This is half memoir and half self-help. I entered college with fears expected of any first-year college student, and I just recently got over them. One of the things that helped me get over them is knowing I was not the only one. We have heard stories of college students returning home with degrees unfinished, and this story is often followed by another story about what becomes of these students. What becomes of the students? What becomes of the school? I was able to ask these questions and answer them, and it was all because I had become one of these students.
I recently read an article, “The Urban Poor: Millenial Who’re Broke, Poor, But on Trend.” The title alone fits descriptions of my freshman year of college at an art school in downtown Chicago where everyone was taking on the expensive feat of becoming an artist. As if downtown Chicago is not enough of a glimpse into a trendy lifestyle, imagine living there as an aspiring singer, actor, painter, or writer. The article goes on to discuss a paradox with such luxury, particularly for young professionals who follow their dreams, earn money for it, then spend all their money on luxuries they ultimately cannot afford. I was taught this lesson when I once became more interested in spending $200 of $300 funds on my favorite live events rather than paying a $100 phone bill (true story, true math). My grandmother said that I was, “living beyond my means,” an idiom for spending outside of one’s budget. My heart was suffering over my Grandmother’s words, but I quickly realized this was not just an episode of a Grandmother’s love for her grandchildren, but a point toward a larger problem that many people run into with new money because my bank account was suffering worse. So I understand what Gayatri Jayaraman wrote in that article because it not only sounds like what my Mother and Grandmother told me, but I know that being “broke and hungry, but on trend” is what I was experiencing in college that has impacted my life ever since.
While running amuck on our dormitory meal plans, my friends and I discussed everything from our meals of the day to how much we spent on our meals of the day. The latter grew more interesting by the second because finances were a huge discussion entering college. The one thing we all seemed to agree on was that college was expensive. “Why college costs so much” seemed like an irrelevant debate because we were already there. The possibilities of not attending college was horrific for most of us. It was certainly horrific to our Parents, whose cosign we begged for financial assistance. For me, I hadn’t known of any of my favorite Writers or Journalists who didn’t go to college, and I wasn’t interested in being one. We were a determined bunch, however, so we personalized our questions and asked each other, “How are you going to pay?” As we were able to talk finances and finish our lunch, all of this seemed like pointless chatter to show off our college-educated minds of the tech-savvy world we were now in. It was not until I saw our financial conversations start to play out as real life economics that I gazed on the importance of our topics. Like Gayatri who witness her friends spend beloved first-salaries on cars and end up having to sleep in them, I became an observer to my peers making overwhelming sacrifices in order to pay their tuition like purposely being homeless and skipping meals.
There were financial resources to avoid going broke in college, but to avoid going broke and live a comfortable lifestyle required attention to necessities that many of my peers neglected due to pressures of college lifestyles. Seeing my peers starve as a way to save money was a misinterpretation of college life, and it was a constant reconsideration of attending one instead of a constant reminder. I made such decisions as taking out loans, which we were told not to do if at all possible. I encouraged hardly anyone to take out loans for college after doing so, but I could not imagine working a low-paying job that takes up more than half of my day and expecting to handle large educational expenses with a due date attached. With the debate of affordable education a part of students’ everyday lives, it would make sense that a student worked while in school and contributed any way possible, but something about this school and work collaboration left many of my peers out of the things they’d gone to school and work for: an education, a good job, and a life they were proud of. They were either too tired after work to study or too broke to grab lunch after paying out-of-pocket on miscellaneous student fees that could not be paid off until another couple paychecks, which headed toward the end of a semester. My peers were not only broke, but hungry, and this was the kind of living that was debated by our Parents and Grandparents in order for us to attend college. I was aided in debating this kind of living via my Mom’s weekly contributions of funds into my account until I found a job, preferably one on campus. I am not exaggerating the possibilities of any adult making a living off of any other adult, but I am not exaggerating my recollections of my peers sleeping on streets instead of dormitories in order to make sense of their educational expenses.
I later told my Mom these stories, and she reminded me of times when she would have to do things she didn’t always want to do in order to make a living. When my mom would come home from work to prepare dinner and tend to my educational needs, which often left her too tired to engage in a nightly bath routine, I understood sacrifices. I understood the concept of doing what you have to sometimes versus doing what you want to all the time, but I also knew how making these negotiations made me feel like soaking in a warm bath and sleeping in a warm bed. After a full day of classes, the only thing I wanted to do was soak in a warm bath or grab nachos. I wanted the same for my peers; if not for free, at least not for an extravagant cost. It is true: the cost of higher education is expensive, but so is the cost of living if we are not careful about how we spend our money and our time.
Freshman year of college can be boggled down with balancing school and work, managing school funds and spending money, and learning to enjoy these things while doing so. By the end of my first semester, I’d felt both the financial and emotional burdens of a first-year college student. I saw debt for the first time from loans I’d borrowed for my education, and it was much more than I wanted for a lifetime, let alone for a year in college. I saw the effects of playing student by day and employee by night, and I was not sure that God built me for that. These things were not as real compared to the “Education Would Pay Off” talk I received, but they certainly were not imaginary obstacles that I could continue to ignore. I was not prepared to pay the school what I owed when I left in December, and I was too broke, hungry, and on trend to want to be prepared. My only concern was having a break, and I got one.
The break that I got was a big break – a big break at a big job, one that others could tell I thoroughly enjoyed. It was a job of opportunity presented best to a 19 year old who wanted to learn something new. I most of all learned to take advantage of opportunities and resources available to me, and became able to recognize which ones were for me, which is a feeling I recall only having in school. My confidence at work helped me gain confidence about everything else, and I began to connect how important finishing college would be. When I was not at work, I was at church, which finessed my confidence into the courage to attempt to get back into school. As both a new employee at a new job and a new Christian, I could miss out on a lot of things I previously thought I couldn’t live without, but school was not one of those things, and certainly not for the sake of the same financial crisis that I’d critiqued my peers on in Chicago, the same crisis which I’d mastered since being home.
Since being home, the school I left has helped me get into the school that I will be attending this Fall. For 3 years, I was at home figuring out ways to get back in school, which mainly consisted of complaining about not being able to and then being reassured by my older Brother. My Brother, who had just moved to a new city after graduating from the Military academy, encouraged me the best with his stories of adjusting to life after hearing bombs going off just outside his window. My brother had also chosen to remember the girl 3 years before all this. 3 years before all this, I was signing a contract stating that I’d take honors courses, join a community organization, and a write a 4,000-word essay on a topic of my choice in order to graduate high school and earn college credit while doing so. I did all of those things at 16, and found myself at 19 about to lose it all. The mere idea of forgetting my educational background, supportive family, and overall positive attitude about these things is what brought me to 22 and readmitted into college. Now 22 and readmitted into college, I can look back on all this and see something which made me look forward. I look back on all this, not because I like to surprise myself with my budding knowledge of self, but because I know the surprise in this true tale of success for anyone who has ever failed.
There are things which mean much more at 22 than they did at 19, but this can often be conceived on a first-round trip to your favorite university place in the world. We have heard stories that some people do not always make it to this university place. We have heard stories about people who have gone to this university place and do not return. Perhaps, they should not, but not without serious deliberation. There are things we must not only discuss on table tops in dormitory lounges, but on telephones at home with our families who would literally die to know what we are talking about. Sometimes, we have to do these things twice. Especially when we have heard a thing cannot be done twice, do it twice. We must do these things twice, just so we know that we have a second chance. We must do these things so that we know they can be done.