It is 1 a.m., the air is cool and swirling around me, and the Los Angeles hills surround me as I peer out into the city. Standing there, listening to the faint echoes of life down below, I remember how far I am from home. I wake up every morning to the Southern California sunshine, the comfort of intellectual stimulation and the promise of a good meal waiting for me at the Marketplace, yet in the depths of my mind, no matter how calm I appear, my roots tremble.
I fear I will never escape the poverty into which I was born. Even if I somehow manage to use my education to get a well-paying job, and — even more miraculously — pay off the loans that are slowly stacking up, I will always bear the weight (literally and figuratively) of living as a poor person for many years. For me, education is a fearful monetary venture, not the glimmer of hope it has been portrayed as to low-income students.
The problem is not getting into and paying for college — financial aid makes it a reality for many students such as myself. Rather, educational institutions need to look toward correcting the mistake that they make by giving loans out to students who will most likely not be able to repay them. The government will only allow people like me to borrow so much. Even with this protection, I am more likely to graduate into a debt-laden future than the wealthier students who borrow more than I do.
No amount of self-motivation is going to prevent the systematic robbery performed by higher education institutions. The 50 most expensive colleges in the U.S. cost more than $64,000 a year. Many people working full-time with a master’s degree cannot expect to earn that much annually. At Occidental alone, 2015 statistics show average debt at $29,900 per graduate.
At Occidental, the lasting effects of my poor family are at times far away and at other times very near. When I gaze out over the California hills, I forget for a second that the only reason I am here is because Occidental can meet 100 percent of my financial needs — even though a portion of this is borrowed. When I am in line at the bookstore, I am painfully aware that the $50 textbook in my hands is going to be paid for out of my own pocket. When I am searching for a specific passage to read aloud from the unnumbered pages of the PDF to a novel that I found online, embarrassed and overwhelmed, I comfort myself with the notion that maybe that $35 I saved could go toward my student loans. In truth, a fear-motivated thriftiness will probably not be able to keep me from defaulting on my loans.
Meanwhile, I shove as many clothes as possible into the washer because I know that my laundry money was not factored into in the tuition for which I receive financial aid. I have a hard time eating nutritiously because my body craves the processed, salty, sugary foods that are cheaper and have been fed to me since I was a toddler. I don’t feel like I fit in a lot of places because my physical presence has been advanced by the circumstances of my youth. Biologically, I was an “early bloomer,” most likely because overweightness can cause early puberty and I was a pretty heavy child from living off the aforementioned foods. Mentally, I watched my parents consistently fight over money, and saw my father struggle with alcoholism and a narcotics addiction without proper care before his drawn-out death over a two-month period, which can only be traced back to working with lead paint. I fear that this is the life college may be dooming me to restart.
There are two different narratives when it comes to poor people: the quiet, sad story of someone who “had so much potential,” or the sappy, overplayed trope of the person who rose above their circumstances. The climax of these stories, too often skipped over, is the moment when the poor person is either crushed by the weight of their debt or is somehow able to find the resources necessary to manage a lifestyle that avoids repeating itself.
As a poor college student with no foundation from which to start, I have little sense of security for my future. In fact, I will probably be in a poor financial situation for the rest of my life, with a statistically significantly higher mortgage interest rate and lower retirement assets.
Attending college is simultaneously the most scholarly beneficial and financially precarious decision I have ever made. When I look at my financial aid award letter, my eyes hover over the small loans that I know could mark a future of instability and poverty no different than the life that made me want to go to college in the first place.
Ann Garber is an undeclared first year. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.