74. A Hand Up

74. A Hand Up

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Find Your Inner Strength

A Hand Up

The only thing that overcomes hard luck is hard work.

~Harry Golden

“There was a fire yesterday.” My mother’s voice was matter of fact. “The shop and the apartment are in pretty bad shape. You can’t come home. There’s no place to come to right now and we don’t have money to pay for you to stay in college. So you have to decide what to do.”

Stunned, I asked a few questions, hung up the phone and fled to the Resident Advisor’s room in tears.

I was nineteen years old, in my sophomore spring at the University of Michigan, 600 miles from my New Jersey home. A home that no longer had a place for me.

“No one died,” the RA soothed. “It’s only stuff. In two months the semester is done. Then you can figure out what’s next.” At about twenty-two or twenty-three years old, she probably hadn’t dealt with anything more traumatic from her undergraduate charges than a breakup with a boyfriend or disagreements between roommates.

No one died, except I felt my dream of a degree from this university slipping away. And I was on my own to keep it alive.

Since I’d been twelve, the third daughter of a family in a bluecollar mill town, my father had supported my dream to pursue a science degree at a big university. Less than a quarter of the students from our local high school went on to college. Most who did stayed nearby and became teachers, nurses, learned a trade, or took a factory job. A mere handful of the two hundred in my senior class ventured away from their roots, yet Dad never questioned my decision to leave the state for a campus I’d not even seen, and he promised to help as much as he could.

As soon as I was old enough I’d worked at jobs ranging from writing a newspaper column, sales clerking at department stores, dispensing ice cream at Dairy Queen, and lifeguarding at the Y, socking away as much as I could toward my goal. I also graduated as valedictorian with an assortment of small scholarship awards. That, plus what Dad could send me from month to month, had gotten me to that April of the second year, and that phone call.

I confided my plight to a favorite professor, one who really took time with students who shared his passion for biological sciences. “Go to the Dean of Women,” he advised.

The Dean of Women? In a huge university, what was one undergrad in the grand scheme of things?

To my surprise, she was approachable and sympathetic, but skeptical. “Unless you want to drop out and put off finishing a degree until you are in a more stable situation, I’d advise you to enroll in summer school. You don’t need to stay in the dorm; you might find a cheap apartment. I don’t know how you’re going to make it.”

“I can’t drop out. I have nowhere to go and I’d still need to find a job and a place to live. And I’m afraid if I quit now, starting again will be even harder.” Threaded through my desperate anxiety I heard my father’s voice from all the times life had thrown us a curve: “We’ll always manage.” And we did.

“Okay,” the Dean said. “Here’s a deal. If you can get yourself through summer classes, I’ll give you a tuition grant for the fall and allow you to move to an approved rooming house. You’ll pay rent, but can probably economize on meals and piece together some jobs.”

Piece together jobs and study? Economize? That sounded familiar from the prior six years of my life. I was flooded with gratitude for the chance to continue toward a degree and I understood her clever challenge. If I could manage the next four months myself I’d have earned her faith in me plus the grant-in-aid she held out as a reward in the autumn.

“Deal,” I said. “I’ll make it somehow.”

After final exams that June I took the train for a brief trip to New Jersey. My dad’s one-man glass and picture frame business had indeed been heavily damaged. But true to his nature, he’d cleaned up the debris and taken out a bank loan to replace the inventory, which was not insured, then hired carpenters to make the apartment livable. My younger sister had moved in with the family of a high school friend in exchange for babysitting and housework. I’d have to replace the summer clothes that weren’t with me in Ann Arbor, and years later I came to the strange realization that I had almost no documented past. No high school yearbook, no family pictures, keepsakes, artwork, or award-winning essays.

Back in Ann Arbor that summer, I housesat in the basement apartment of a professor on sabbatical — rent-free, worked in the cafeteria at my former dormitory, took classes, and scoured the bulletin boards on campus for psychology experiments paying subjects twenty dollars in any study concocted by a grad student.

Also, for the rest of my college career, I sold my blood once a month for thirty dollars to a medical research team who needed fresh, not bank, blood. And, of course, I borrowed money.

College wasn’t the fun time for me that it is for so many young people. When I feel a tinge of regret, it passes when I measure it against what I gained in maturity and determination, self-reliance and ingenuity, which served me well when later employed in research. Those years were invaluable in coping with life’s later difficulties. And they imbued me with a belief about what can be accomplished if you truly want it badly enough to work for it.

Recently, my husband and I endowed a modest scholarship granted each year, not to a high school senior, but to a student entering the final year toward any degree, one who has a student loan. This unusual scholarship reflects the Dean of Women’s challenge to me that awful spring of the fire. It also reflects the attitude of my father and my husband.

“First show me how much you will do to attain what you say you want, then I’ll help you.”

~Ann Vitale

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