First, big ups to Latino USA who discussed navigating higher Ed last week and inspired this post. I recommend everyone to give the episode a quick listen. The story talks to different Latinx students finishing up their college degrees and the problems, mostly financial, that they face.
Memories came flooding back as I remembered my Junior year in college and how a ton of missteps and bad luck made it so financially difficult that it looked like I wouldn’t be able to finish school. I never connected the dots that this may be a common theme many of us experience, but the fact that Latinx students struggle to graduate proves that something is amiss.
I want to talk about my own struggles to add to the chorus that obstacles in college are common and draining–even more so for first gen students who often do not have the financial or emotional support from their family. Or who may be unable to articulate the struggles they’re experiencing when they’re parents are going through what seems far worse.
I went to a private university and had a healthy financial aid package so the first two years were seemingly easy. But there was a shift my junior year and suddenly the amount owed for the semester was a lot more than in years past. At the same time, there were more struggles happening at home that made the contributions we were once able to afford just not possible. For a while, I really considered withdrawing from the University I had attended for 2.5 years–a place I had come to love–to move back home and enroll in a local, public school. It was a dreary semester, full of dread and shame. I remember being so embarrassed that others would find out. And that shame was so nonsensical–it’s not really possible for first gen students from single-parent homes, who always struggled financially, to easily afford tuition at a private school. But the shame existed nonetheless.
I finally went to the financial aid office and the counselor gave me more info on loans available to me. Of course, loans aren’t great, but this is the reality of higher Ed in this country. A friend of mine who’s studied in one of the best private schools in houston told me how he took an education loan to be self-reliant. That was inspiring because his parents could afford the fees, yet he chose not to get their help. And the small loan was able to get me over this roadblock. Luckily, I could continue my BA journey at the same school, without disruption. Maybe others would make a different choice, but for me, this was the right step to help me get to my next goal, which was law school.
Maybe this sounds familiar to what your college experience was like? Or maybe you’re in college right now and are worried about how you’ll be able to finish. The most important thing to remember is that this is common. Not being able to afford tuition, or housing, or other basic essentials is not a failure on your part. Access to higher Ed in the U.S. is limited and difficult. It will take a lot of proactive decision-making to get the funds you need. But that can’t happen until you lose the shame that comes with not having enough money.
Then start looking at your options. Struggling with money can feel so overwhelming that you let yourself believe that there are no options. It can stop you from seeking out help or you start self-sabotaging in other ways. Don’t throw in the towel before you know for sure. Go to your financial aid office, go to your diversity student office, do your own research for loan, grants, or other options. You owe it to yourself to uncover all resources available to you.
At the same time, the stress of being financially insecure takes a massive toll on your mental health. I listen to the podcast and felt so strongly for the student crying because he couldn’t afford his rent. I remember that frustration and sadness of just wanting to get my degree without worrying about meeting other basic needs. It is likely that while you are working to make it happen that the stress will feel overwhelming. Seek help beyond your financial aid counselor. Go to your mental health services if things feel like you’re drowning. It’s better to talk to professionals who can teach you coping mechanisms over allowing self-destructive behavior take over during times of stress.
We talk a lot about how hard law school is–and it is. But in many ways, it’s easier than college because by then we’re accustomed to navigating a system that is unfriendly and isolating. Obtaining a BA often means going into this system cold. Not knowing what to expect, feeling alone with little support from family or friends. If you’re in the midst of this process, remind yourself that you are capable of persevering over any barrier placed before you. Remind yourself that your goals are worth the struggle–and that with just a little more endurance you will achieve them!