I am not your typical student. I am first generation born in the United States, the first in my family to go to college, and a woman.
My journey has not been the same as those of many of my high school classmates. We all started with the same dreams of going to college, becoming nurses, doctors, teachers, engineers, or something in IT. But my dream ended as quickly as it had started. While the others around me had parents who were well-off and able to pay for or contribute to college, or at the very least willing to complete the FASFA or co-sign for a loan, that was not my reality. My parents worked hard—and struggled—just to get by.
Panic started to set in. There were so many different things that I wanted to do, but I could not decide. I went to our school guidance counselor, who unfortunately was better at waving to the vast shelves of college and university program books than helping me figure out my next steps. And it was hard to get help at home, as neither of my parents had even gone to high school. I asked questions of my friends, other students, and teachers, and got to the point of writing essays and filling out the FAFSA. Then my heart sank. The FAFSA required information that my father just wasn’t willing to give. I was crushed.
So I went to work. After about four years, I had scrounged together enough money to take my first class at Bellevue Community College. I went one class at a time, because money was tight and I still needed my parents’ information in order to receive financial aid. Working full-time, going to class, commuting, making dinner, doing laundry, and doing homework while trying to squeeze in a couple of hours a sleep became my norm.
I earned 60 credits to my associate degree—amid family deaths and job loss—when I hit a wall. The rest of the courses I needed were in the morning or during the workday. I had to take a break and figure out my next move. I knew I could not afford to take time off of work to go to school during the day and work at night, because I needed to support myself. Working part-time was not an option. That brought another break of two and a half years.
The next door opened when I landed a temporary position with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and a co-worker mentioned that she was going back to school to get her bachelor’s via an online program. I had not thought of online programs. I assumed that college meant being in a lecture hall during school hours and sitting with other students. So I did my research. I called several different schools to discuss their online programs and was clear about my needs and my concerns. I needed flexibility. I needed support, especially if I wasn’t going to “see” people. Most importantly, I needed something affordable; I was (and am) doing this on my own.
Today, I am working full-time at the foundation and finishing my Bachelor of Science in Business Management from Western Governors University (WGU). I can’t even express how excited I am to walk at my graduation because of all the years, all the hard work, all the obstacles that I will have overcome to get to that point. That is what keeps me motivated to finish. Sure, it has been tiring working full-time and going to school full-time, taking care of family, dealing with death, moving, and taking on new responsibilities at work. But it has been worth it.
So, what do I wish for as one of today’s college students? I wish I didn’t get looks of disbelief or even pity about studying and working full-time. And I really wish that people wouldn’t tell me that I am too old for college. (That has actually happened!). But I do wish for a few things, like FAFSA in multiple language translations to help families like mine, who emigrated from Serbia; more competency-based programs like WGU has that help me build on and reinforce my work experience; and more aid programs that are designed for working adults.
My journey to and through college has been anything but a straight line. It is a journey that I share with millions of other students. And all we ask is for a little help to make sure that those journeys lead somewhere.