Daily Prompt: Sink or Swim, Or: Canned Peas – College Education The Old-Fashioned Way

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is about perseverance. As in, dealing with a seemingly overwhelming situation on your own. This one hits really close to home, because it’s been such a huge factor in my life. I’ve got several stories to use – that’s the disguised blessing of being a loner and growing up in a broken home as a latchkey kid – and one is even ongoing as I type this. Hint: it’s not fun being unemployed. I’ll get into that story later. But this time, I’ll focus on something a little bit older:

College.

Aside from all the academic aspects, your college years are normally associated with things like partying, socialization, and developing as a person. You’re backed up by your parents, you meet people, and you just might learn a life lesson or two along the way. For most people, this process of changing from a young adult to being ready for the “real world” is typically a slow but steady process.

For me, it was a headlong plunge.

I’ve always been a great student. With my grades, I could’ve gone straight into places like Berkeley or Stanford. But I didn’t have the money for it; I didn’t have a college fund growing up. When I applied for financial aid, I was turned down because my parents’ salaries at the time exceeded the application’s quota; there was the underlying assumption that they would help me. But they didn’t; since I already had saved up money from working part-time as a high schooler, I was expected to foot the bill myself. My mother even lost her job shortly after the application filing period ended. I could’ve applied for student loans, but even back then I was savvy enough to know that would come back to haunt me. Same with credit cards. Considering the current debt and student loan financial crises, I’m glad to know I made the right decision. Thus I did things the old-fashioned way: I just took on part-time jobs, saved up, and focused on my schooling. Let me repeat that more simply: I paid for my college tuition myself. Let that sink in for a minute.

For those of you that have parents that pay for your education, thank them. Profusely.

Do you have any inkling of how hard it holding down a full course-load and working enough part-time jobs to make ends meet? It’s excruciating. But it is doable. I discarded my goal of going straight to a university and took all my lower division coursework at a community college. It wasn’t prestigious, but it saved me thousands. I couldn’t afford a car, so I simply walked and took public transit. I had to throw myself into my studies and make it count, because I literally couldn’t afford to fail. I didn’t sleep much during those years; I’d stay up late putting finishing touches on papers, only to wake up four hours later to get ready for my morning commute. I learned how to study and work in trains and buses instead of libraries. You’d be surprised how comfortable a pillow a hard plastic seat can be. It didn’t matter. All I cared about was the next assignment, the next class, the next objective. The requirements for a university transfer were spelled out in plain black and white; all I had to do was finish everything.

It took me a bit longer than most kids, but I got it done. My transfer was finished, and I was finally off to the university to tackle my upper division coursework. My first few weeks on the new campus, I felt like some of kind of impersonator. I was surrounded by people with backgrounds far better off than mine. A good portion of them (and instructors, for that matter) already knew each other from previous classes. I had to dig in and get adjust to the new setting. Some of those early lectures – particularly Renaissance Lit and Shakespeare – were the most technically demanding courses I ever took. They were the most rewarding, too; I was always a huge bookworm, but my literary and philosophical repertoire skyrocketed. I devoured information as if I were starving. My writings and eagerness to learn made me become the professors’ favorite within weeks. It’s not because I curried favor, but because I tackled the work with a no-nonsense but laid-back attitude. I did extremely well in this environment, and it seemed that finally, finally I would be able to make it through okay.

But I wasn’t. Not yet.

After some time, I had a consultation with one of my professors. She was actually spearheading most of her department’s graduate program, and offered advice to anyone who asked. She took one glance at my transcript and said, very plainly, that I might not graduate on time. Not because of the grades – I was acing every class – but because I didn’t have nearly enough coursework done. The revelation was utterly gut-wrenching. Due to the way the university’s scheduling worked, I might’ve missed out on vital courses and had to wait a whole year to take them. She explained that I could still pull it off, but I’d have to really step up my game.

So I did.

I walked out of that office with the determination that I would graduate on time. Looking back, it was probably one of the defining moments of my adult life. I realized that I had let myself become complacent after I had transferred; I had gotten too comfortable in my element, and it was catching up with me. I cast away all distractions. What little time I spent with my hobbies was used to study. There were no relationships, no parties, nothing else. When it came time for the quarterly registration, I doubled my course-load without a second thought. As a result, I had to reduce my working time to only a single day a week. Can you imagine doing that? Just scraping by with tiny paycheck every too weeks? Carefully budgeting out every last cent? Eating out of cans for months because you can’t afford anything else? Paying tuition was like cutting off a limb. I watched my savings crumble like an old wall with each passing quarter. But I knew that I couldn’t give up. I had come too far. I needed to finish.

And I did.

Obtaining that degree was one of the most exhausting and fulfilling challenges in my entire life. Not from an academic standpoint, but from a logistical one. When I triumphantly walked across that stage in my cap and gown, my account was nearly empty. I had almost nothing left. But I didn’t have a single cent of debt to my name. I may have been broke, but I now know that I’m in a better financial situation than the millions of others mired in loans. It taught me the value of focusing on the important things, responsibility, and the understanding that your essential, practical needs will always trump desire. You’d be surprised how much you can learn to love canned peas and bread when it’s the only thing affordable. I’ve also come to realize that it broke me emotionally; I didn’t have a single relationship – romantic or otherwise – in those years. Compared to most people my age, I’m terribly maladjusted. I still feel ashamed and guilty whenever I want to buy something for myself. And that sense of responsibility can be crushing. I need to work on those.

But whenever I feel weak, I look back and realize how determined and capable I can be.

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10 thoughts on “Daily Prompt: Sink or Swim, Or: Canned Peas – College Education The Old-Fashioned Way

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