64: Money Matters

64: Money Matters

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

Money Matters

Money often costs too much.

~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Growing up, I always liked being part of a big family. I lived in a house with my seven siblings, three of whom are older than me, my parents, and whatever pet we had at the time (a snake, a guinea pig, a vicious dog). I had an endless supply of playmates and people to talk to, and there was never a dull moment in our house. I never minded the hand-me-down clothes and was only occasionally bothered by the complete lack of privacy.

But by the time my senior year of high school rolled around, it occurred to me that having seven siblings wasn’t going to work in my favor. Sure, my large, crazy family gave me lots of material for college essays. But putting eight children through four years of college education wasn’t going to be easy on my two parents’ salaries, especially since my mom was a Spanish teacher and my dad had recently been laid off.

I listened as my girlfriend at the time rattled off the eleven schools she was applying to, all of them with tuitions upward of $30,000 a year. I nodded as my guidance counselor pushed me to apply, apply, apply, not realizing that even the $50 application fees were a drain on the family income. I had always been a procrastinator, but now I saw that the only way I was going to go to college was if I got my act together and applied for scholarships — lots of them.

My parents had been telling me throughout high school that they could only afford to pay tuition for a regional branch of the University of Connecticut. So far, three of my siblings had taken advantage of that offer, at least partially, and one had actually finished her four years at the main branch two hours away. I looked at my list of schools I’d made at the behest of my guidance counselor and girlfriend, who kept talking to me about how “promising” I was, how I could and should go elsewhere. I was in Advanced Placement classes and had good SATs. I had taken a trip to Africa to build a school for poor children. I was a Hispanic immigrant, in classes where everyone was white and privileged. According to my guidance counselor, I was a shoo-in at so many really good schools. I was only hurting myself by giving up.

But I took that list and cut it down anyway... to two schools: University of Connecticut and University of Michigan. That’s it. I cut out anything that would have been a “reach” because I figured that since I was unsure I’d even get in, I could be very sure I wouldn’t get enough financial aid to make going there feasible. I thought that being accepted and knowing I couldn’t go because of money would hurt more than never applying in the first place.

My dad took me aside, as we waited to hear from UConn about a scholarship, to talk to me about paying for college. I’d always quietly known that my parents thought that I had a very promising future ahead of me, maybe more so than some of my siblings. I had made the transition from living in Argentina and coming to America seamlessly when I was a kid, had always impressed my parents with my grades and my motivation since then.

Which is why my dad, unbeknownst to my siblings, told me I had more options than I thought.

“We’ll do what we have to,” my dad said to me in Spanish, “Even if it means taking out loans or going into debt.” I appreciated what he said and the burden he offered to take on, since he was currently between jobs. But it didn’t change my mind about anything. As far as I was concerned, my options were, and had always been, slim.

You could say I got lucky or that things just happened to work out. But when I heard from UConn and Michigan, all the news was good. Michigan accepted me, but the scholarship was nowhere near what I needed. Plus, I didn’t think I could convince my dad that the education I got there would be worth the years of debt and the financial drain.

But the news from UConn was even better. Full scholarship, plus $5,000 a year and a paid internship for Citibank every summer. I would be getting paid to go to college. I wouldn’t have to pay for books or housing. My family wouldn’t have to pay for anything.

My dad beamed with pride when we went to the luncheon to accept my scholarship at the end of my senior year. I was one of only fifteen students who received it out of the entire freshman class, and he knew it. My mom and my sister cried when they called my name and I knew for certain that my education wasn’t going to cost me anything. They were so happy to see that I had seized the opportunity they couldn’t have given me otherwise—but would desperately have tried to.

And although I wish I could have shown the people who really believed in me what I was capable of doing and where I could have gotten in, sometimes things just aren’t as easy as people make them out to be. Now, maybe my younger sister will be able to get four years somewhere other than the branch of UConn that’s down the street. Maybe she’ll get to live in a dorm and study something that really excites her. And I’ll know it’s partially because I made a few sacrifices and a few choices, and that makes it worth it.

~Juan Casanova as told to Madeline Clapps

More stories from our partners