go out on Friday nights, Zach Wright is just arriving to his closing shift at the Carson dining hall. As he works, Zach overhears two of his coworkers worrying whether their parents were going to cut them off financially, leaving them to pay for their own education. Zach stops for a moment, realizing that this would never be a worry for him.

He is already on his own.

A sophomore UO student, Zach is one of many financially independent students juggling the rising costs of tuition and rent as he pursues his degree. Zach is a first-generation student, meaning that neither of his parents went to college. Zach always knew that if he wanted to continue in school, he would be paying for it by himself.

“There was no question,” Zach said. “There was no slim chance that my mom would be able to even put in anything.”

Originally from Gresham, Oregon, Zach attended Gresham Union High School and worked at the same tape and label company his grandmother works at during the summers.

Looking back, Zach is grateful he did not have to pay for much on his own in high school.

“Luckily, I had my mom help me through and I had free and reduced lunch, so a lot of the things in high school didn't cost a dime,” Zach said.

During his sophomore year, his father left, his parents divorced and his mother struggled to make ends meet without a job. His father had been the only source of income for the family – Zach’s mother had to “just figure it out.”

Zach’s mother searched for employment for a year after the divorce while Zach took care of his little sister, walking her to school and helping her get ready in the morning. Zach and his family received aid and food stamps for a period of time, and a family friend helped them pay rent.

“It was a lot of yelling between me and my mom about like what was going to happen, how we were going to spend the food money,” Zach said.

About a year after the divorce, Zach’s mother found a job as a medical biller at Providence Hospital. Zach and his family were thrilled - but with this job his mother was unable to qualify for food stamps. And she still did not make enough to cover their expenses.

“It was like two steps forward and one step back,” Zach said.

As his home life became more stressful, Zach withdrew from his family and friends.

“I became indifferent, just because I was resentful and angry,” Zach said. Zach still struggles with guilt over that time of his life, wishing he had worked or found a way to help his mother pay their bills.

“Watching her struggle was really hard, and I felt like I couldn't do anything because I was 14,” Zach said.

Instead of working, Zach focused on academics and extracurricular activities like choir and musical theatre, finding that they helped him prepare for his college applications as well as distracted him from his troubles at home.

“I had to grow up really quickly and it was just a lot of stress that I had to numb myself to,” Zach said.

The worst part, Zach said, was keeping his struggle to himself during school and away from his friends.

“Having all this stuff happen, and because we're in high school, that person doesn't want to hear it,” Zach said. “The lowest point was just having to deal with keeping this to myself so that people wouldn't back away from me.”

“I didn't want to burden them with what I was going through.”

Despite the stress of his home life, Zach excelled academically and applied early decision to the University of Oregon. He considered applying to UCLA but knew that it would be easier financially to attend UO. Because of his success in high school, he was awarded multiple scholarships, including the Diversity Excellence Scholarship.

Despite receiving scholarships, Zach still had to take out the maximum amount of loans to make ends meet when he arrived at the UO. Originally a biochemistry major, Zach worked hard taking 18 credits for his first two terms and maintained a high GPA despite his rigorous course load.

Zach would sit in front of his computer late at night “like a hermit,” wondering why he was spending so much time and effort on a subject he did not enjoy.

“I wanted to be a psychiatrist, I wanted to help people with the background and experiences that I’d had,” Zach said, “but I wasn't having fun learning about chemistry and all that.

Zach found that he was drawn more and more to writing, and later changed his major to journalism, hoping to become either a journalist or a video game developer. He is now working at Carson dining hall about 15 hours a week and taking a slightly lighter course load of 12 credits to accommodate his work schedule and commitment to extracurriculars like the UO a capella group Mind the Gap.

Zach says his financial struggles have taught him to be grateful for what he has – a skill, he feels, not every college student has.

“I feel like people that don't have the money to pay for college do tend to appreciate it more and focus more on getting good grades because they recognize that they are going to have to pay this back and this isn't an experience that they're getting for free,” Zach said. “Somebody who has to pay for loans has to succeed and they're obligated to succeed to the federal government. That's pretty scary stuff.”

For Zach, the opportunity to attend college is not only a way to get a degree, but a way to break the cycle of financial stress in his family.

“My education right now is the only thing keeping me from being in the position my mom or my dad is in, which is working class, low-income - which isn't bad,” Zach clarified. “That isn't the place I want to be, I want to be doing something I love.”

Now financially independent, he and his girlfriend Mikayla live together and support each other in making ends meet. For Zach, the struggle has been worth it, and he attributes his motivation to push through the tough times to his mother.

“Seeing her struggle has really shaped the way that I push myself,” Zach said. “The best thing that I can do is make my mom proud of who I am because she really is the reason for me being here. No matter our grades no matter what mistakes we make, she's always there to help us.”

A couple weeks ago, Zach was feeling overwhelmed and called his mother and Zach’s mother surprised him by coming to visit that weekend.

“She'll do whatever she can ‘cause we're her reason for living, is to support us,” Zach said. “I couldn't be more thankful.”

The hardest part of paying for school for Zach is the impending debt that will follow his education.

“It’s worrying about paying the loans back, worrying about the fact that if I don't succeed, there are financial ramifications that end up being emotional and psychological ramifications,” Zach said.

“It all will come crashing down if I don't succeed, and that's stressful,” Zach said, “but at the same time I know that if I stress out about it, I'm going to do worse than if I keep on going.”

Zach admits that he would trade anything in the world to not worry about making ends meet.

“At the same time, I would still want to have the knowledge I got from that experience,” Zach said. “But if I could go back and live in a family that had money, didn't have to worry about it, that’d be great.”

Zach remembers receiving a refund check from the university for the first time as the most rewarding experience he has had through his entire struggle.

“I was like, ‘This is real,” Zach said. “$10,000 is being paid for because I did well.’”

“I did it.”

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