Hanna Achepohl was a manager at The Kiva grocery in downtown Eugene for a decade before the Great Recession came along and snatched away her job and her sense of security.
After eight months of searching, she found work as a cashier at The Red Apple market, but it was only part time and it paid minimum wage, which wasn't enough.
Achepohl, 44, decided she'd go to Lane Community College to pursue a new skill and new degree -- and, hopefully, a new career that would pay all of her bills with some left over.
When Achepohl enrolled in the fall of 2011, she faced a key decision. Because her income was so low, she qualified for grants that would cover a share of the cost of attending LCC, but she'd need about $25,500 more over three years to cover school and living expenses while she studied.
Most students don't think twice at that juncture. LCC offers federal student loans to fill in the gap, and they sign on the dotted line.
"I don't think people realize that six months out of school you have to start paying those off," Achepohl said.
Nearly three-quarters of LCC students take out loans, compared with less than one-fifth of community college students nationally, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
"I watched a bunch of friends at school taking out student loans. For some reason, it just didn't seem like a good idea," Achepohl said. "I don't even use credit cards.
"I was raised by two parents who were born during the Great Depression. My mom took us to the bank when we were 10, got us a checking account and made us put our $1.50 allowance in the bank every week. I learned to be financially responsible at a young age."
Those were lessons she couldn't forget during a lifetime of work, and not even after a recession took her job. She would seek a degree at LCC, but she would pay as she went.
"I wouldn't have completed school if I had to take out student loans," she said. "It's just not in my nature. I probably would have dropped out."
That's a far easier pledge to make than to carry out -- especially for older students who may not have parents to help with expenses or provide room and board, said Helen Faith, financial aid director at LCC. Even at community colleges, long considered the low-priced higher education option, an increasing number of students are taking on debt.
"The world is very different now," Faith said. "The math comes out very different because tuition has gone up very fast."
Achepohl set up a dry eraseboard schedule in her kitchen, and filled her hours from dawn to dusk with classes, homework and work. For a while, she studied accounting, and then she switched to the culinary arts program, which comes with another level of expenses, she said.
"You have to pay for legs of lamb, knife sets, certain shoes," she said.
Achepohl, who rented a condo in the old Lincoln School, pared her expenses to the basics.
"I don't have a car. I ride my bicycle or I take the bus. As a student, you get a free bus pass," she said. "I live on $189 a month of food stamps. I go to the food bank. I grow my own organic produce. I have a community garden plot."
Late in the evening, she tends her raised beds. "Have a glass of wine. Pull some weeds. It's a good combination. I love gardening. It's my therapy and I need a lot of therapy," she said.
Achepohl said she has worked four or five jobs at a time. She was a private chef for three people who had special dietary needs. She cooked -- using vegetables she grew -- packaged and froze their meals. She continued to cashier at The Red Apple.
She served food for banquets and conventions at LCC's Center for Meeting and Learning. She was a teacher's assistant for LCC baking and pastry courses. Over the past school year, she worked in the college Advising and Counseling Center.
"I study really hard. It doesn't come easy after you've been out of school for over 25 years," she said.
Her GPA is 3.75.
Working 35 hours a week on top of classes was a hard row to hoe, she said. She was sleep-deprived; she lived on coffee; She was starting to get sick. "At times, I wanted to quit," she said. "But I just kept telling myself that I couldn't.?... I have a great fear of being homeless."
Many students do quit in that situation, said Lauren Asher, president of the California-based Institute for College Access & Success.
"If you work more than 15 or 20 hours a week while you are in school," she said, "your odds of completing go down."
In the meantime, Achepohl made a discovery that made her life as a pay-as-you-go student a lot easier. She saw a poster for LCC's annual seminar: "How to Pay for College ... In One Day!"
She cancelled a shift at The Red Apple so she could attend.
The seminar included sessions on applying for scholarships, where they are, how to apply and how to show scholarship committees that you are the best contender.
The state, through the Oregon Student Access Commission, has money to award. The Lane Foundation has awards -- and hundreds or even thousands of private groups are looking to help students who meet their favored criteria, Achepohl learned.
"There's so much money out there. It's ridiculous. OSAC has about $15 million. The Lane Foundation has $700,000," she said.
Achepohl squeezed another job onto her dry eraseboard: Apply for scholarships. "My take on this is I would rather put in 80 hours of work applying for scholarships instead of working 10 years to pay off my loans," she said.
She worked on essays describing the troubles she'd overcome. Besides being an economic refugee -- alongside hundreds of others who flocked to LCC in the recession, boosting the student body by 40 percent -- she had a slew of health problems.
She severed her Achilles heel and wound up in a wheelchair, which was a problem because she lived on the second floor. She researched exercises to make her stronger and eventually got up and got moving. She fashioned a diet for herself, lost 75 pounds and vanquished type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure.
She wanted to go into dietary management, she wrote, so she could help people with the same problems.
"I write good stories, and the story I had to tell about curing diabetes and high blood pressure and losing weight appealed to the scholarship readers," she said. "Also, I have found, so many students don't apply for scholarships."
Achepohl got an accordion folder, labeled the slots with the months of the year and applied, as a matter of routine, for those due in the current month.
She applied for 47 scholarships the first year -- and she got seven. She got dislocated worker scholarships, scholarships for women, scholarships for culinary students -- in denominations of $500, $1,000 and $2,000.
"They just kept rolling in," she said, "so I just kept applying for more."
Age makes it easier to get some scholarships, she observed. "I'm female, I had no prior college education and I'm nontraditional. That was the winning combination. If I was a single mom, I would have gotten more."
A matter of degrees
Achepohl declined to give a total for all of her scholarship awards, but she said it was enough to cover the $25,500 gap that low-income LCC students must fill over three years of studies.
She finished her culinary arts degree and added a second associate's degree in hospitality -- plus she earned eight different certifications, including dietary management. She hopes to manage the menu at a school or retirement home someday.
"Why wouldn't I get a second degree? It makes me that much more marketable. It would have been stupid not to," she said.
Come June, she'll be finished at LCC.
Over the past year, Achepohl became a scholarship evangelist.
She got a work-study job as a scholarship research assistant. She seeks out new scholarships, makes up fliers for them and hands them out to students. She's helped other students edit their application essays. She speaks at scholarship workshops.
"Now they use me for an example," she said. "I'm their poster child."
Achepohl badgers her friends to apply and also the people who sit down next to her on the bus.
"I'll ask them daily, 'Did you apply for scholarships?' And they'll say, 'I don't have time.'"
Do it anyway, she says.
LCC has 14,000 students, but only about 500 of them apply for the OSAC scholarships each year -- and 100 get the money, Achepohl said. "If you bother to apply, you've got a 20 percent chance," she said.
As she prepares to leave LCC, Achepohl will pull on her new black chef's coat and go to work at Carte Blanche Caterers. And when her paychecks come, they're all hers.
Could more LCC students graduate free of student loan debt?
"It's obviously possible because I did it," she said, then added: "I got really lucky. I know that. I have a good story and I'm very driven."