Cummings is home in Prince George’s County this spring break week, bagging groceries and greeting customers at Wegmans supermarket.
Cummings and hundreds of thousands of college students like him don’t have the option of taking fun trips or even participating in alternative spring breaks — volunteering in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico or building Habitat for Humanity houses in Houston. They need to work to stay in college.
Many are first-generation college students, who make up a third of all people enrolling in two- and four-year colleges.
And while there’s been lots of focus on the achievement gap that can keep those students from graduating, there isn’t always a lot of acknowledgment of the culture gap they face.
“Hearing about all those vacations wasn’t easy,” Cummings said. “I’ve never really been anywhere.”
It’s hard to feel like you’re part of things when your peers are packing their swimsuits, and you’re ironing your uniform and pinning your name tag back on.
Not that Cummings is complaining. He wants to work in management for Wegmans when he graduates. “I’m still young, so I just have to remember that it’s my time to work hard,” he said.
I remember the same scenario. I went to the University of Southern California, where there were fliers all over the dorms advertising Cancun and Palm Springs vacation packages. The moment after my last midterm, I got into my ailing VW Bug, hoping it would make the eight-hour journey home. I woke up to the polyester, Swiss Miss-style waitress uniform — name tag in place — that I wore on school breaks and made the 5 a.m. breakfast shift.
I defiantly wore my college sweatshirt over my uniform the first day back, insisting I was cold, trying to let everyone know I was really a fancy college student. The boss wasn’t amused.
But I needed the cash, as do most first-generation students.
And all that came flooding back when I was in Wegmans, and I heard the cashier and a customer ahead of me talking.
“So how are you liking school?” the customer asked.
“I love it,” the cashier said.
“Keep your studies up. Make us proud,” the customer told her.
She was a first-generation college student, going to school in another state. Her boss lets her have her old shift whenever she’s back in town.
Turns out that Wegmans allows students to clock back in whenever they need the cash. The Wegmans Employee Scholarship Program has also given about $110 million to more than 35,000 Wegmans employees since 1984, according to media relations coordinator Valerie Fox, who was one of those recipients when she was a student who worked part time.
Cummings started working at the grocery store when he was in high school. He is the youngest of five kids. He never knew his father. “He was a John Doe in the court system,” he said. Cancer killed his mom when he was 14. He was raised by his grandparents.
When it came time to go to college, “I wanted to get away from home and experience college,” he said.
So the two-hour drive to Allegany was far enough to feel away, but close enough to come help his grandparents or nieces and nephews if they needed him.
Besides being the resident adviser in charge of an all-male dorm, he works at Wegmans every chance he gets.
“A lot of people didn’t even think I’d be in college, so I don’t mind,” he said.
Cummings will be joining thousands of other young adults like him these weeks. They are waiting tables, babysitting, picking up a cashier shift here and there.
Be kind to them. Ask them how they’re doing. Tell them you’re proud of them.
And to the students toiling away while their friends are having fun, don’t give up.
I finally got to go on a cool spring break trip this week, many years after graduating college. And the wait was worth it.