Ever since I could remember, I’ve wanted to go to college.
Most five-year-olds dream of otherworldly magic, going to space, or becoming something out of their wildest imagination. Not me, no. My five-year-old self dreamed of going to college and working at PetSmart. I wanted to go to Harvard and then use my degree to work at Petsmart. I’ve always loved cats and holding all of them was a lifelong priority of mine (that part hasn’t changed).
Now a senior, my ideas about higher education have changed dramatically. I’ve learned a few things during my short time at Rowan University. One, education is expensive. Two, why would I use my expensive degree—especially if I theoretically obtained one from Harvard—to work at PetSmart?
I wish I still thought about school the way I did so many years ago. My ideas of school at the age of five were straightforward because all I knew at the time was that I would go to school and do what I loved. Money, loans, and FASFA weren’t in my vocabulary at five years old.
Instead of taking fun classes for the hell of it and living on campus for the “experience” (an idea I still don’t quite understand), I’ve spent my entire time at college answering the same questions. How can I graduate with the least amount of debt possible? How many hours will I need to work to pay this semester’s tuition? Why won’t the school increase my merit scholarship? What scholarships can I apply for? How am I going to pay my tuition bills? These questions and many more played like a broken record in my head.
As a first-generation student, my path was unpaved. Every time I filed my FAFSA, my anxiety would go through the roof because I was worried that I filed it wrong. What if FAFSA doesn’t recognize my financial situation? Will they give me grants? I didn’t know. YouTube only had so many answers.
Even worse than FAFSA anxiety, I didn’t know how I was going to pay for the rest (which was a big chunk of money). I’ve been working since I was a preteen if you count under-the-table jobs such as babysitting. I’ve always saved my money because I knew where I was heading. By the time I got to college, I had a good sum saved up!
But it wasn’t enough.
So, I worked even more. I picked up jobs despite the fact that they bruised me, body and soul. I cried. I ran on little sleep. I wanted to quit. On top of all the work, I was maintaining a 3.9 GPA and extracurricular activities. Even while I was juggling my work and school life, I was also thinking ahead… thinking about graduate school.
There was always so much happening at once.
My time at Rowan reminds me of Kendrick Lamar’s song “Count Me Out.” In his poetic masterpiece, Lamar tells how he’s going to “make things right.” Although our experiences as people are ultimately different, I deeply relate to Lamar’s anxieties about not being enough. We both know what it feels like to be counted out.
I’m proud to say that I have accomplished my goals. I am graduating a year early and I only have $5,000 in debt. On top of it, I’m graduating with many other honors and vast achievements. But it makes me sad to think about why I was so determined to do this.
To my professors and Rowan staff who have graciously guided me through my journey at college, you are like my family. I promise your efforts will not go unnoticed.
Most importantly, to all my fellow first-generation students doing it on their own, know your worth. Remember to celebrate the little things, like filing your FAFSA correctly. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Rowan has so many resources for first-generation and low-income students— I wish I had known about these sooner.
Break the generational trauma. Show them who you are. And most importantly, prove yourself wrong. Quiet the little voice that tells you otherwise. You’ve worked so hard for your degree. One day, the tireless hours are going to pay off in more ways than one.
We, the first-generation students, single parents going to school, students fighting the stereotypes, and students doing it on their own, are the backbone of Rowan University. The education system needs more students like us.
And finally, for me. If I could tell my five-year-old self one thing, it would be this: you didn’t go to Harvard but you ultimately achieved something better than an Ivy-league degree, you beat the odds.
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