I cannot afford Mount Holyoke College but I deserve to go here just like everyone else. It is an affirmation I try to remind myself of often. I knew coming here would be tough. I knew I would not fit in financially. But I made the move from Houston to South Hadley all the same.
Though the question was unspoken, there was no doubt of it sitting in the minds of my peers, some administrators and some staff of Student Financial Services. Why come here if you can’t afford to? Weeks into my arrival I began to ask myself the same thing. Why go somewhere I knew would cause four years’ worth of hardship? What was the benefit? There is no point in explaining this reasoning to passersby because it starts long before my acceptance letter to Mount Holyoke arrived.
My mother is a single parent. She raised my brother and I on her own. We weren’t always grateful and in fact, looking back, we resented her for putting us in that situation – as if our low income situation was solely based on the decisions she had made. We fed into the “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” myth. Granted, some decisions could have been made differently but what we failed to realize was that systemic issues were working against my mother from the jump. Not having a bachelor’s degree, being raised in a low-income home and being a black woman were all disadvantages she couldn’t just wipe away. She did her best to take care of us with what she had.
Growing up the way I did – jumping from apartment to apartment, sometimes having a car and sometimes not, buying a Nintendo DS one year and having to sell it the next, etc. – I always vowed that I would never live this way again. I promised myself that I would never find myself in a low-income situation for as long as I lived. It was tiring, hard and expensive to be poor. In the area I grew up in there was a range of socio-economic status but the general consensus was that you were to go to college if you could afford it and go to work if you couldn’t. Your college options were limited, all within Texas, and your work options were even slimmer. I knew if I chose the latter path I would never fulfill my promise to myself. I envisioned repeating the pattern of so many before me and being stuck within a terrifying cycle that left no room for growth, only survival. I was tired of surviving. I wanted to live.
The college option was my only choice. However, the routes given to me were not satisfactory. I wanted to go to a liberal arts school, not a big state school. There was the hope of going somewhere I wouldn’t be laughed at if I were to tell people I majored in English. There was the hope of going somewhere I wouldn’t be recognized. There was the hope of finally being able to be myself and being free to speak my mind. There was hope in ending college and not returning right back home with many of my other peers. There was so much hope in the idea of college elsewhere. What could possibly be out there for me was overwhelming.
Of course, my mother fought back on the idea, for few in my family who did go to college had never gone to school outside of the South. Other family members didn’t believe I would go through with leaving, friends began to drift away from me, and I dramatically began my goodbyes. I wasn’t sure where to go by the time senior year rolled around but the image of emerging victorious and proving that I did it was so very prominent. Application season ended, after weeks of embarrassingly requesting and sending personal documents about my mother’s financial situation to the private schools. I waited impatiently for responses from the eleven schools I applied to (which, according to the students I would later meet at Mount Holyoke’s prospective student’s weekend, was nothing compared to 20 to 30 schools) and received six acceptances, two rejections – after a deferral – and three wait-list options.
Long story short, I ended up choosing Mount Holyoke because when I arrived the students admitted to me they weren’t 100% happy with the school. Normally this would turn students away but what I liked was the idea that they were willing to discuss it and wanted something to be done. They loved Mount Holyoke enough to want to better it.
After arriving, however, I found myself overwhelmed with the amount of money needed and how taboo it was to talk about how much you could not afford. There were no spaces to discuss such a thing and the school definitely strayed away from the topic. I knew coming in that it would pose a challenge to be in a place where class distinction could vary much more widely than back home, but I didn’t estimate just how much of a challenge.
I have found other students like me. After hosting a Taboo Talk last year where we discussed class on campus and how pressured some people feel to rise to the standards of their peers, many more people have been willing to come to me and discuss what it feels like to be here. Sometimes we feel like we’re not allowed to complain because it’s a privilege to be here. There’s a fear in wasting meal swipes because that can feel like the equivalent of wasting food. We often feel pressured to transfer somewhere less expensive despite having already established roots with the friends, connections and workloads we have here. We fear that we may not be able to return the next semester and thus begins the dread of possibly having wasted money at an institution that doesn’t care if you return. When worse comes to worse, that fear is confirmed.
So why do it all? Why risk the heartache and the stress? It is because many low-income students make promises to themselves just like I did. They don’t ever wish to see their families return to situations like the ones they grew up in. Often, we are forging pathways to betterment the only way we know how. That usually includes cutting through the pathways of the privileged. Get an education at a prestigious institution and it’s highly likely that you’ll have a leg up upon graduating. From there you can enter the circles of those in the socio-economic classes above you and there is a better chance at being stable. Though some like to make the joke that college degrees are useless, I often find that those people come from statuses already on par with that of many other college graduates. But for those of us not at that level just yet, a college degree means so much more. So I do not take it lightly. To graduate is a promise in itself: take the risk and do significantly better than you had been doing before.