Mark R. Bacon—Main Event Sports
David Ugochukwu doesn’t look at political headlines anymore. “I somewhat pay attention to the news,” he says. “I used to do it a lot, but the way things are popping up and down with the federal government, it’s a sore subject.”
Ugochukwu’s mother, Lucy, works for the U.S. Department of the Treasury in customer service. She hasn’t received a paycheck since the end of December due to the ongoing government shutdown. That paycheck covers her son’s tuition at Penn State–Schuylkill, and although she was able to pay fall tuition, she cannot cover the last installment for her son’s housing. With an unpaid balance, Ugochukwu can’t sign up for spring classes. It also means he is ineligible to play basketball, according to the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), the governing body under which the school’s athletics programs compete.
Ugochukwu, a sophomore forward who started nine of the Lions’ first 11 games of the year, does not have an athletic scholarship, and while NAIA Division II schools are allowed to offer full scholarships for athletics, PSU-Schuylkill does not. “I play because it still means I get to live out my dream,” he says. For as long as the government shutdown continues, Ugochukwu intends to practice with his team and support his teammates from the sidelines. He wasn’t even supposed to be let on campus with the outstanding balance. After getting nowhere on the phone with the bursar’s office, Lucy Ugochukwu says she drove two hours from her home in Baltimore to speak to someone on campus face-to-face, only to still be told there was nothing that could be done.
A Penn State–Schuylkill housing manager felt differently and let Ugochukwu into his dorm room so that he could at least audit his classes while his mother figures out a way to deal with the bill. Lucy applied for emergency loans but says she was denied. She is supporting around 90% of her son’s tuition bill and is the sole provider for her family. Unlike her son, she pays very close attention to the news. “I find the current tug of war very sickening,” she says. “It seems that no one cares about the American trying to make ends meet, where their next meal is coming from, keeping a roof over their head, they are all caught in the middle.”
NAIA rules have kept the team from making an exception for Ugochukwu. Joseph Godri, director of athletics for Penn State–Schuylkill, offered glowing reviews for his sidelined player. “He’s a great kid, team player, honor roll student, everything you want in a student-athlete, but NAIA rules state that a player has to be enrolled in 12 credits in order to play.”
Ugochukwu still comes to practice despite not being able to play in games or travel with the team. If the school’s bursar continues to deny him the ability to register, university housing will soon follow, and Lucy will have to pick up her son from college.
A GoFundMe was briefly set up for Ugochukwu but taken down over concerns about potential NAIA violations. Family and friends were looking to raise $1,600, which would be enough let him register for classes. If the shutdown drags on, Ugochukwu doesn’t know how his mother will be able to cover this semester’s tuition, which sits just under $11,000.
Ugochukwu knows he could miss the rest of the season, but he reminds himself that he’s only a sophomore. The bigger risk is a delay in getting his degree. The stress has taken a toll on Lucy, who says she’s been experiencing chest pains. “I’m trying to be strong for David, but that’s not working anymore. Nothing is.”