A college degree has long been touted as society’s great leveler, essential for entry into the middle class. Nearly 20 million students enrolled in an undergraduate program in 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Movies and television tend to portray an idealized college experience, featuring 18- to 21-year-olds who attend four-year institutions and live on campus. But in reality the college experience is far more varied. Only 15 percent of the undergraduate population fit the traditional profile in 2015, compared with 35 percent in 1986. A college student today is more likely to be female, to attend a four-year public college full time, to live off campus and to graduate with student loan debt. About 43 percent of full-time undergraduate students also work at least part time.
To try to capture a more representative snapshot of what college looks like today, we dispatched two reporters to shadow two undergrads — Sheila Suarez, 23, a commuter at the University of Maryland Baltimore County who grew up in Gaithersburg, and Lars E. Schonander, 19, a sophomore at George Washington University who grew up in Larchmont, N.Y. — on the same day in April.
6:55 a.m. At her mother’s apartment in Gaithersburg, Sheila Suarez wakes up with a start after her 17-year-old brother, Jon, jumps down from the top bunk and shakes her awake on his way to school. After snoozing for a few minutes, Sheila slips on a pair of leggings and a cerulean T-shirt from an old sorority event. She can hear her eighth-grade sister, Micki, getting ready in another room.
7:15 a.m. Today, Sheila — it’s pronounced “shay-luh,” not “shee-luh” — has a physical therapy appointment, one class and a front-desk shift at the Women’s Center at UMBC. After five years, she is a year away from earning a BA in social work. It’s also Greek Week, and if she can leave work a few minutes early she can make an afternoon tie-dye party on one of the school’s athletic fields.
7:30 a.m. Sheila gets a call from her physical therapist, whom she sees twice a week for near-constant pain in her right arm, saying she’s running late. She takes a seat at the dining table with a bowl of cereal and scrolls through memes on her phone. On the wall close by is her diploma from Montgomery College: “Associate of Arts, May 2016”— the only college degree anyone in her immediate family holds. It cost her thousands of dollars in credit card debt, which piled up during a disastrous first year in school. “There was so much paperwork, so many things to fill out. I wasn’t ready for college,” she remembers. In addition to living expenses, she accumulated $1,100 in tuition debt before dropping out to work at Planned Parenthood in Washington. She returned to college after her supervisor there told her she was “too smart not to go to school.” Her parents, now separated, helped pay off her tuition debt with their tax refund. Sheila has paid for most everything else. For the past few years, she’s held part-time jobs at a restaurant, a construction office and an airport bar, along with the Women’s Center gig, to pay for books, food, gas, car insurance and her cellphone.
7:56 a.m. She gets in her 14-year-old Hyundai Santa Fe and heads through morning fog to the physical therapist’s office in downtown Gaithersburg. Her right arm, the one that hurts, largely stays in her lap.
8:10 a.m. The physical therapist rubs her right pinkie, which has fallen asleep, and massages the arm. The previous Friday, Sheila tells her, she was “in so much pain I couldn’t take my jacket off.” The appointments, covered through Medicaid, began in December, after her doctor told her the pain was not due to carpal tunnel from taking notes in class, but likely from an autoimmune disease, scleroderma.
8:20 a.m. The alarm goes off in the GW dorm room of Lars E. Schonander. He shares it with a friend from his freshman year. (GW requires nearly all first-, second- and third-year students to live on campus.) On the walls are posters for National Geographic, “Blade Runner” and “The Young Pope.” By his desk is a pile of books that he says “have fallen surprisingly less than you’d think.” Tuesday is the weekday he gets to sleep in the latest, because he doesn’t have class until after 11 a.m. Other days, his classes begin at 9:35.
8:27 a.m. Clad in running gear, Lars jogs to the Mall. His typical route takes him past the Lincoln Memorial and around the Reflecting Pool. While listening to a playlist with Queens of the Stone Age and Iggy Pop, he passes throngs of tourists and commuters. He started running in the mornings this school year. “I realized I needed to do some exercise, but I disliked the school gym,” he says.
9:01 a.m. Lars returns to his dorm room, which has a private bathroom. He and his roommate were thrilled when they scored it in the housing lottery. It also has a kitchenette, though he generally eats out. He’s on the school dining plan, which allots $1,350 per semester to use at nearby grocery stores, restaurants and even food trucks.
9:05 a.m. Sheila is back on the road. With Rihanna’s “Umbrella” blasting from the radio, she swallows an anti-inflammatory pill to ease the pain in her arm. She turns onto Route 200, which has a $3 toll but is a faster route to school. If she doesn’t get to the garage there soon, there will be no more free spaces and she’ll have to park in a visitor lot that charges $2 an hour. A white van in front of her with New Jersey plates starts slowly switching lanes. “Do it, Jersey,” she says. “Do it, go left!”
9:30 a.m. Freshly showered with “everything I could need to do homework in any spot” in his backpack, Lars walks to the nearby Whole Foods Market to pick up his usual breakfast: yogurt, banana, plain bagel and orange juice.
9:37 a.m. Sheila slips a parking pass onto her rearview mirror and pulls onto campus, driving past the new event center that she worked on as an intern for a construction company. “I knew how to do an Excel spreadsheet and they thought I was a genius,” she says. Luckily, there’s a parking spot on the garage roof.
9:42 a.m. Lars uses his student ID to check out at Whole Foods, which is part of his dining plan. Before heading out, he replaces yesterday’s now-empty bottle of orange juice with the full one he just purchased in his backpack’s side pocket.
9:44 a.m. Lars walks into the atrium of the Science and Engineering Hall and sits at a table. He eats his breakfast and fires up his laptop, which is covered with stickers from hackathons he attends monthly. Those events bring computer programmers together to collaborate on projects, sometimes for days at a time, so Lars will often bring a sleeping bag. At a recent University of Virginia hackathon, he worked on an online form to help police aggregate tips from the public. There’s also a sticker from GW Study Abroad. He’s studying in Madrid this fall. As he munches, he reads email newsletters from the Financial Times and Bloomberg News.
9:49 a.m. In the UMBC student center, known as the Commons, Sheila hits a free weekly breakfast for commuters. She grabs an orange, apple juice, Cheerios cereal bar and a Jimmy Dean pancake-wrapped sausage on a stick. Roughly half of the student body at UMBC live off campus, and the drive to school — one hour each way with traffic — restricts what Sheila can do during the week. Still, it’s cheaper than living in a dorm, which she did with the help of a scholarship her first year at UMBC. It made joining her sorority easier, she says, but she didn’t get along with her roommates, who “had never cleaned a bathroom before.” (“All my suitemates had maids growing up,” she says.) She’s now president of Lambda Theta Alpha, a five-person sorority composed of fellow Latina commuters and first-generation students; president of the Multicultural Greek Council; and active in the Hispanic Latino Student Union, which represents the 7 percent of UMBC students who are Latino.
9:57 a.m. Her only class today, “Social Work Methods I: Introduction to Practice,” is in Sondheim Hall, one of UMBC’s many red-brick academic buildings. Its topic is “self-disclosure” — how and whether to reveal personal information to clients. She became interested in social work after an eight-month internship at HIPS, a community health organization in the District, where she passed out clean needles to drug addicts and diabetics. She’s planning to work in AmeriCorps after graduation and attend graduate school.
10:32 a.m. Lars prints out a case study about Dow Chemical and lobbying for his class: “Introduction to International Business.” He’s an international relations and economics double major. He says his interest in international affairs is “a family thing”: His grandfather was part of the Swedish foreign service, and his uncle worked at the State Department. GW’s focus on the subject was why he applied there early-decision. “It was never an option not to go to college,” he says of his family’s perspective on higher education. GW’s annual tuition for fall 2016 was $51,875. He has no student loans, nor does he need to work, which he is grateful for. If he had to do either or both, “I’d have less time for studying and less time to do other things,” he says. “I don’t have the constant threat of loans over my head, so I’m not thinking about that at night. I also recognize that a lot of people have to struggle to get through college, which I find very disheartening. It makes me remind myself that I’m in a very fortunate position.”
10:35 a.m. Lars heads to the Academic Center. He’s taking five classes this semester, more than is required. At the center, he sits on a couch and reads the news on his phone.
10:51 a.m. Lars likes to be early, so he leaves for his 11:10 class, where he and 30 or so students will spend 75 minutes talking about the Dow Chemical case study.
11:15 a.m. Between classes and meetings, Sheila hangs out or studies or sometimes naps in the Women’s Center inside the Commons. She’s a student staff member at the center, which is part workspace, part counseling center, with a lactation room. She makes a pot of coffee — overfills it, “but that’s okay, people drink coffee” — and sits at a table with her friends Reese Beyers and Carol Canales, who is making a “NO MEANS NO” sign for an upcoming campus march against sexual assault.
11:43 a.m. She pops over to the library to interview an acquaintance for a class. Her subject, Jason Stein, is chairman of the UMBC College Republicans. “I feel like I’m very bipartisan, even with my liberal views,” Sheila tells him afterward.
12:20 p.m. As Lars leaves class with some other students, he discusses scheduling for a forthcoming group project. Then he walks down H Street NW and eyes the food trucks that line it. Many are on the dining-cash system. He chooses one that sells hot dogs and has one of the longest lines. Over R&B music blasting from the truck, he orders “The Smokeshow”: a half-smoke with chili, cheddar and barbecue sauce on a pretzel bun and fries. This meal is a bit of a splurge, he says, but he’s going to a free dinner tonight so it’ll even out. “The problem is that a lot of places on campus charge $10 a meal, which is pretty pricey,” Lars says, describing his budgeting of dining cash.
12:58 p.m. After lunch, Lars heads into the library. He likes to complete his homework during the day. He picks a cubicle on the sixth floor and opens his laptop. He briefly checks Twitter (his favorite social media platform), then does some coding practice and astronomy homework.
1:10 p.m. At the front desk of the Women’s Center, Sheila starts work with fellow student Samiksha Manjani. Lunch is leftovers: green beans and white rice that her mom made. Her mother is “trying to support my healthy lifestyle,” she says. She’s also trying to save for her summer internship in Los Angeles with California Latinas for Reproductive Justice, a research and advocacy group. Her internship stipend is mostly going toward rent.
2 p.m. She and Samiksha prepare for a meeting with the Women of Color Coalition, a student group they lead. Their conversation turns to being “cisnormative.” Sheila says she tries to be conscious of not insulting others, especially trans or genderqueer students, but sometimes she makes a mistake. “I got called out yesterday,” she says, lowering her voice, “for saying being a lesbian is good because you don’t have to use birth control.” She was joking, but someone corrected her — a lesbian could still be transgender. “There are only so many things you can keep in mind when you’re talking,” Samiksha tells her. On the bright side, she says, “You’re not the alt-right, so you’re fine.” “Ah!” says Sheila. “That’s my self-affirmation for the day.”
2:15 p.m. On his laptop, Lars catches a bit of Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg’s Senate hearing. He would’ve liked to have gone in person. He says he attends hearings or events on Capitol Hill about once or twice a semester. But in 10 minutes he has a workshop in the basement of Tompkins Hall of Engineering on the programming language Solidity that will be used at a hackathon at GW at the end of April.
2:39 p.m. Sheila’s pinkie has fallen asleep again. “Next semester’s going to take a toll on me,” she tells Samiksha, what with classes, her social-work internship and her Greek position. “I have to decide if I can still work here.” She’s also trying to make sure her finances, her biggest stress, are in decent shape for the fall. She’s waiting to hear about a federal Pell Grant, as well as scholarships from Montgomery County and a Hispanic student group. With loans, they’ll cover her $12,000 annual tuition. She will graduate with about $40,000 in loan debt.
4 p.m. A dozen students attend the hour-long Women of Color Coalition meeting. One woman stays to talk about her sexual assault experience. In the past 10 days, eight students have disclosed such experiences to Sheila: “People know I have a history with reproductive justice. They tell me whenever.”
4:12 p.m. The Solidity workshop wraps up, and Lars returns to the library to finish his astronomy and Spanish homework. He also watches more of the Zuckerberg hearing. Lars writes for MediaFile, a volunteer, student-run news website at GW. He focuses on the intersection of international affairs and technology. For one of the stories he’s most proud of, he interviewed Asad Malik, the director of a virtual reality movie about the Muslim American experience, whom he met at an Atlantic Media event.
5:36 p.m. Her Women’s Center shift done for the day, Sheila walks to the athletic field, where she runs into fraternities and sororities coordinator Cory Bosco. He tells her the tie-dye event just ended and asks if she can make a different event in a few weeks. The date is a Sunday evening, when she’ll be getting off work. Each weekend, she puts in about 15 hours bagging to-go orders at a California Pizza Kitchen. “I live in Gaithersburg,” she says, her voice trailing off.
5:45 p.m. Back at the Commons, Sheila pays $6.25 in cash for a basket of chicken tenders with fries at the food court. The meal plan is too expensive. On her phone, she goes on Facebook and discovers that her roommate for an upcoming internship retreat is a Capricorn. “I’m a Scorpio,” Sheila says. “It means I like gloomy s---.” Or at least she did in high school. She decided to try to be more outgoing after a friend took her to a Pentecostal church service that sparked a short but intense religious phase. “When I became religious I learned to let anger go,” she says, including at friends and family members who had told her she couldn’t go to college because of bad high school grades.
6:07 p.m. Lars packs up and walks to a dormitory for the GW Catholics’ weekly dinner. Lars went to a Jesuit high school and has been part of the campus Catholic community since his freshman year. “It’s a community that you’re not quite able to find doing something else,” he says. The previous Friday, he prepared sandwiches with the Knights of Columbus and handed them out to homeless people at Union Station. “For being in the capital of the most powerful country on the planet, we have an above-average amount of homeless people,” he says later, “and it always struck me as tragic.”
6:15 p.m. Sheila checks her email and realizes she has to pay her phone bill. Her arm is throbbing again. “I worry about the hand a lot,” she says. When she first got her diagnosis, the doctor warned her against researching it online. She Googled it anyway and saw an illustration of a woman with misshapen fingers, her hands tightened like claws.
6:31 p.m. At the GW Catholics’ dinner, Lars shows a video of Zuckerberg to friends, then listens as a student shares announcements. Everyone says a prayer before lining up for the buffet prepared by club members.
6:38 p.m. Sheila heads home. It’s the earliest she’s left in a long time — somehow, the sun is still up — and she dons sunglasses and sings along to “Life Is a Highway” on the radio, passing deer and the Brighton Dam as she takes a backwoods, toll-free route home.
7:24 p.m. After eating and talking with friends, Lars leaves for his dorm. Once there, he plops on his bed with his laptop, toggling between Twitter, coding and Spanish homework.
7:44 p.m. At home, Sheila parks herself on the couch. Her brother is asleep in their bedroom, and she calls her mom on the phone to check in. Afterward, she showers and puts on pajamas.
8:20 p.m. Her mom and sister arrive with Chinese food, and she helps her brother look through information packets from a college fair he visited at school. He plans to follow her to college; Micki, too. Still, Sheila says, her academic ambition is so unusual to her parents that they think she’ll never get married, and they avoid talking about school at home.
10 p.m. She writes a short bio on the Facebook group for her internship, fills out a form for an L.A. transit card for the summer and does homework. She also votes in an area election for her sorority and writes the agenda for a sorority chapter meeting.
11 p.m. Lars puts down his laptop and reads “Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley” by Antonio García Martínez.
12 a.m. He turns in for the night. In Gaithersburg, Sheila climbs into the bottom bunk and goes to sleep.
Rachel Kurzius is the associate editor of DCist. Harrison Smith is an obituary writer for The Washington Post.