A harsh streetlight dimly flickered above the cold, concrete bench as Dakota Lee, a 20-year-old sophomore PLNU visual art transfer student from the University of Texas and the Permian Basin, sat waiting for the 8:00p.m. bus to Old Town.
Around 7:55 p.m. Lee books it over to the shuttle stop by Brown Chapel from her Intro to Computer Graphics class. Even though her class isn’t over until 8:00 p.m.
“I leave class a little early so I can make it to the shuttle on time,” said Lee,. “It’s the last shuttle of the night and I need to make it to Old Town so that I don’t miss the 9:11 p.m. train to Oceanside.”
The shuttle was empty when Lee got on it at PLNU. Jonathan McIntyre, the driver, greeted Lee like a good friend and asked how her day was. As the shuttle rattled down Rosecrans, a red Deutsch textbook left behind by a previous rider bounced around on an empty seat behind Lee.
Each day, Lee spends around three hours each night and every morning commuting to school from her home in Oceanside. Lee moved to California from Odessa, Texas in July of 2013 when her husband, Jordan Lee, a 21-year-old Marine, was stationed at Camp Pendleton. The couple only has one vehicle to use, so a lot of coordination is involved when it comes to using the car.
“My husband has our truck all week to get to work,” said Lee, “Except on Thursdays when he catches a ride from a friend and lets me use it to drive to the train station.”
When the PLNU shuttle pulled into the Old Town train station around 8:20 p.m., Lee grabbed her backpack and put her PLNU lanyard around her neck holding her pepper spray.
As Lee walked over to a metal park bench, she sat down, pulling her legs up into her chest as her pink Under Armour tennis shoes slid slowly away from her on the slippery bench. The train to Oceanside comes at 9:11 p.m., so Lee has to wait 50 minutes after she gets to the station for her train to come.
When the train pulls up at 9:11 p.m., a loud ding, ding, ding and flashing red lights surround the platform. The sounds are overwhelming.
“I can’t get the train noises out of my head, I hear them in bed at night,” said Lee.
Once on the train, Lee makes her way to the second level and sits down in a blue seat for the 45-minute ride to Oceanside. A few minutes after the train takes off, a group of rowdy guys walk down the aisle with a few bottles of Stone IPA and some empty, clear plastic cups. It’s pretty common to see people drinking.
“This is the party train I’ve noticed,” said Lee. “A lot of people drink on it.”
The train coasted along and Lee put her feet on the footrest that pulled out from the seat in front of her. Her large, black sweater was wrapped around her waist and her floral backpack sat next to her feet.
“My uncle bought my backpack for me, my sister bought my school supplies and my mother in-law bought my books,” said Lee. “Me going to school is sort of a team effort.”
When Lee first moved to Pendleton in 2013 after getting married, she spent a year not going to school and got really lonely. School is really important to Lee and as she spent time alone, she wondered, “What about my dreams?”
Growing up, Lee’s mom encouraged her to go to school. She is extremely supportive of Lee studying visual art. Her mom went to college in her 20s to be a nurse while raising three kids. School wasn’t always important in Lee’s family.
“My family comes from a line of high school dropouts and farmers,” said Lee. “My mom broke the trend and I really respect her.”
Around 10:07 p.m. the train arrives at the Oceanside station and Lee makes her way across the dark platform to the parking garage where her husband’s truck waits so she can drive home. Even though she has the truck on Thursdays, driving to school would take too long because of traffic and it would cost a lot of money.
Lee gets home at 10:11 p.m. and puts her backpack down next to a large brown couch in the living room. A closet to the left of the front door is open and her husband’s Marine uniforms and gear spill out.
Jordan, her husband, texts Lee and lets her know he’s on his way home as Lee makes a tortilla, turkey and cheese wrap for her lunch on Friday. After she makes her lunch, she makes a cheese and ground beef burrito for dinner and sits down to eat it around 10:47p.m..
Jordan, an E3 Lance Corporal, gets home around 11:00 p.m. and drops his gear by the front door, gives Lee a hug and kiss and then changes into camouflage pajama pants and an orange t-shirt with white paint stains.
Jordan works on base during the week so that Lee can go to school.
“I literally couldn’t got to PLNU without my husband,” said Lee. “He supports me.”
They have different schedules and hardly see each other, but Jordan is very supportive of Lee and her choice to go to school.
“I think it’s really great that she is sticking with it and going to school,” said Jordan. “Even though it’s hard, it makes us stronger.”
Around midnight, Lee and Jordan go to bed and at 4:40 a.m., Lee wakes up to go to school.. Lee has to be ready to walk out the door by 5:10 p.m. so that she can make it to the first bus stop, or she will miss her train.
Lee walks to the bus while it’s still dark outside and makes it to her first stop around 5:17a.m. The bench at the bus stop is dark and a man stands waiting quietly next to it. The bus arrives at 5:23 a.m. and Lee gets on, sitting across from a sleeping man wearing a large cowboy hat. To the left of the man, two middle-aged women sit speaking Spanish with a blue cooler on the floor in front of them.
Two buses later, Lee makes it to the Oceanside train station and gets on the train at 6:05 a.m.. As the train takes off, she takes her physics notes out of her backpack and studies them for the test she has at 8:30 a.m. Even though this is Lee’s first semester at PLNU, she has already made connections with professors and is enjoying her classes.
Professor Jim Skalman, Lee’s Drawing II professor, has noticed Lee doing really well in class..
“My students in Drawing 2 really seem to respect her and she’s really intelligent.”
Professor Skalman met Lee and her husband over the summer when Lee was checking out the art department.
“I think it’s notable that she chose to come to PLNU even though it’s so far from her home, but she wanted to come here and she did,” said Skalman.
A lot of students commute to school, but not a lot of PLNU students take the bus or the train, he said.
“What she does compared to the average PLNU student is pretty heroic,” said Skalman. “I have a lot of admiration for what she is doing.”
As the train passes by Solana Beach around 6:30 a.m., the sun shines through a gray fog on the trees on one side of the train and hovers over the ocean on the opposite side. The train arrives in Old Town at 6:54 a.m. and Lee runs to catch her bus.
“Usually it’s loaded when I get off the train, so I don’t take my time getting to it,” said Lee.
The bus takes Lee to the Shelter Island stop, just a couple blocks from the bottom of Talbot.
“There’s a bus that could take me closer to school, but its schedule would make me late for class, so I take this bus,” said Lee. “I’ve tried to ask Public Safety for a ride, but they say no.”
After getting off the bus at the Shelter Island stop, Lee walks to the bottom of Talbot and then starts her 45-minute walk up the steep street. When she gets to the top at 7:54 a.m., she’s tired, but not exhausted.
“Happiness is a choice,” said Lee. “Even though it’s tough, it’s also a really rewarding experience. You meet a lot of interesting people and learn a lot. It’s a network of strangers and I learn so much that I couldn’t learn in a classroom.”