As thousands of other Texas State University students were gearing up for their freshman year with brand new laptops, dorm room furniture and elaborate meal plans, Colin Ashby was setting his wheels into motion, quite literally, in much more humble ways.
“I sat in my car and duct-taped sheets to my windows,” the 20-year-old student, who is now graduating early in December, told ABC News.
Ashby lived out of his car his entire freshman year, from August 2012 to May 2013.
“I was 18 at the time and had this optimistic attitude like, ‘Ok, I’ll be able to afford college,’” he explained. “One of my loans fell through and I was already taking out the max on another loan and I didn’t get many scholarships. I just wasn’t able to afford the typical college experience.”
Not wanting to burden his parents with the exorbitant costs of living in the dorms, yet still completely determined to attend college, he made up his mind to make the “excruciating” living situation work. He told his parents he was living in the dorms and told the university he was living at home, which was allowed as long as your “residence” was within 60 miles.
Ashby’s parents were unaware that he was living out of his car.
“They were just getting out of a divorce,” Ashby recalled. “I knew if I did tell them, they would have fought over who should pay. They wouldn’t have jointly helped. I could also see they were going through some financial situations of their own. I really felt like it was my responsibility anyway. I’m an adult now and this should be on my shoulders.”
Though his cramped living quarters were extremely difficult at the time, in hindsight, it was an experience he wouldn’t do differently, he said.
“I don’t regret the experience at all,” said Ashby. “It was miserable and excruciating at times, but also really eye opening. It made me take a hands-on approach to my education.”
Unlike the more “privileged” students, as he refers to them, at Texas State, Ashby didn’t have the luxury of retreating back to a fully furnished, air-conditioned dorm room to catch up on television shows or video games missed while attending class. Instead, he visited every one of his professor’s office hours. He studied in the library. He applied for more scholarships and grants, which ultimately paid off.
“It really made me aware of my time,” said Ashby. “Obviously I can’t just hang around in my car. The library was my best friend. It had air conditioning.”
The heat, he said, was “by far the most miserable part” about living in the small, red Ford Focus.
“I had a fan I’d plug into my voltage outlet but it wouldn’t really help,” Ashby explained. “There were nights I’d lose sleep because of it. It could get up to 100 degrees, and that’s without factoring in the humidity.”
To shower, he’d use the rec center. To wash his clothes, the laundromats all over campus. In terms of food, he mostly stuck to pre-packaged options, with the exception of using one microwave located in the student activity center near a dining hall. But even that Ashby tried to keep under wraps, only using it “super early in the morning so that nobody would see me.”
When asked if there was ever the option to sleep on a friend’s couch or possibly just commute from his parent’s home in Elgin, Texas, about an hour away, Ashby explained there was “just this huge disconnect” between he and the other students due of their differences in goals and lifestyles, and he knew if he told his parents the truth, “They would have said, ‘School’s not the best option right now. You should just take time off to work and save your money.’"
“That’s how my family was,” said Ashby. “You work for it. And I just wanted to get it done.”
The only people who knew Ashby’s secret were two of his six siblings. Not his parents, not his professors and certainly not his fellow classmates.
“There was one time where I sort of hinted to one of my friends, I said, ‘Hey I took a nap in my car,’ and he just freaked out over it. He was like, ‘What? That’s gross.’ I didn’t really tell anyone after that,” he explained. “As I said, there was just sort of a disconnect. Everywhere surrounding me there were kids saying, ‘I just got my new MacBook and it only cost $1,000. Or ‘Oh mom, can you give me money for textbooks? It’s only $1,000.’ I couldn’t ask that of my parents. I felt afraid to do it. I felt it was my responsibly.”
Part of that responsibility was earning his own money. Ashby worked the graveyard shift at McDonald's from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m., race to his car for a brief nap, which was always difficult for the 6-foot-2-inch student, and then attend his first class at 8 a.m. To him, however, that’s just what it took to get the job done.
“People have this idealized view of college,” he said. “They think you’re just in utopia and just have everything you want because it’s freedom and your time to explore. But I said no. This is prep for the real world.”
Ashby’s hard work and determination has certainly paid off. He’ll be graduating this December with his bachelor’s degree in mass communications, after only a mere two and a half years of college.
“I did it out of need,” Ashby said of his freshman year experience. “I knew I needed to go to college. I knew college was important. And I knew I was going to do it any way possible.”
He is now living more comfortably, too. Ashby has moved in with his brother, who recently relocated to Austin, Texas.