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Without the privilege of stability

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OCTOBER 23, 2017

She was white, middle-class and branded as gifted. The pipeline to higher education seemed like an inevitable continuation of her financial privilege. But nobody knew that she was living in a household that was terror or that she would end up homeless.

UC Berkeley transfer student Begonia Herbert was only five years old when her mother left because of her father’s physical abuse, setting a haunting precedent of familial strife.

Morbidity followed her. After graduating from boarding school, she moved back in with her emotionally abusive father and began officially attending community college. That summer, a young man raped Herbert at a party. Constrictive depression, compounded by PTSD, drowned out any lingering self-compassion. “I had no self-worth, no self-esteem. I thought I was such a bad person that the world would be better off without me,” she said.

At 18 years old, Herbert tried to kill herself. Institutional hospice became her home for several months. The pipeline became a pipe dream, and she dropped out before completing her first semester of community college.

Her support reservoir ran completely dry, and her emotionally abusive father threatened to cease financial support entirely. Suddenly, paying her exorbitant Bay Area rent became a fool’s errand.

Her story illuminates a misleading presumption where pathological optimism about educational opportunities is as American as apple pie. Frequently we are told of this cookie-cutter path toward college — a false perception that all high schoolers have the necessary educational opportunities and domestic stability to immediately jump into a brand name four year school. The elephant in the room is of course the 42 percent of students in the United States who go to “two year” institutions — most of whom lack the privileges afforded to those able to streamline the college process.

No monolithic tale of the transfer student exists. For some transfers, an unsupportive family situation chips away at whatever aspirations for aiming for a four-year school that existed earlier. This can be especially true for non-traditional, or re-entry students. In Herbert’s case, her mental health was intensely riled by toxic relationships at home.

She attempted suicide a second time. Now without neither the guidance of a parental figure nor an academic blueprint, she exhausted the last of her savings for a one-way ticket to Hawaii.

The ideal visage of saturated blue waters instead collapsed in the form of relived trauma: for the second time in her life, someone took advantage of her intoxication and raped her. She had come to Hawaii to heal from past trauma, but left with fresh wounds. She braced for life back inland, where she would call someone’s garage her home.

Her temporary housing situation seemed to work out, until it didn’t. At 19 years old, Herbert was officially homeless, migrating from shelters, to the streets — sleeping in parks and others’ houses. When celebrating her 20th birthday sleeping outside her father’s house, his failure to notice signified a continuous deficit of family support.

She didn’t even have the most basic standard of living, yet still considered herself a student determined to pursue higher education. But each time she seemed to find her footing — temporary shelter with her Alzheimer’s-diagnosed grandma — the rug would be pulled out from beneath her. With no solid support system, she would find herself at square one all over again, repeatedly dropping out and re-enrolling in community college.

But overtime she got healthier. “I worked really hard in therapy. I was able to develop the skills to be successful,” she said. “At one point, I set my eyes on Cal and just powered through.”

Admittedly, Herbert’s journey to bear territory obviously renders mine a cakewalk. Yet, I can’t help but relate to her longing on the most primordial level. It’s a deep-seated longing — a fantasy from childhood that someone will be there to edge you toward college aspirations and reaffirm an otherwise-nonexistent sense of worth.

For me, although I did get into good four-year schools out of high school, my familial support system was mired by my father and brother’s chronic depression, draining me of what little ambition toward college I had. My meandering was harshly contrasted by the whines of my friends about their domineering and overbearing parents. I sometimes wondered if they would have been equally worried about their test scores and GPAs if they suffered from a less supportive dynamic.

Given her family’s financial stability, a more encouraging upbringing would have no doubt catapulted Herbert toward college with relative ease. Now 26, Herbert can nonetheless call herself a UC Berkeley student, but her personal narrative of struggle and redemption illustrates a lack in support systems that so many UC Berkeley students are privileged to have.

Resilience. Resilience is the word she chose to encompass our nearly hour-long discussion.

“Some people never know what it means to fail, or to fall flat on your face. You get up, and then you just kill it. I’m fucking killing it. I don’t mean to brag. But, I’m getting straight A’s in my classes,” she said. “I just want people to know that the challenges you face, no matter how big or small, are what builds character and makes you who you are.”


Neil McClintick writes the Monday blog on transfer student troubles. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @neil_park.

OCTOBER 25, 2017