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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Daily Prompt: I Have Confidence in Me, Or: The Paradox Of The Shy, Adventurous Writer

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is about confidence. Specifically, what you’re good at, and what you’d like to be better at. This one’s actually hard for me to explain. I understand that I’m good at writing; it comes naturally to me. I’ve only improved over time and effort. My standards are much higher than they were a decade ago. The words flow from my fingers like a river, and the ideas therein are the rocks and rapids. You know how most students loathe writing essays? I thrived on that in college. A good piece of writing is like a puzzle; each word is an individual (but essential) component of a more complex structure. It’s just a matter of examining each piece and arranging it correctly to convey your message. Oh, and the key to developing a writer’s voice? Just read what you’ve written out loud. If it sounds weird, then you know you need to change something. It’s that simple. Unless you want to sound like a space alien pretending to be human or blatantly show off your thesaurus-perusing skills, but that’s an entirely different issue…

Going on a tangent. Sorry.

From an objective standpoint, I know I’m good at this. Getting the words together on paper (though it’s more on-screen these days) is really easy. Dealing with my internal critic, however, is a struggle of epic proportions. You probably know what I’m talking about. It’s that little voice in your head that just loves to sow doubt and undermine everything good you believe about yourself. Typing again, huh? It’s not even worth your time. Who’s going to read it? You think anyone will actually care, let alone notice? Where’s the money? Writing is your greatest skill? What a joke. Why can’t you get a real job, and be like everyone else? Failure! You don’t have a future. You’re never going to make it. You’re going to starve, man.

…Yeah, I need to work on the confidence thing.

For the longest time, I bought into all of that. On my really bad nights, I still do. But if you get me motivated and focused, I will be on fire. It’s all about the situations and objectives. The last time I did NaNoWriMo, I burned through 20,000 words in a single sitting. When I found out that that I might miss the deadline for my college graduation, I buckled down and scheduled more than a full course load, aced every single class, and got my degree on time. You give me a goal I’m interested in, and I’ll show you what tenacity and willpower can accomplish. Resolve is one of the greatest and most terrifying qualities a person can have.

My skills aren’t limited to writing, though. I’ve got a critical eye with regards to pretty much everything, so I’m good at picking up details. You know how kids are capable of absorbing tons of information? It’s kind of like that. Facial expressions, vocal tones, languages, accents, structural designs, philosophical concepts, colors, anything. It’s pretty handy when you’re tasked with reviewing something; I can take a game/story/whatever apart quickly. I can read and predict others easily. People think I’m insightful, but my observations seem really obvious. Anyone who’s ever played against me in fighting or strategy games knows what an utterly ruthless tactician I can be. It’s not about thinking outside the box; it’s about thinking outside the room the box is stored in. I’m capable of memorizing lengthy procedures and scheduling around them; I used to have my college commutes calculated down to individual steps. I’d like to think it was practicality over OCPD, but I know better.

I’m also a really good traveling companion. Whenever I travel in a group, I’m usually the one with the map or an idea of where to go. Give me a little time to figure out the layout of a new place, and I’ll quickly adjust to it. I explored Paris on Le M√©tropolitain, and I didn’t speak a word of French. Someone even asked me for directions! The pigmentation of my skin is ambiguously olive enough that I can pass for a local most of the time. Since I’m good at reading facial expressions, I don’t always need to verbalize to communicate. I’ve also got a cast-iron stomach; I’ve eaten local cuisine that have left others bedridden for days.

Huh. It’s surreal reading the last few paragraphs. I know I’m good at all of that, but it clashes with my personality. I’ve mentioned before that I’m introverted. It’s not a flaw (no matter what social expectations say), but it’s completely the opposite of adventurous side. Wandering a foreign city? I’m fine. Stuck in a crowded room? I’m lost. I’m really shy and uncomfortable in social situations. It’s tiring and awkward, and it makes me look arrogant and aloof. I don’t want to talk about my interests, because I just end up confusing the other person. People are sometimes intimidated by my use of direct eye contact. It’s a tactical measure; people know I’m paying attention, which puts them more on edge and gives me the advantage. I’ve also been accused of being a charmer, which always seems bizarre to me. I’m not trying to be charismatic; I’m trying to survive the conversation without making a fool of myself. You’d be amazed how far a smile, a joke, and polite conversation can get you. I’m always taken aback when women (and men, with surprising frequency) try flirting with me. I never know what to say, and I just want to back away as quickly and gracefully as possible.

Ye gods, I’m actually blushing now.

I need to work on the social skills. I get that. I’m not good at connecting with people beyond a purely academic level. It’s just scary, awkward, and unnerving. I wish I had a stronger voice, too. It’s annoying when people can’t hear you because your indoor voice is apparently a whisper. I can hear myself just fine. I wish I was more physically coordinated, too. I can hike for hours at a time, but I’m not good at conventional sports. I did pretty well in jujitsu, though…There are so many other things I wish I could do better. When I have the time – I’m heading out to a party now, incidentally –¬† I’ll make a list. It’ll be a long one.