Her Story: I Paid My Own Way Through College

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 over $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 NYC 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 homeschool 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 pleasestop learning for a while?” I didn’t mean that in a joking way either. I was at the end of my rope. 
 
But slowly, something began to change. My family was always there to talk me through the hardest days, even though they were far away. I had made a couple of good friends, and the smallest things they’d do to make me smile – like buying me a bag of Sour Patch kids and taking out all of them except the red and orange ones because they’re my favorite – started adding up. Maybe my optimistic nature just couldn’t take me moping around anymore. Whatever the reason, I was beginning to realize, little by little, that I didn’t want to give up. In fact, I wanted to blossom. How dare life try to get me down like that? I had plans and goals, and I was going to make them happen!
 
A side-note to anyone reading this: in my opinion, having dreams and goals that you feel passionate about is one of the absolute best ways to live life to the fullest when things are going well, and to get you through the rough patches when you’re not sure what else will. Personally, I’m extremely motivated by a desire to make my loved ones proud, and to repay the incredible trust and belief they’ve shown in me over the years in any way I can, every chance I get. I’m also driven by an innate desire to be successful in life; however I define success at that moment. Both of these things contributed to many of my college-related goals, including my goal of graduating summa cum laude, as one of the top 10 students in my class (in terms of GPA), studying abroad for a semester, and seizing every opportunity to make the most of my college experience, whether that be getting involved on campus or taking a midnight trip to IHOP with friends the night before an exam. I’m proud to say I’ve accomplished all of those goals and more. But I’ll come back to that later…
 

As I racked my brain, the internet, and asked everyone I knew for ideas on how to pay for school, a friend of my sister gave me a great idea. At her recommendation, I went to my favorite professors and staff and asked them to write letters of recommendation on my behalf. I talked to everyone from the head of the Honors program to the Dean of the College of Business, explaining my situation, and asking them to support me in appealing for additional financial aid. Armed with about six incredible letters (that gave more reasons why the University should keep me around than I could ever have thought up myself), and a print-out of my first semester transcript with a big, beautiful 4.0 on it, I made an appointment to see the head of financial aid. To my surprise, the first thing he said when I sat down was “I’ve heard a lot about you. We are definitely going to help you out.” He never even asked to see the letters. Apparently just by going through the process of preparing to go and speak with him, word had gotten back to him and he had already made the decision to help me.
 
I learned two more lessons from this experience: 1) When you want something, go after it with everything you’ve got and don’t let anyone tell you it’s not possible, and 2) Hard work pays off. A lot of people will tell you that your GPA doesn’t matter, and while that may be true for some things, it’s also one of many kinds of measures that demonstrate to the people around you that you are a committed and dedicated person. And schools – and many individuals – will invest in committed, dedicated people.
 
I could tell you three more years’ worth of stories like these ones, and another dozen lessons learned. However, the overall moral of my story is that I did it. I confronted challenge after challenge, and with a lot of hard work, faith and support from the people around me, I made it to my last semester, reached all of my major goals along the way, and had countless more experiences I never could have dreamed up if I’d tried. I’ll be graduating this May, summa cum laude and 10th in my class. I exceeded my goal of studying abroad for a semester when I not only spent 5 months in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 2010, but also took a two-week course to Costa Rica and Panama in January of that same year. I embraced every opportunity and can now look back on an incredibly full four years, and forward to the rest of my life, knowing that I’m ready to take on anything.