To pay for school, one undergrad makes a fateful decision.

Alejandra Bautista-Landin

Tess Vigeland: Today we continue a series of commentaries we're calling "My Life is True." It's a look at folks living at the hard edge of the economy. Oakland resident Alejandra Bautista-Landin was once a promising undergrad with dreams of law school. Then she made a decision that would forever change her life.


Alejandra Bautista-Landin: I had way too much going on. I was in a folkloric dance troupe, working at Rite Aid and manning a health hotline. I thought lots of extra-curriculars would get me into a good law school. But my grades started to suffer; I was put on academic probation and my financial aid was suspended.

I wasn't able to ask for help. I wanted to fix my problems secretly without disappointing anybody, so I robbed a bank.

I still ask myself how I got the idea. I was desperate. I thought, "no one will know." I'll never speak of it. It'll be just one time and I'll just move forward.

I walked in and gave the teller a note. Some of what you see in the movies is true. Tellers are supposed to acquiesce to whatever you ask. I got a few thousand dollars and it all went to pay for school. I thought, "Let me just try this one more time, so I can pay off a little more debt."

It didn't work: a judge sentenced me to 30 months in prison. I put on a brave face, but I was frightened.

When I got out, I was assigned to a halfway house near Lake Merritt. I loved walking around the lake and just looking at people. It made me feel normal again. One day I saw a guy from the halfway house wearing a polo shirt that said "Healthy Oakland." He said the place helps people get back on their feet, get health insurance, see a doctor, or find a place to live.

I started volunteering there. After a month, they offered me a job. I help whomever comes in. Some are homeless; others are just out of prison. I tell them that I was there, too. They always say, "You don't look like you were in prison." I say, "You don't either."

We're seeing more professionals now who can't afford health insurance and lots of long-term unemployed. Our waiting area is always full. Most of the day I sit down with folks. I listen to what's going on with them and try to help. It's an unbelievable privilege to have someone trust me enough to say they need help -- the kind of help I once needed... but couldn't ask for.


Vigeland:Alejandra's story comes to us from "My Life Is True," a reporting project of the New America Foundation. Tell us what you think -- write to us.

This commentary first aired on KQED in San Francisco.

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