The failure to communicate

Broke in Berkeley

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My best friend’s parents both went to Cal. Some of her earliest memories are of the Campanile and the Cal Band performances, and she was very excited to come visit me when I started here. When we were preparing to graduate from high school, her parents really wanted her to follow in their footsteps and stay in California. She got into Cal, but she wanted to do something different from what they had done.

She got her letter from Georgetown University and took off across the country. I remember watching the whole process of her applications, her worrying and her excitement as acceptance letters came in. We were the same age, and I should have been doing the same thing. She and I are different in a lot of ways, and having two Cal alumni for parents is just one of the ways in which she had an advantage. After she left for Washington, D.C., I went to work and did what most people do when they don’t go to college. I learned the value of lost time the hard way, by punching a clock and sacrificing potential for survival. I did not figure out how to follow her for almost 10 years.

When I was new at UC Berkeley, I was really hoping to meet people who came from a life like I had come from. I remembered the statistics from CalSO about the percentage of students who received financial aid, and I thought I’d meet lots of people who had grown up poor. I thought about everyone who had stood when we were asked to stand if we were first-generation college students. Despite my expectations, many of the people I meet at Cal are like my best friend: Their parents went to college or at least stressed it to them early in life.

Sometime in the last year, I’ve stopped comparing my journey to theirs. I stopped wondering how things might have been different if I had been born to somebody else. What matters is what I’ve got and what I do with it now, because I can’t go back. Although my parents aren’t college graduates, I’ve inherited other gifts.

My mom is very smart. She is ultrasupportive of my siblings and me pursuing our educations. As I’ve grown up and learned and changed, she’s been my biggest fan. She understands the value of education — that’s not an issue. She can read a stranger’s face perfectly, and she makes business deals and handles money in a take-no-prisoners way that she’s always referred to as “Jesse James-ing.” She’s cunning and quick and very creative when she chooses to be. She did not, however, go to college. She dropped out of high school, like me. Unlike me, she immediately got pregnant and had three kids whom she had to support and raise almost totally on her own. The path of her life has not yet led back to school.

The difference of growing up poor and raised by people who didn’t go to college is one that is hard to communicate. My friend on Sproul Plaza was told her whole life about college, both as a concept and as a reality. Her parents told stories about it, derived who they are from it and probably expected her and her siblings to go without question. Growing up without those stories and that expectation is a disadvantage, no question.

However, the almost insurmountable obstacle comes from not knowing the process. Parents who did not go to college don’t know when you should take the SAT or how to fill out applications. They may or may not be willing or able to provide their kids with the information on income that they’ll need to apply for both admission and aid. They are far less likely to arrange campus field trips or even talk about where and how the process began. Counselors are overtaxed and underpaid in high schools all over the country.

So we fly blind.

Shortly after I went back to school, I brought home a friend for dinner. My mom is the most generous and welcoming of hostesses, and she was no less so to my new friend. Over dinner, my friend and I got into a spirited discussion on what we thought was the best treatment of the Arthurian legend in literature: “Le Morte d’Arthur” or “Idylls of the King.” We went back and forth for a long time, shutting everyone else out of the conversation. When she could get a word in, my mom interjected: “I like Ziggy — sometimes Calvin and Hobbes, but Ziggy is the best.” I realized then that keeping my mom in the conversation was not just something I needed to do to be polite. I was moving to a foreign country called Academia, and if I forgot how to speak the language we used at home, I’d lose her, too. Bridging the gap within my family between education levels isn’t easy. For people who come to UC Berkeley broke, sometimes the steepest learning curve is outside the classroom.

Meg Elison writes the Monday column on financial issues affecting UC Berkeley students.Contact Meg Elison at [email protected].