In college, I found myself. I took the classes I was dying to take all through high school. I also began to develop myself as an asset to any company, team, post-secondary school. After all, I wasn’t a kid anymore. I couldn’t just be me; I had to be competitive: me-Plus. I first began to “adult” as I gradually paid my own bills, taxes, school bills. My parents could take care of themselves but they weren’t incredible affluent. If I wanted something, the only person between what I wanted and what I had was myself.
“Don’t work in college,” my mom once told me. “Take out loans if you need something.” My mom wanted me to take care of myself, but I couldn’t. How could I listen to those type of statements from someone still saddled with college debt 30 years after graduation. But she was right.
I’m in a place where scholarships cover almost everything except housing, room, and board. I’m privileged, like many of my friends. I don’t qualify for low income scholarships or financial aid because my father had custody of me; but just because one has money, one does not spend money frivolously. Growing up, I was a hard worker. My parents (dad and stepmom) were both children of military families and my father even served as an MP in the army before I was born. They knew the importance of a dollar. My chore allowance was $5 a week up until the day I got my first job at 16, so I always understood how precious its value was. But my parents really knew how precious it was, so I didn’t fight back; I had no right.
When my mother became homeless, I knew that I had to work harder. I didn’t want to fall into the same financial traps that she did even if that meant sacrificing the margin of academic achievement that I could’ve reached. I worked in the restaurant industry for three and a half years: three and a half years that I felt were stolen from me as I looked through the rose-color lens of my peers. The clubs, events, office hours, personal development – these were opportunity costs for working through college.
Comparison is inherent in academic institutions especially when the curve means everything for future endeavors: in academics, in organizations, in job opportunities. “Am I ahead of the curve,” I would always ask myself. Academically speaking, I do pretty well, despite the challenges of coordinating work-hours juxtaposed with a heavy course load. But, I could be doing better. I can’t count the amount of times I’ve left work angry that I wasn’t studying, missed out on a socializing opportunity, or couldn’t attend an academic club activity because I didn’t want to lost my job. It wasn’t uncommon for my to consider quitting as I walked out to my car in the parking lot at midnight with an empty Benjamin in my pocket, knowing that I would have several hours of studying ahead of me.
Fear drove me to work for such a long time. Just until recently, I’ve felt that I needed to work or my life would be much worse. I needed the money in case my dad went on disability and I had to support myself. I needed the money to help my mom pay for groceries and rent. I needed the money to pay for my car which allowed me to get to school in a reasonable amount of time. There was always a justification to work. Only in the past month have I re-evaluated my situation and come to the conclusion that I could leave my position and just be OK.
The reason I knew that I hated working in the service industry and going to school is that every time I made an error, I had a single though across my head: “Fire me, I dare you. Make my life easier.” I knew I couldn’t do it anymore. Don’t get me wrong, I was a great server and cared about my job. However, my reaction — while startling — was not uncommon among peers in the same situation. After working for barely four years in the restaurant industry, I left jaded. I would never wish someone to work in that industry, but what other choice do you have when you’re a young adult who needs some form of employment that actually pays the bills, especially when student loans-horror stories seem to be everywhere.
I always thought it was easier to take out loans if you came from money. Think about it: if you come from a solid financial background, there exists the appearance of individuals in your life that have the capability to provide financial support (whether or not they actually do). If you come from less money, there is less of a safety net, it’s also likely less people around you have college degrees, and support from family is less likely to be financial. Thus, taking out loans is inherently more risky the less assets one has or comes from. Any loan-granting institution knows this, such as credit card companies in which total assets and income are a factor in your credit score. The lower your score, the higher your rates. The less money you have, the more your college loans will be, and the less support you’ll have to repay them.
Looking back, I’ve learned grit and made sacrifices that I would never wish on anyone going to college. For many, the service industry is a life-long pursuit. There are exceptions on any side of the spectrum but this is the point of view I hold. I could’ve overlooked something. Was there a structure that could’ve prevented these feelings and the wasted time I’ve experienced? Is there anything that could change about my approach? My academic institution’s approach? Or maybe the approach of lawmakers? I’m almost done, but something needs to change. I’m not sure exactly what, but every solution comes from a need. Regardless — I don’t care who you are, what you are doing with your life, or what your situation may be — always tip your server because it’s the right thing to do.