As she sat down for theater class in her fourth week at Fairfield University, freshman Chastity Berrios checked her back pocket. Her car key was gone.
Chastity, who’s 18, is a New Haven public school graduate starting an uphill journey to become the first in her family to graduate from college. Instead of studying and going to ecology class, she spent four hours Tuesday solving a transportation crisis that highlighted the type of the challenges first-generation college-goers from low-income urban backgrounds can face as they step out onto campus on their own.
The hunt for the key to her mom’s Nissan Altima was in a broader sense a hunt for the key to success in college, where only 8 percent of low-income students in the country make it to the finish line.
“For most people who are in college, the experience” of losing a key “is solved by a quick call home and a transfer to a bank account,” said state Rep. Roland Lemar, a first-generation college-completer who has helped Chastity and her close friend, Solanlly Canas, confront financial aid hurdles. But “it’s the seemingly small things like this, that are unseen by so many, that lead to college retention rates being so low for kids who come from New Haven or other urban areas.”
“Sometimes it’s losing a key that derails a kid’s future,” he said.
The hunt highlighted both the challenges Chastity faces and the skills she brings—such as asking for help and refusing to give up—that have helped her come this far.
Chastity, who moved to New Haven from Puerto Rico at age 9, has been commuting five days a week to Fairfield from her mom’s apartment in New Haven.
Chastity’s journey began Tuesday at 9:30 a.m., when she pulled out of her apartment in a public housing projects in New Haven. She hit the highway in her mom’s 2000 Nissan, which now bears a Fairfield sticker in the rear windshield.
After 35 minutes of light highway traffic, she turned into the entrance of Fairfield University, a 3,400-student private liberal arts college founded by Jesuits. She strolled across campus under a bright blue sky, rattling off the names of the buildings she quickly memorized on her first campus tour.
She passed a large statue of a deer, the campus mascot. “Go Stags!” she said, touching her middle and ring finger to her thumb to form the school hand-sign.
She floated easily through campus, dropping her laptop in Locker 91, saying hi to a new friend named Maria, then meeting up with her closest campus ally, Solanlly, for an early lunch. Solanlly (pronounced so•LON•jee), an undocumented immigrant from Colombia, and Chastity, who’s being raised by a single mom, overcame heartbreaking hurdles to adjust to a new language and graduate from High School in the Community in June as the school’s top two students.
After an overwhelming first college experience in an early college program at the University of New Haven this spring, the two friends worked through significant financial struggles to land spots as Fairfield freshmen this fall.
The two met up Tuesday over matching plates of banana-barbecue chicken, garlic bread, and penne pasta with cream sauce. They don’t see each other as much as they used to in high school: Solanlly is living in the dorms, thanks to a benefactor she met through a prize she won. Chastity, who can’t afford to stay on campus, is juggling five classes, a work-study job and a weekend job at Dunkin’ Donuts. On campus, they stick together as much as they can, sometimes taking naps in Solanlly’s bunk after a dense, early-morning statistics class.
They find themselves plunged into a much whiter, wealthier world than the one they’re used to: Of the nearly 1,000 kids in the freshman class, 87 percent are Caucasian. The freshman class has 17 black students. Only 1 in 13 are Hispanic; 1 in 7 come from low-income families; and 1 in 5 are first-generation college-goers. Solanlly said moving into the dorms was a bit of a shock. Students described growing up in enormous houses. As a commuter, Chastity is in the vast minority: Only 52 freshmen commute.
As first-generation students, Solanlly and Chastity have been paired with a team of mentors and tutors to help them through. They said they are finding their way around well in the new landscape.
Their day went smoothly until 12:30 p.m., when the duo sat down together in their Intro to Theater class. Chastity took her Stag Card—the campus debit card, on which she has stashed $200 in Dunkin’ Donuts earnings—out of her back pocket.
She felt around for her key. It wasn’t there. She shot Solanlly a look of alarm.
Solanlly held Chastity’s notebook while Chastity rooted through all her possessions.
Chastity set her panic aside as she sat through Professor Julie Leavitt’s hour-and-15-minute class. Chastity raised her hand and answered a question. She dutifully copied down notes on a lesson on Aristotle’s six elements of theater.
Chastity highlighted a new phrase: “Major dramatic question.” That’s the main, yes-or-no question driving the plot of a play, Leavitt explained. For example: Will Hamlet avenge his father’s death?
After class ended, Chastity revealed her problem to a reporter.
“I can’t find my key,” she confessed. “I’m freaking out a bit.”
Her mom, who owns the car, was out of town. There is no spare key.
And so the hunt began.
As she headed out of the Pepsi-Co Theatre, back onto the lush, green campus, Chastity became the protagonist in her own drama. Her “objective”—another word of the day in theater class—was to find the key.
“This is our major dramatic question,” she quipped. “Will I find it?”
She retraced her steps to the John A. Barone Campus Center. She checked her locker. She rechecked her bookbag. She asked Maria. No luck.
Chastity, a native Spanish-speaker, taught herself English when she moved to New Haven at age 9. As she moved from building to building, searching for the key, she gravitated toward people who spoke her first language. Because of the school’s demographics, most of them turned out to be service staff.
At the entrance to the cafeteria, Chastity encountered a Puerto Rican worker named Sonia. Chastity asked, in Spanish, if she could check inside for her key.
Of course, Sonia said, wishing her luck.
Inside the cafeteria, Chastity told her story to Eduardo Neira (pictured).
“Se me perdió la llave,” she told him.
“I’ve never lost my key” before, Chastity added.
Neira, of Colombia, chatted with Chastity as they waited for a student to finish a cellphone call so they could check behind the student’s seat. Neira, who said he doesn’t speak much English, quickly bonded with Chastity in their native language. Neira said he used to be a graphic designer until he moved to the U.S. from Colombia 20 years ago; now he clears tables.
She explained that the key has no loop, so she couldn’t put it on a key chain. She usually stores it in a zippered pocket of her wallet, but, distracted by conversation Tuesday, she stashed it in the back pocket of her jeans. She needs the key to get back home, she told him.
“Where do you live?” he asked in Spanish.
“Wow,” said Neira, who lives in Bridgeport.
After asking the cellphone-using student to stand up, Neira dived into the hunt with gusto. He ducked under the table, pulled apart the seat in the booth, and searched in the corners for the key.
He asked his coworkers if they had seen it. Staff at the food services contractor, Sodexo, who are mostly Puerto Rican, offered sympathy for Chastity’s plight, but no piece of metal and black plastic to help her home.
Neira sent Chastity on her way with regret and fatherly advice.
“Oh, Corazón!,” he called her with affection. “If you find it, make a duplicate.”
Chastity continued an exhaustive search of every sidewalk and building she had passed through. At each spot, she appeared to be getting closer.
“Is this it?” said a woman at the mail room, holding up a single car key.
Chastity’s face fell when she saw an “H” for Honda.
She continued to navigate the campus, finding new places to look and new people to help her. She headed to the public safety department.
She knew the path well. Just one week prior, she revealed, she had sought officers’ help amid a different transportation crisis: She had left her headlights on, draining the car battery. The public safety officers were about to jumpstart her Nissan when a thunderstorm hit, sending down rain and lightning and knocking out the power across campus. She spent the night riding around with campus public safety officers until it was safe for them to jump her car. That saga cost her five hours, and a missed quiz, she recalled.
“I hope it’s not the same people working,” she said with embarrassment.
Despite that remark, she did not hesitate at any point to ask help from anyone—a skill that has explained her remarkable resilience in the face of obstacles. Simply put, she does not give up. Help-seeking and perseverance are two of the so-called character skills that may be more important than an SAT score or a GPA in helping kids lift out of poverty and succeed in college and life, emerging research shows.
While others may have broken into tears, sat down, or been afraid to ask strangers for assistance, Chastity kept going—and enlisted practically every person she saw in her quest.
“At this point, I want to send out an announcement out to the whole school,” she said at one point during one of several trips to the parking lot.
“It shouldn’t be shameful to ask for help,” Chastity later reflected.
She remained in good spirits throughout the day. “This is looking like a sleepover!” she quipped at one point, noting that she could share Solanlly’s bottom bunk if need be.
Campus staff proved sympathetic and ready to join the mission. At the basement public safety department, Officer Paul Amarante put his hand into a box of lost lanyards and keys, pulling each one out in suspenseful succession.
Still, no luck. He offered to go to Chastity’s car and force open the door, in case the key had fallen inside the car.
A few minutes later, Amarante and Officer Rick Santiago (pictured) appeared in the parking lot with door-prying tool and a long, blue pole.
“You speak some Spanish?” Chastity asked him as she signed a waiver.
“Yeah, a little,” Santiago replied.
“Where are you from?”
“Bridge-Puerto-Rico,” Santiago replied. (Translation: He grew up in Bridgeport to Puerto Rican parents.)
Officer Santiago sprang open the locks. He and Amarante dived into the car with a flashlight.
“Don’t look too hard,” quipped Santiago. “You don’t know what you’ll find.”
The crew found no contraband—and no key, either.
Chastity rifled through her Dunkin’ Donuts apron in the back seat in dismay.
“I’m freaking out right now,” she told Santiago. “I live in New Haven. I’ve gotta get back to New Haven. I can’t call my mom because she’s on vacation.”
“I could call a grúa,” she said, searching for the word for tow truck, “but I don’t have time for that.” It was 3 p.m. She had been searching for over an hour to no avail. It was getting closer to her 5 o’clock class.
The officers suggested she call a locksmith.
“What’s a locksmith?” she asked.
After hearing the answer, Chastity set to work, calling on more resources to help her fill in gaps in her knowledge.
“Locksmith… how do you say that in Spanish?” she asked a reporter.
She dialed her best friend, Jorge.
“I just have a little problem,” she said before switching into Spanish to recap what had happened. “Me puse la llave en el bosillo de atrás ... se me perdió.”
Jorge set about looking for phone numbers for locksmiths. Meanwhile, Chastity headed down the long path to the theater, a 15-minute walk across campus.
“Have you ever lost anything?” she was asked along the walk.
“Money,” she said. “And half of my life.”
“Half of her life” was her father, who died when she was 9, shortly after her mom brought her to New Haven.
“Losing a key isn’t the end of the world,” she said.
As she walked, she continued to search for more help, working two iPhones. (One belongs to her workplace at Dunkin’ Donuts; the other is hers.)
“Maybe I should text my student mentor,” Angela, she said.
As the hunt reached the two-hour mark, Chastity’s legs began to hurt.
“I’m feeling the workout,” she said with a laugh.
When she reached the theater, the search hit a wall. She had scoured every inch of pavement she had covered that day.
She enlisted help from Professor Leavitt, who emailed the class to ask if anyone had seen the key. Leavitt also Googled phone numbers for locksmiths. Chastity took a picture of the computer screen with her iPhone.
Undeterred, Chastity stopped to refuel on a cookie and a banana-strawberry smoothie from Einstein Brothers. Then she headed to Solanlly’s dormitory for emotional support.
Solanlly greeted her from her bottom bunk, where she had been reading her psychology textbook. She helped Chastity through the next chapter of the saga: Convincing a locksmith she wasn’t trying to steal the car.
When Chastity called a 24-7 locksmith listed online, the man at the end of the line insisted she needed her mother’s driver’s license. She nervously dialed her mom. Her mom wasn’t mad, but she had no way to send a picture of the license.
As first-generation college-goers, Solanlly and Chastity both have been assigned both a student mentor and an adult mentor on campus. Between them, they have about seven mentors assigned by the university, plus tutors and the writing center for academic needs.
Solanlly’s adult mentor, Duane Corey (pictured), has turned out to be a good guy to know: He works for the university’s public safety department. He agreed to vouch for Chastity, to attest that she was not trying to steal the car. Corey greeted Chastity warmly; the two had become pals during Chastity’s car-battery episode.
“That’s how life is—adapt and overcome,” mused Corey, a public safety officer of 15 years, as they drove to meet the locksmith.
The locksmith, Simon Asa, pulled up to campus in a gray Dodge Caravan with New Jersey plates. Corey, an imposing figure, made a convincing case: He leaned into the window and asserted that Chastity was indeed her mother’s child. If Asa needed, Corey told him, he could follow the officer down to the public safety headquarters and see the documents himself.
Asa was convinced. He drove to Chastity’s car and stepped outside, smoking a Marlboro and wearing gray Puma tracksuit pants. He peered into the windshield and copied down the Nissan’s VIN.
Solanlly and Chastity thanked Corey and said goodbye: They could handle it from there.
They lingered by the car as Asa typed the VIN into his iPhone and waited for the universe to return the unique key code corresponding to the car.
As the clock struck 5:30 p.m., Chastity realized with dismay that she would not make it to ecology class at all.
They watched as Asa climbed into the back of his van, which had been converted into a workshop, and carved up a new key.
First, the engine turned over but didn’t catch. Then Asa pulled out a blue box, hooked up a cable to Chastity’s car, and “put the key in the memory of the car.”
At 5:35 p.m., he turned the key again. It worked.
“You’re a lifesaver!” exclaimed Chastity. “You don’t know how much this means to me. I’d give you a hug, but I don’t know you.”
“Don’t lose that key,” warned Asa, who speaks in a thick accent from Israel, where he grew up.
The jubilation subsided as Chastity paid for the service: $250, in cash.
“That’s like a full week of me working full-time,” Chastity said.
Paying for college has been a stretch. At first, Chastity didn’t think she could afford to go to Fairfield. Her mom, who runs a daycare out of her home, doesn’t have much to contribute. Just before the college acceptance deadline, Chastity launched a letter-writing campaign, successfully renegotiated her financial aid package, and decided to make a go of it.
Over the summer, Solanlly headed to campus for a program for first-generation college students. Chastity got into the program, but for personal reasons, decided to stay behind in New Haven. She made about $10 per hour working as a trainer for Dunkin’ Donuts, where she has worked since she was 16. To pay for college, she cobbled together a series of scholarships, including $700 from New Haven Promise, a Yale-funded college scholarship program.
She and her mom still had to come up with $1,117 in fees and—after some discount shopping—about $200 for books. To come up with $40-per-week in gas money, she continues to work about 16 hours a week at Dunkin’ Donuts. She puts in another seven hours a week at a work-study job as a museum security guard.
For kids from low-income families heading into college, the margins for financial viability can be so thin, reflected Rep. Lemar, speaking from experience. “A couple 250 dollar [payments] can turn into thousands of dollars of credit-card debt.”
Financial struggles are the number one reason low-income kids drop out of college.
Solanlly and Chastity have one major skill that works to their favor: “they have experience looking for help,” Lemar said.
And they have a sense of persistence that kids who are protected from failure often don’t develop.
Chastity quickly regained a smile as she put her new key on her key chain.
She was upbeat enough to insist a reporter take her photo before the school mascot.
In the dining hall, Chastity announced to her new friend Neira, the Colombian graphic-designer-turned-cafeteria-cleanup-man, that she had resolved the problem—though at a steep cost. He gave her a hug.
As she and Solanlly ate matching plates of Jasmine rice, lemon beef, baked potato and salad, Chastity confessed her exhaustion. She had hit the “climax” of her day’s drama, she determined, recalling another word from theater class. She was on to the denouement.
She pushed through a final class, a freshman workshop on how to have “success with less stress.” Motivational speaker Joy Baldridge coached students on how to “cut the worry wires” and “live in the house of glad” by exercising, resting, eating well and thinking positively. Baldridge directed students to wave their hands in the air.
“Congratulate yourself for exercising,” Baldridge said.
Chastity laughed—she had put in about four hours walking around on the key-finding expedition.
Baldridge then led students to chant several motivational phrases.
“I am flexible and adaptable!” students repeated after Baldridge.
After stress-reduction class, Solanlly headed back to the dorm.
Chastity headed to her car.
“Home is very much calling me,” she said.
As she drove north on I-95, Chastity reflected on the day’s misadventure.
“I think I handled it really well,” she said. Many of the tips Baldridge had offered, she had already employed that day.
“If you’re stressing about it, it’s not going to help the situation,” she said.
She also reflected on what she called an “odd” dynamic on campus: There appeared to be more Hispanic service staff than Hispanic students.
“Who can I really talk to in my language” when looking for help? “Oh, the staff.”
“If I wasn’t ‘flexible and adaptable,’ I would be weirded out that I was surrounded by people who are white,” she said.
Shortly before 9:30 p.m., Chastity pulled off the highway into Fair Haven, the city’s Latino neighborhood. Usually, she climbs upstairs to ask her mom’s bendición, or blessing, and catch up about the day. If it’s after dinner, her mom usually leaves her a plate of home-cooked food in the fridge.
Her mom was still on vacation. Her 12-year-old sister was awake. She gave her a hug.
Chastity asked her sister to bring her backpack upstairs. The bag was heavy with books she had planned to study in her three hours of free time between classes Tuesday—hours wasted on an expensive escapade.
Still, she kept a positive outlook on the day ahead.
“Whatever time I lost,” she said, “I’ll catch it up tomorrow.”
Past stories on Solanlly and Chastity: