Previously: None of this is a good approach on how to go to college after high school. None of it. And this was only a sliver of the problems I experienced as an undergraduate, living thousands of miles away from the nearest family member, in a completely different time zone and country from immediate family.
It could’ve been better
That’s what I always tell myself. But, of course, it could’ve been better. Anything can always be better. What’s the use in thinking like that?
Whether a conscious act or some bizarre, situationally driven need, I’ve made it a point to be as financially independent as possible when I left home. I also recognized it wouldn’t be easy, but the fear of being perceived as that brat who always asked for money all the time outweighed the need for that support (and more).
My parents did provide some financial support, mostly for rent and groceries. My mom especially made sure I had enough money for the essentials. My dad provide for a car so I could get around in Maryland. I worked part-time throughout my bachelor’s degree to pay for most everything else. My studies likely suffered as a result of this. My well-being most certainly did. I was constantly worried and nervous about a lot of things. And anxious. I was anxious all the time. About my classes, my future, and mostly about money. I hated money and never had a good relationship with it.
When I wasn’t doing coursework, I was either working or sleeping. I didn’t have much of a social life, and I couldn’t really afford one. I developed a terrible habit where I felt oddly compelled to work all the time.
I didn’t really know what work-life balance was until fairly recently when my partner had a frank discussion with me. In my mind, if I wasn’t working and earning money, I was going to go broke and become homeless and go hungry and… yeah. It was a terrible place to be, mentally. I don’t wish it on anyone, and if I can guide Dee, my mentee’s pseudonym, with some financial tips, that would be a big enough victory for me.
Like I said in my last post, Dee is smart. But she also has this sensitivity and fragility to her that could be devastating. If I can keep her from experiencing the financial anxieties I had, awesome. If I can help her minimize the stress and anxiety about finances, that’ll be great, too.
Proving something to someone
Looking back, my undergraduate experience was a strange show of proving something to someone. At the time, I convinced myself that I was trying to prove something to myself. Now, I think it was more an attempt at flipping the biggest bird possible at my parents and prove to them that I can do stuff. And to appease some irrational thought I concocted about how I had to make all of this worth it in their minds. Pretty effed, yeah?
I had a few retail jobs as an undergrad. I attempted, numerous times, to land a federal work-study job on campus but never got one. Eventually I got a job as a clerk at the UPS store on campus but the manager was an asshole. No joke. He made students — customers and employees alike — cry. I left after three months and found a sales job at a nearby shopping mall — a 45 minute drive from campus.
My grades were slipping but it never occurred to me to drop a class before those deadlines. I was taking a bunch of sociology courses to meet degree requirements, but it was the economics, statistics, and German language classes that did me in. I didn’t know when to reassess, and I didn’t know how to ask for help. I tried to stay afloat until I couldn’t any more. The university sent me a letter, first to inform me I was on academic probation. Then to strongly advise I take a semester off.
At the time, that was a real low point. I got the soft boot with the chance to appeal after a semester suspension.
My retail job wouldn’t increase my hours so I looked for other work. I left that retail job and became a portrait photographer for a company based in Baltimore, travelling to K-12 schools in the DC-MD-VA metro region. I even drove out to York, Pa., to drop off a garment for senior photos. It was a lot of driving on the Capitol and Baltimore beltways, getting stuck in rush hour traffic in the summer heat. It was a fun and exciting opportunity. I learned a lot about portrait photography, lighting, and posing young children.
When school portrait season was over and my job ended, I transitioned back into retail. I also submitted my appeal to return to UMD, and was reinstated on probationary status. Throughout the semester, I met with a time management counselor, attended group therapy sessions, and submitted regular academic updates to the administration office.
I failed to raise my GPA that semester. and the next. I was about to be permanently kicked out. I got scared. But who to turn to? My partner had been getting an earful already and he was exhausted. My parents didn’t know enough of what’s been happening to understand the situation. I didn’t really have any friends or anyone to confide in.
My German language instructor that semester pulled me aside one day. She saw I was struggling and warned me that I won’t get higher than a C- — a grade sure to hurt my overall GPA. She advised I withdraw before the deadline. I did. My GPA topped the bottom limit by a few points. Enough to keep me in for another semester but I wasn’t out of the woods yet. I had to do whatever I could to graduate with a competitive GPA.
I took winter and summer classes. I took classes at a community college and transferred those credits over. I worked part-time at the mall 45 minutes away from campus. Why can’t I get a FWS job? I often wondered that every time I walked into the campus book store.
After my final winter class in 2012 I was done. I was happy it was over. But I also felt like a total failure. My GPA wasn’t good. Embarrassing, in fact. Based on that alone, I wouldn’t be considered competitive. It didn’t matter that I did really well in all my journalism courses. My GPA was garbage. I was still in retail. I didn’t really have experience or the know-how to move forward.
Then one day I got an email from my journalism professor. A grad student in her class mentioned a paying internship and wanted to know if I’d be interested in meeting with him to learn more. Yes! I visited him in class one afternoon, got more information about the position, the organization, the managing editor, and the scope of the team’s work. I was hooked. I asked him to put in a word for me, and submitted my application that same evening.
Within a few days I got a call to schedule an interview. Two weeks after that I left my retail job to work as an intern for a Bethesda, Md.-based newspaper focused on education. I moved up from intern to news producer to social media coordinator. I wrote for the newspaper, worked on a crowd-sourced project, and had a really great time with my coworkers.
Fast forward a few years. I’m still finding my balance, but I’ve had a lot learning opportunities and looking for more ways to move forward in this journey of life.
After about two and a half years at the newspaper, I applied to grad school and moved to New York. I continued to work part-time for the paper, overseeing the production of its digital issues. I also got a FWS position as a graduate student assistant in the Dean’s Office at the New School for Social Research doing social media, web management and writing, and other data-related projects.
The master’s program was a wonderful two years where I got to really explore what I was interested in, and whether I wanted to pursue a Ph.D. I do. My first round of applications were all rejected but I don’t feel terrible about it. I’m going to try again.
In the meantime, I’m working full time as a communications person at an education non-profit in East Harlem. It’s not quite what I want to do, but I’m making the best of it right now. I’m still on that journey.
And that’s what I hope to teach my mentee. That at the end of all this — high school graduation, college applications and acceptances, a degree, successes and failures — it’s all still a journey of learning. We don’t figure ourselves out at 18, 22, 28 years old. But we do learn more about ourselves so we can get to where we want to go, and be who we want to become.