When graduate student Christopher Rael decided he needed to pay for his undergraduate degree instead of his rent, he found himself sleeping in his car for seven months. Despite the adversity he faced throughout his academic journey, Rael remained positive and turned his challenges into his passion.
Currently pursuing his master’s degree in cultural anthropology at Cal State Fullerton, Rael said once he became serious about school, he did anything to get educated. This included being homeless.
“I tried to keep real quiet about it … It’s embarrassing. To top it off, you know that you’re kind of the smelly kid in class,” Rael said. “Sometimes I would brush my teeth in the car with a water bottle.”
Rael would have to get up early every day so people wouldn’t see him sleeping in his car, he said. He would wash up in either gas station bathrooms or school bathrooms if they were open. He would spend hours in the library at Delta College reading, writing and working on homework as a full-time student.
“I spent the majority of my time floating around campus,” Rael said. “Day by day is kind of different … It’s just a matter of where people are and what feels safe.”
Rael said he didn’t tell many people about his struggle with housing stability.
“These are just kind of my circumstances and they’re mine, so I’m responsible,” he said.
Karen Millsop of Delta College was an exception. The psychology professor reached out to Rael after reading one of his papers.
“My classes are very interactive. I encourage student discourse and conversation, so typically during the course of the semester––based on what students say or don’t say––I can get a sense of what might be going on with them, so he shared some information in class, and I think I just followed up with him,” Millsop said.
Millsop said she was very sympathetic to his dilemma.
“I tried to provide as much support as possible and tried to reassure him that he wasn’t alone in that situation. Unfortunately, many people, including students, are in similar situations where they’re homeless or they are living out of their cars or living check to check,” Millsop said.
Rael said Millsop was integral to him taking the next step in his education. She assisted him in getting the resources he needed to succeed.
“I rolled sociology into cultural anthropology so I could continue to focus on social problems and potentially find a remedy,” Rael said. “It’s kind of comforting to know you’re not the only one, but it’s also completely disheartening.”
After finding his passion, Rael sought out jobs where he can work with children. He said the problems so many students face start at a young age, and he seeks to “have a profound impact” in what he does with his career.
Now at a children’s center in Long Beach, Rael has had positive experiences working with children.
“He’s gone above and beyond. He’s always going out of his way to help the students,” said April Behrendt, assistant director of the children’s center.
Rael is always finding ways to encourage children at the center to help those less fortunate, Behrendt said. He works with children on making food for the poor and asks the parents to donate to the cause as well.
“He’s a really great teacher,” Behrendt said. “There’s nobody like him here. When he does graduate, we’re going to be really sad to see him go. And I’ve been here 20 years, so we haven’t had a teacher that’s gone above and beyond like he does.”
Rael ran a program with his children in which they made lunch bags for the the homeless. The students made sandwiches and decorated bags that Rael delivered to the displaced in Orange County.
“Christmas week, we gave 100 bags to skid row … It cost me 80 bucks to feed 100 people,” Rael said.
He said he hopes the programs humanize these struggles for the children he works with.
“It can happen to anybody. Sometimes it’s not by choice,” Rael said. “I had a job … Sometimes there are external circumstances that depict a path and there’s really nothing you can do about it, but you can take what you’ve been given and make the most out of it.”
Before finding his path in life, Rael said he had a difficult time in high school.
“I was the typical kid who slipped through the cracks,” Rael said.
He said his teachers would always say he had great potential but was never fully engaged and those were red flags nobody caught.
“Being someone who was allowed to slip through the cracks myself, I decided that someone’s got to be an advocate,” Rael said. “I’ve been a preschool teacher, an elementary physical education teacher, I’ve been an after-school teacher, a tutor, a camp counselor, a camp director and I’m at a children’s center now.”
Since Rael made the move to Southern California to pursue his undergraduate degree at Cal State Long Beach and now his master’s degree at CSUF, he has not been homeless. However, because of a series of events that hurt his financial situation, he came very close.
Rael said these outside situations affected his grades too much, but it was at a point where that was unavoidable.
“I have not been able to engage at all because I have to prioritize feeding myself,” Rael said. “You are entirely responsible for your own education … Unfortunately, because of the financial deficit, I had to take time from (class).”
Rael prioritizes budgeting and tries not to worry too much, which helped him when he was faced with financial challenges including family problems, car issues and a roommate suddenly moving out, he said.
No matter what happens to him, Rael still “rolls with the punches.” He said when things go bad, he needs to pick and choose what he worries about because dwelling on things he can’t control does a disservice to himself.