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How this college student went from living in his car to living his dream

Andrew Daniel Rocha
Andrew Daniel Rocha

How does someone go from sleeping in a car to seeking a Ph.D.?

You'd have to ask Andrew Daniel Rocha.

Andrew doesn't seem as amazed by his path from disadvantaged East Los Angeles kid to NASA intern, MIT lab rat, and professional student. He's the one living it.

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"I didn't realize it until talking to you right now, but [my path has been] about gaining the courage to be proactive," Andrew says. "Even though it's extremely hard, it's important to take a proactive approach, and ask yourself tough questions. If you see a train wreck months or years ahead of you, plan for it."

That's just what he did, time and again.

Starting with no expectations

To say Andrew had an unfortunate childhood is an understatement.

His single mom knew her children were growing up in a rough Los Angeles neighborhood, so she kept them indoors. When they were done with school, they were told to wait in the library until she could pick them up. When she could afford it, they were put into after-school programs.

When Andrew got to high school, he had to manage himself.

"She couldn't protect me 24-7," he says. "There were people at school doing meth and cocaine in the classroom next to mine, getting drunk on the school bus. I never took part in it, but it was always around me."

Only about 20 percent of his class went on to receive a diploma, Andrew says. There was little expectation that he or anyone else would go to college.

"I only barely graduated because I wanted to be an athlete and you had to have a certain GPA to be an athlete," he says.

Andrew, who started swimming at 6, was recruited to compete in the pool for Pasadena City College. When a shoulder injury cost him his spot on the team, he dropped out and was directionless.

Finding his path forward

But Andrew still had a strong work ethic. He took on four minimum-wage jobs, working 70 to 80 hours a week. But he struggled to come up with the rent he needed to live in Pasadena, California.

"I didn't like having to work like a dog and having nothing to show for it," he says of not finding higher-paying student jobs. "I was extremely aggravated by life.

"I felt like I was meant for more than retail. I didn't just want an education for money. I wanted to find something fulfilling."

During his first summer away from college, he told himself he'd re-enroll when he discovered what he wanted to study. Two semesters went by. Nothing.

So he stopped waiting around. The first class he signed up for upon returning to school was for counseling on his career options. Vocational exams recommended professions for him. About 80 percent of them were in engineering.

As a first-generation student in America — just four of his 49 cousins in the U.S. and Mexico have earned degrees — he admitted not knowing what an engineer did for a living.

"I had a lot of research to do," he says.

Picking a career goal

Andrew narrowed it down to 12 professions, with optical engineering making the cut because of his fascination with lasers. Then he found out how much math he'd have to learn.

He took seven math courses over a year and a half so that he could transfer to a four-year school before his financial aid ran out. It did anyway.

Andrew had already decided to live out of his car for a semester so that he could afford food and his city college tuition.

"I started in November, but when December rolled around, I knew I was in trouble," he says. "Even though it was Los Angeles, when it got down to 55 degrees, I was freezing my ass off."

But he wasn't about to stop pushing forward. Excited by the "whole new world" of calculus, Andrew started quitting his four jobs — one at a time — until he was working only 15 hours per week. He found time to do 60 math problems per day.

When the car he depended upon so much started to shake at highway speeds, he made more of a concerted effort at securing financial aid. The Dreamkeepers Emergency Financial Assistance program, which keeps disadvantaged students from leaving school, was a lifesaver.

"In hindsight, it was a struggle because I didn't know anything [about scholarships] … It never crossed my mind that I would qualify for them," he says. "I thought you had to be either really smart or a really great athlete. I was neither."

Financing a four-year degree

By the time Andrew enrolled at the University of Arizona (UA) in 2014, he had resorted to all sorts of money-saving tactics.

  • He used YouCaring to crowdfund money for tuition payments and his $450 apartment rent.
  • He made it through an entire Tucson, Arizona, summer without turning on his air conditioner, never paying more than $12 for his electric bill.
  • He didn't buy furniture not even a bed and only enjoyed the use of a bookshelf that came with his apartment.

And he ate potatoes for three months straight.

There was also the time he woke up in his car and spent all day in Starbucks for two weeks straight. As he worked on a project that netted him a summer internship at NASA, the baristas offered him the food they threw out at the end of each shift.

Despite racking up free money by finding scholarships and taking on more than $37,000 in federal student loan debt, the tuition dollars couldn't arrive fast enough.

"That was always a miracle," he says. "One last scholarship would come through."

Andrew was hampered because he was also initially denied in-state status and the lower tuition rate. UA had called into question Andrew's commitment to living in Arizona because he spent a whole summer earning money as NASA's space communications and navigation intern in Cleveland.

During the appeals process, Andrew detailed every transaction in his bank accounts, supplied letters of recommendation (including one from his dean), and swore on a Bible. He says he felt like he was in court.

"The next day, I got reimbursed," he says of the panel's unanimous decision to reverse its decision. "When I received that $9,000 check, that was the most money I'd ever seen in my entire life. I thought, 'I can actually graduate now.' Since then, I've been able to stay afloat."

Aiming for the stars

By this point, you might not be surprised to learn that Andrew aspires to be an astronaut. Why not, right? He's come this far.

In fact, Andrew is just beginning a six-year program toward his Ph.D. in optical sciences at UA. The good news is that his first full year of tuition has already been covered.

"One advantage is I have a degree in a highly sought-after field, and so my college gets a lot of funding for grad programs through donors, alumni, and professionals," says Andrew, who will have ballooning student loan payments upon graduation.

"Usually, the trend is Ph.D.s are funded for the first year, and then the next year students have to find their own way," he added.

Andrew hopes his story will inspire you. If, like him, you don't know what you want in life, spend the time figuring it out. Once you know what you're passionate about, set a plan and execute it. Be proactive, and ask for help if you need it.

Maybe you'll have to make difficult financial decisions to get there, but hopefully, you can at least keep a roof over your head.

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This story originally appeared on Student Loan Hero.