PUBLISHED: 08:04 EST, 19 May 2012 | UPDATED: 09:23 EST, 19 May 2012
The biggest challenge most college students face is what to wear to the next frat party. But Shawna Machado managed to complete school while living out of her car.
The 40-year-old Sarasota woman has just been named the University of South Florida’s outstanding graduate for 2012, completing her degree in psychology despite having no home.
Having run away from an abusive home as a teenager and then a damaging marriage, Ms Machado got her GED just four years ago.
She planned to go to college part-time while she worked, according to ABC 7.
‘I struggled from retail job to retail job,’ she said, before she landed more stable work in a medical office.
But when she lost that job in May 2010, she could not longer afford her apartment and moved her entire life into her grey 2007 Hyundai Elantra.
‘I got rid of everything and put everything that I could in my car,’ she said.
She has been living in the vehicle ever since, spending nights parked at Walmart because they’re open 24 hours, although she moves around to different locations so staff don’t notice.
During the days, she takes naps on the beach.
‘I throw out a blanket and start reading a book, usually one of my school books, then fall asleep,’ she said. ’I don’t look the stereotypical homeless person. So I’m never questioned.’
Despite losing her home, the graduate still had her student loans so she stayed in school, slipping into the campus early to use the showers.
‘I just continued because I wasn’t getting a job,’ she said.
She used her free time to work at a domestic abuse shelter and mentor at-risk youth.
Ms Machado didn’t go out of her way to tell her professors that she was homeless, fearing they would treat her differently to her classmates. However, some knew she was struggling.
She admits it has been a hard slog completing her studies while living out of her car.
‘I have days where I say, ‘I am done. I can’t do it any more. I quit. Mercy,” she said. ‘I have those days.’
And like most college graduates she is has more than $50,000 worth of student loan debt, which she will have to start paying off in December.
But the 40-year-old, who has her eye on a job in social work, is optimistic that getting her degree will allow her to turn her life around and she hopes her story will inspire others.
‘It’s worth it in the end,’ she said.