Homeless Graduate

Above: Morrell shows where she studies, often at night by flashlight, in the front seat of her car.

Story and photos by Karalie Sevilla

Mary Ann Morrell admits to making many poor life decisions. Right or wrong, big or small, every choice she made led to another until one day, she found herself astray. She was homeless and abandoned without family or friends to turn to, except for her then-homeless son, Harold. For years, and still to this day, she has spent her days in her car, the one place she calls home.

Morrell’s trouble started when she dated a drug user who coerced her into drug use.

“I dated a guy who was in prison, and after he got out, he got me into meth,” said Morrell. “I didn’t want to at first and even cried. But I tried it, and after that I wanted more.”

“Then, I started to sell,” she added. “He was crazy and pretty much came to my job and told everyone I worked with I was doing drugs. I lost my job. Then I couldn't pay for rent. I went to jail and after I got out, I didn't have anything.”

Morrell only had her son to check on her from time to time. One day in 2013, when she was 58, she found herself lying on the grass behind a Carl’s Jr., directionless and despondent.

“God help me,” she thought. “What can I do to get out of this lifestyle?”

As her thoughts raced, she was immediately interrupted by the sight of students walking to school. She took this as a sign and thought, “No way, not at my age.” 

But Morrell eventually gathered the confidence to reach out to an acquaintance attending Chaffey. 

“Get your foot in the door and pick a couple classes,” said her friend. 

Morrell then met Ray Austin, mentor for student equity, who introduced her to a team of light workers–representatives from every department on campus–who began to aid her in her journey.

“If it wasn’t for Ray, Susan Starr, Lorena, Katrina (Sevilla), and all those in admissions, counseling and financial aid, I don’t know where I’d be right now,” Morrell said.

The turn of events occurred quickly, and after obtaining the approval for FAFSA, Morrell enrolled in Accounting and Music Appreciation in her first semester. She earned two Bs that year.

“I can do this,” she said.

Semester after semester, she stayed determined. Although unaware of her direction, she continued to register for classes and maintained a good standing GPA. She stayed proactive and took part in any scholarships she could find, writing essays in hopes of earning money to help her through school.

Living in her car isn’t easy. Most nights Morrell studies with a flashlight. Every morning before class, she goes to her church and reads the Bible while she waits for the school library to open. She stays on campus from open to close. 

Morell stands outside her car in one of the campus parking lots where she studies and sleeps. It's one of her few lifelines as she works toward her degree.

Each day is a struggle for whether she can get free Wi-Fi, do her homework and shelter herself from the rain. It’s a challenge to even find her next meal. Although overwhelmed at times, she still manages to focus, push forward, and doesn’t allow negative thoughts to hinder her progress.

“I’m just trying to be obedient to God. I don’t know why I’m in school, but little by little he’s providing me with opportunities, and opening doors,” she said. “I’m obedient by following his lead. I can’t do it my way.”

It wasn’t until the beginning of the Spring 2017 semester when it was brought to her attention she had accumulated a 3.4 GPA, as well as the minimum units to transfer out. Again, Morrell was not aware of her progress, and furthermore, had missed the deadline to apply for Spring 2018 admittance to Cal States.

Austin introduced Morrell to Transfer Center Program Assistant Katrina Sevilla, who together with Austin worked hard to get her enrolled as soon as possible to keep her momentum going. 

After a few phone conversations and emails to Cal State San Bernardino explaining Morrell’s story, they agreed to send her an add code. She was accepted for Fall 2017.

Morrell says that by the grace of God, she is now walking in a clear direction.

“I also thank my ex-boyfriend who gave me that car to live in,” she said, laughing.

Morrell now also works in the admissions and records office as a student assistant to help each new batch of students orient themselves to the college.

“When I see people who are lost, I ask myself if there’s anything I can do to help. I know there are other students out there like me,” she said. “I didn’t know there were people willing to help me. If I can help one student get through their obstacles, then I’ll feel like I’ve done my job. I know they’re out there struggling, and with worse problems than me.”

Now 61 years old and in her final semester, Morrell has a 3.4 GPA, and is hoping for a 3.6 when she leaves. Awaiting the completion of her five remaining classes, she will walk in the commencement ceremony this Spring with her degree in Accounting Bookkeeping. 

Her dream is to eventually open a nonprofit shelter for people and animals.

The name for Morrell was changed from the original misspelling. Morell's son was added to the story. It was originally reported she had no one else to help her. Morell's admittance to Cal State San Bernardino was also corrected from Spring 2018 to Fall 2017.