Looking back now, having to pay my way through college was one of the best things that ever happened to me. That may sound strange coming from a senior who will be graduating from a prestigious (and expensive) undergraduate business program this May, with more than $80,000 in student loans and no savings in the bank, but it's true. Before I explain why, let me backtrack and start this story from the "beginning."
Four years ago, I was in the middle of my gap year between high school and college, working for a swimwear designer and eagerly waiting for those big fat envelopes that tell you where you're going to be spending the next four years of your life. I had decided to take a gap year because in the midst of senior year I realized I was way too stressed out to even begin thinking about where I wanted to go to college. I hadn't saved any money, I was burned out on homework, and I just really wasn't ready. So I waited.
I spent the summer and fall working for my mom's company and living at home to save some money, then headed across the country to New York City to live with my sister for a couple of months (which is where I was when the acceptance letters began to arrive). I would later finish out my gap year back home in Texas, working as an executive assistant to the CEO of a semiconductor company. As you can tell from the wide range of jobs I held in just one year, I was still exploring what I wanted to do with my life ... and where I wanted to go to college. As the acceptance letters came in one by one, I was quickly overwhelmed by the choices. However, the first criterion was simple: where did I get the most financial aid?
I knew that my family's financial situation (single working mom supporting three children at home without even child support from our absentee father) meant that I'd probably get some need-based aid. But I was unprepared for the merit-based scholarships that told me, in so many zeroes, that all my hard work in high school had paid off. Prepared or not, I was grateful, as the reality had recently begun to set in that I would pretty much be on my own when it came to paying for my education.
My parents had chosen to home-school us from the beginning, because their work often took them on the road and they wanted us to be able to travel with them without having to take us out of school. As a young child, it was a grand adventure. The world was my classroom and I thrived as I was exposed to different languages and cultures, and given the flexibility to pursue my interests. In fact, I credit my love of writing today to a lifelong, insatiable appetite for reading that had me devouring 1,000-page books in a day by the age of 10. I never would have been able to explore my passions to that degree had I gone through conventional schooling. However, as I struggled to teach myself pre-calculus and do AP chemistry experiments alone in our kitchen during high school (after my two younger siblings had chosen to start attending a private school), the allure began to wear off.
Looking toward college, I longed to go to a "traditional" four-year private university and experience everything I felt I had missed in my unconventional upbringing. I didn't care that the more reasonable option would be to attend an in-state school or do my first two years at a community college. I wanted ivy-lined brick buildings, boyfriends, and the whole nine yards. But boy, were those yards expensive! Like most people, I was pretty ecstatic when I finally decided on my college. But the reality set in quickly. I had no savings, an $800 acceptance fee due, and about $10,000 left to pay on my tuition/room/board for my freshman year alone, even after my very significant financial aid package. Not to mention plane tickets, textbooks, and winter clothes to pay for, since I'd be moving across the country, from Texas to Rhode Island.
The most obvious choice was a private loan to cover the difference, but my mom's recent financial difficulties meant she didn't qualify as a co-signer. So I swallowed my pride and prepared to grovel. Fortunately I never had to, because my older sister immediately said "yes" as a co-signer for a loan. And so I learned the first two lessons of this experience: 1) Never be afraid to ask for help, and 2) People (especially your loved ones) want to see you succeed, and if you give them reason to have faith in you, they will go above and beyond anything you could have imagined to help you do it. My first semester was like a dream. I made friends, got a boyfriend, and excelled in my classes. Sure, there were challenges -- adjusting to a new culture, seeing my friends' parents buy them expensive clothes and pay for food and decorations for their dorm rooms, having to make up excuses for why I couldn't go out to a club or an expensive dinner on a Friday night -- but all in all, I loved college so far, and was grateful to be there.
I spent winter break back home with my family, and then headed back to school in January, looking forward to another great semester. That's when everything started to fall apart. My boyfriend and I went through a devastating break-up. The reality of the harsh New England winter set in. My mom called to tell me that she could no longer afford our health insurance. And as I began to look at the tuition numbers for next year, I realized I'd be coming up short again.
At first all I could do was to feel sorry for myself. I cried every day, my grades began to slip, and I came close on more than one occasion to just throwing my hands up and saying, "Fine then, I give up!" It was honestly one of the hardest times I've ever gone through. I'm usually a pretty happy, optimistic person. Even when life gets me down, I know it's only temporary and everything will turn out all right in the end. But for the first time in my life, I didn't feel that way. I'm not all that religious, but I distinctly remember praying and saying, "God, I know there's a lesson to be learned from every experience, but can I please stop learning for a while?" I didn't mean that in a joking way either. I was at the end of my rope.
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