My mother unzipped her purse and unloaded a slot machine at the checkout line of the grocery store. A cashier’s worst nightmare.
“Every penny you save now is a penny for college,” she’d tell me when I cringed, embarrassed.
But she was right. We may never befriend the cashier who had to count all of our Abraham Lincolns, but we had our eyes set on a heftier piggy bank. I was working toward an insatiable college fund — one I’m still developing now, as a graduating senior.
My family wasn’t poor, but we weren’t rich, and we’ve never stopped working — regardless of our work load. Even at the age of 15, I was expected to have good grades and as soon as I worked my first job, that became the norm.
I learned addition and subtraction by evaluating price tags and bought off-brand goods by choice, hopeful that this would ease the burden later on. But I considered myself privileged to even have these opportunities.
I am forever grateful for my family’s support with the ever-growing cost of college. My father happily paid my first tuition check, hoping the return on investment would amount to his grandchildren attending an Ivy League school one day. I was supposed to lay the foundation. He expected me to attend the No. 1 public institution; get straight A’s (har har); attract some of the biggest law firms in the country, who would then pay for my JD (what a delirious concept); and then come out with a starting salary of $100,000. That’s about one zero and a whole lot of debt away from reality.
I’ve had to work multiple jobs every semester to afford rent amid the Bay Area housing crisis in addition to my life crises. My work may help me pay the bills, but I pay my employers with my time — time I could have used to get those straight A’s or prized internships my father envisioned.
I could’ve been that UC Berkeley student everyone expected me to be.
But instead, I had to learn patience. I had to go from one job to the next, squeeze in studying during 30-minute breaks and drink gallons of coffee to stay alive. I’ve had to forgo certain leadership roles so that I could invest that time into paying rent instead. I was starting to forget the point of being a student as I struggled to stay awake during classes because I was too tired from work. I just had to cross my fingers that the UC Berkeley name itself would take me where I needed to go.
I envied the students who came here ready to take on 20-plus units because they had the time to. I asked my curve-setting friend what his secret was to maintaining his 4.0 — a GPA I hadn’t seen since my first semester. I expected his response to be some concoction of Adderall, miracles and prayers, but the answer was simple: He had time.
Unfortunately, I didn’t. I didn’t have hours to spend cramming my head into books so I could set curves. Instead, I took naps to avoid falling asleep at work and had to somehow ignore the background noise if I wanted to study there.
Four years later, I realized that all of those hours spent running back and forth to make sure I could send my landlord his beloved monthly checks cost me a lot more than just my time. It cost me my grades and opportunities that could have propelled me. Forced to focus on my most basic needs, I overlooked the end result — the point of my degree in the first place.
My friends who were capable of dedicating all of their attention to their studies are now sitting on multiple job offers, contemplating which ones to turn down. I, on the other hand, have to wait until after graduation to even begin looking properly — simply because I don’t have the time.
College may never become affordable, but my academic track — as Top Ramen-filled as it was — did teach me a valuable lesson a classroom couldn’t: Somewhere amid three jobs, two internships, clubs and a full courseload, I learned patience.
I’ve accepted that my timeline and career track will be different from others’, partly because of our different socioeconomic backgrounds. I’ve accepted that I may not be the millionaire my father envisioned just yet, but my children might have a better chance. I’ve accepted that when I am ready to actively job hunt, I’ll be competing with all the 4.0 students who didn’t have to worry about anything aside from their academics.
But I’ve also accepted that good things will come my way — it’s a matter of when, not if.
We’ve worked hard enough to earn our place at and beyond UC Berkeley. Now it’s just a matter of waiting for the right fit. So congratulations, class of 2017. I can wait to see where life takes us, and I’ll be smiling all the while.