40: No Silver Platter

40: No Silver Platter

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Teens Talk Getting In...To College

No Silver Platter

Jumping at several small opportunities may get us there more quickly than waiting for one big one to come along.

~Hugh Allen

Like most teenagers, I felt I would be ready spread my wings and be on my own as soon as I graduated high school. My life would be so much different than my mom’s. She was already married and had me to take care of when she got her high school diploma.

I was sure attending college was the first step in an amazing, fulfilling and exciting life. I was just as sure this first step included getting as far away as possible from my family and the small Wyoming town where I had grown up.

For a while, college was a dream that I didn’t share. My mom was single with five kids and worked as a supermarket cashier. She had enough to worry about. So being the independent spirit I was, I took it upon myself to start researching colleges.

Oh! The places I could go! The pamphlets started coming in, enticing me with expansive campuses and intelligent faces in far away places. One college even spoke of the chance to spend my sophomore year in Italy! Representatives from colleges far and near showed up at my high school to persuade us to apply to their schools. The possibilities were endless. I was so excited to be the first in my immediate family to get a college degree.

When I worked the closing shift at my part-time job at a fast food restaurant, I wouldn’t waste time when I was mopping the lobby, knowing that I had to get home to finish my homework. I was sure that my grades, while not perfect, would be good enough to gain access to whatever college I deemed worthy of my presence.

My first lesson about college was harsh. Academically, I was prepared. Financially, I was not.

When my mom looked over some of my dream schools, she thought for sure my head was in the clouds. Just because I wanted something so badly didn’t mean it was going to be possible. Good grades were important, but it wasn’t the only consideration. The tuitions were just way too high. My family had always been on a tight budget and not able to save for much of anything.

I thought about saving a lot of money over the summer. I thought about working full time while going to school. Then I thought about books, about rent, and about a social life. Math was never my strong suit, but the numbers just weren’t adding up to the tuition and the good life at any of my dream schools. There had to be another way.

I dove into the scholarship battle, swimming through the paperwork and essays the best I could. For someone who liked to watch from the sidelines, it was strange to suddenly be in competition for my future. I found I wasn’t the only one who wasn’t getting their dream school handed to them on a silver platter.

Allowing myself to dream more realistically, I applied to good universities that were public, rather than private, and therefore much less expensive. I was accepted by all of them. But even with some help that was being offered by the schools, I was still falling short. I knew I wouldn’t thrive in school if I was constantly worried about making money to pay the rent, or buy books. How was I going to gain the “Freshman 15” if I didn’t have enough money for food?

I knew I didn’t want to wait “one more year” as some suggested, in order to save up more money. I had seen too many people say they were going to do that very same thing, and each year passed with them saying “next year.” I didn’t want to take the chance. Instead, a different chance was given to me.

One afternoon, I was called to the guidance office. My counselor announced that I was eligible for a Full Ride Scholarship. There are no sweeter words to a high school senior on a tight budget! Of course, there was a catch. It was only for two years, because it was for a community college. My fantasy of large lecture halls suddenly shrunk to classrooms of standard size. And the college was in the next town, about fifteen miles away. My dreams of traveling to an exciting new city and meeting new people were replaced with thoughts of driving down a familiar highway and taking classes with some of the same people I’d known since kindergarten.

The counselor focused on the benefits, understanding my collegiate expectations. I could still take part in the whole “dorm life experience,” as this college offered on-campus housing. Later, I would be able to transfer to a university as a junior. It was a great way to start a college career, he said. And I might have more individual attention than I would if I went straight to one of the larger colleges. I took a packet of the literature I had always passed up before and told him I’d think it over.

My mom’s eyes brightened as I told her the news. She was excited for me. Looking through the classes, she pointed out ones that sounded interesting, envisioning a fun and intellectually stimulating schedule. I began to realize that sometimes the dream and the goal can be different things, and knowing that may be one of the first steps in growing up. What I really wanted was an education in order to grow as a person. Who’s to say that couldn’t start fifteen miles from where I first learned the ABCs?

Once I accepted the scholarship, other things fell into place. I had won a few local scholarships, easing even more of the burden, as well as reducing the time I would have to work while going to school. After learning more about my family, my counselor thought I might be eligible for a Pell Grant, a loan that wouldn’t need to be repaid. He said my mom and I could find out about it at the financial aid office at the college.

My mom was proud of me, her eldest daughter, getting to do something she had never had the opportunity to do. We were relieved that the financial aid meant I wouldn’t have to spend most of my potential study time working.

Learning about financial aid didn’t just help me, though. Mom got a Pell Grant for herself, and began her own college journey, with me.

Looking back now, I’m glad that I stuck around home. I excelled in my studies at the community college and it was a great preparation for university. I even ended up meeting people from all over the world—a few of my roommates were from Paris and Tokyo!

The biggest honor, though, was getting to experience English 101 with my mom. We were cooperative yet competitive classmates, often bouncing ideas off each other after dinner. My arrival into the world may have delayed her college experience, but by staying close to her, I like to think both of us grabbed onto our dreams.

~Tina Haapala

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