08:30 AM

Difficult Times Give Way to Bright Future


As part of "Voices of CSUSM," a new feature in Steps magazine, communication student Bri Phillips shares her story of overcoming challenges as a first-generation college student.

By Bri Phillips

From the time I was born until I was 7 years old, I grew up in what seemed like an average middle-class household. My parents and I lived comfortably with few financial concerns. 

But that all changed when I was in second grade and a car accident altered the trajectory of our lives. Today, almost 14 years after that accident, I still feel the reverberations as I navigate the challenges of being a low-income student while working toward becoming the first person in my family to earn a college degree. 

The day of our car accident was supposed to be a special day. My sister, Ashley, was just a couple of months old, and we were venturing beyond routine errands for the first time since she was born to go apple picking about an hour away from our Temecula home. 

Despite doing my best not to fall asleep during the drive, I woke up to our vehicle flipping over after being struck, I later learned, by a hit-and-run driver. Our car flipped multiple times on the freeway, and Ashley’s car seat buckle came undone. My first instinct was to try to hold her car seat down. Ashley escaped with minor scratches while my mom and I just had some bruises. 

My dad wasn’t as lucky. He broke his neck and was in a coma for several days. I remember him lying in a hospital bed, not knowing if he would survive. 

My dad was our sole financial provider, and he was unable to work during the lengthy recovery process. The mounting medical bills and expenses eventually forced my parents to file for bankruptcy. 

The accident also took an emotional toll. My parents separated not long afterward. Though it has been over a decade since they split, they continue to live under the same roof leading separate lives because of our financial circumstances. 

We didn’t have money for after-school or extracurricular activities, nor many opportunities to explore interests or passions. And college was never a topic of discussion. No one in my family has ever finished college, and my parents were largely indifferent, leaving me to determine my own path. 

As a high school senior, I had difficulty envisioning my future. I watched my peers embrace their excitement about getting accepted into prestigious universities while I was still figuring out the application process. I was unfamiliar with financial aid and how it could help pay for college. It seemed like my classmates had their lives figured out while I was struggling just to complete my FAFSA, the federal form used to determine financial aid eligibility. 

It has always been an unspoken rule in my family never to talk about money or finances because it always ends in a heated argument. I had to scavenge through my parents’ taxes to try to fill out the FAFSA on my own. When I finally built up the courage to ask my dad for help, it was hard for him to understand the significance of the application. He didn’t want to share personal financial information and didn’t grasp that completing the FAFSA was what would make attending college financially feasible. 

Filling out the FAFSA is still an emotional process every year, and one that I have to explain to my dad each time. But our financial status means that I qualify for a Pell Grant, which helps me pay for college. Learning that I was eligible for a Pell Grant was such a relief. Not only does it mean I can avoid potentially crippling loans, but it helps my parents focus on their needs without worrying about college expenses. 

After high school, I enrolled at Palomar College and joined TRIO SSS, an organization that advises low-income and first-generation students to encourage academic success. It was inspiring to be surrounded by successful students who come from similar backgrounds. I was excited to learn about the help TRIO SSS provides for first-generation college students like myself, and it showed me that I could achieve my goals regardless of my background. 

I was grateful to continue being part of TRIO SSS after completing my associate degree in communication at Palomar and transferring to Cal State San Marcos last fall. 

At CSUSM, I have received overwhelming support, which has helped me further my education and figure out my career path. The university emphasizes hands-on learning, and I have had the opportunity to work as a writer in the University Communications office where I’m gaining valuable skills and guidance as I look toward a career in communications after I graduate in May 2023. 

CSUSM has opened the door for me to feel more confident about my future. I am building a strong portfolio for future employers, and the positive work environment in University Communications has encouraged career exploration and connections to set me up for success. 

During my first semester at CSUSM last fall, I juggled two jobs to ease the financial burden on my family while trying to balance a full course load. It wasn’t easy, but I’m proud of achieving straight A’s in my first semester at the university, and having a strong support system at CSUSM was an important part of making that happen. 

After completing my bachelor’s degree, I’m looking forward to finding a job that allows me to use the written communication skills that I am developing through my work in University Communications. 

I still dread filling out the FAFSA, and it’s an ongoing challenge to navigate the complexities of the higher education system. But I know that all of the difficulties will be worth it. Not only because I’ll be the first in my family to earn a college degree, but also because I’ll be able to help my sister forge an easier path to college and financial independence. I strive each day to set a positive example for Ashley. I encourage her to explore her passions now so she will have more direction than I did when she heads to college in four years. 

The car accident that my family survived 14 years ago changed many aspects of my life, but I’m able to look to the future with optimism. I’ve learned valuable lessons about determination and perseverance, lessons that have helped me develop a strong motivation to redirect my path. 

Media Contact

Eric Breier, Public Affairs Specialist

ebreier@csusm.edu | Office: 760-750-7314