Read the article here in Blackboard Magazine, Northwestern University's Black Student Magazine.
I was raised on the stories my grandmother would tell me of her life growing up in Tobaccoville, North Carolina, a rural community segregated from the main city of Winston-Salem. She was the youngest of eight children and grew up in a one-bedroom house on her parents’ tobacco farm. I learned the privilege of education through my grandmother’s stories.
I am not a first-generation college student. My grandmother, one of her sisters, and her mother were all teachers who graduated from Winston-Salem Teachers College, now the HBCU Winston-Salem State University. My great-grandfather could not read and only ever learned to write his own name — Joe — which my great-grandmother taught him to do.
My grandmother described going to college as her first time truly leaving home, which was much more than just a physical journey. Getting a college degree would give her a career to rely on. My grandmother never forgot the disappointment her mother felt upon finding out she got pregnant with my mother while in college. But my grandmother was determined to go back to school after the birth and completed her degree. Since I was a child, she would tell me in her southern, old-fashioned drawl, “Focus on your education first.”
Both my mother’s and father’s parents worked hard to send them to college. My mother graduated from Howard University and eventually started a successful public relations business before having my sister and me. But after my father passed away when I was six years old, we relocated to Winston-Salem to be closer to family. My mother became a high school teacher (with an income of around $45,000) and our family of three lived a chaotic lifestyle paycheck-to-paycheck.
My childhood was a continuation of the intergenerational struggle my family has gone through. Although the foundation of my family was built on hard work, it was continuously weakened by violence, abuse, addiction and illness. The complexities of my mental illness were shaped in my upbringing as the cycle continued and I experienced similar trauma over and over again. There has never been money for ballet, private music lessons or sports. When I was in sixth grade, my mother had a stroke and was later diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Since then my mother has not been able to work and my family has lived off her disability and retirement checks — totalling slightly over $30,000 a year.
When my mother became ill, I had to quickly develop a sense of independence and responsibility for my own survival that most teenagers never have to consider. Even before my mother’s illness, she had no time to pack my lunch or have dinner ready on the table every night. We sustained ourselves with microwavable and easy-to-make meals. This way of life continued after her stroke, and as soon as I turned 16, I had to get a job. I worked at least 10 hours per week after school and on weekends, and I was responsible for buying my own food, personal items and gas. This was all happening as my mental illness worsened and I struggled with depression and an eating disorder. With little stability at home, I attached myself to the only thing that seemed stable and straight-forward: school.
I first experienced the college application process through the eyes of my older sister. I witnessed the immense joy in my family when she received a full-tuition scholarship to New York University and I realized for the first time that leaving my hometown for bright opportunities was possible.
My junior and senior years of high school were some of the most stressful of my life. I would often stay up until 3 or 4 a.m. doing homework. I piled on Advanced Placement courses that would boost my GPA. My family couldn’t afford test preparation services, so I would study on Khan Academy every weekend. All along, I never thought the work I was putting in would be enough to get me into the colleges I had my eye on — NYU, USC, and Northwestern to name a few. I doubted my test scores, my grades, my extracurriculars, and my class rank. I put my entire life into going to college. I never thought I would end up at Northwestern, so reading the acceptance letter in my car after a rehearsal of my high school’s spring musical spurred an unexpected emotional response in me. I felt like I could finally be proud of myself.
I first considered Northwestern as an option through the QuestBridge Scholars Program and I ended up receiving full financial aid and outside scholarships to cover my expenses while here. I have had to accept that the majority of students at Northwestern do not understand what it’s like growing up poor, just those in my high school classes.
When the college admissions scandal broke, I was already aware that people regularly buy their way into top universities in an variety of ways — legacies, donations, the privilege of wealth and the ability to curtail adversity. Before the scandal broke, I watched Olivia Jade talk carelessly about going to USC, a school that I considered attending, on her Youtube channel. But for some reason, I didn’t question how she got in. As the scandal was revealed to have also occurred on our campus, it infuriated me. The value of first-generation and low income students (FGLI) is priceless. There is proof in our stories and experiences that the odds were stacked against us. But we still made it here despite having to work much harder than those who had easy access to this school.
Northwestern University has already reached its initiative of making 20 percent of the student body Pell Grant-eligible, but with the underfunding of programs designed to help us, such as Student Enrichment Services (SES), many students in the FGLI community feel financially marginalized by the practices of the school and ousted from feeling like we belong here. I’ve always seen education as a necessity for survival and success, and I have nothing else to fall back on except my degree. FGLI students are not pawns or posters for the university to profit off. I am assured through friendships with students like me that we not only have the most to give to this university — we are most deserving of our places here.