In the late summer of 2020, I moved into my first apartment in North Philadelphia, four blocks from Temple University’s campus. Trash littered the block of brown-brick buildings outside the apartment. The grueling three-story walk straight to the top of the building got nicknamed, “the hike up Mt. Everest” by my best friend. I couldn’t care less. This apartment made my dream come true.
Looking back, the issues my roommates and I experienced with the building were glaringly obvious.
A leaking A/C unit poured water down the walls of the stairwell and my roommates bedroom window cracked. On top of it all, the smell of mold slapped you across the face as soon as you walked in the front door. The leasing company neglected to turn over the apartment before we moved in. They wasted no time ignoring our calls asking to fix the fire alarms going off at random hours throughout the day. None of this meant anything to me.
As a persistently optimistic 19-year-old, I only saw that skylight in the hallway, the luxuriously high ceilings and original wooden floors. I pictured bookshelves lining the long hallway, a garden of aloe vera plants on the windowsill in the bathroom, the exposed brick wall covered in ivy. I saw myself making dinners and laughing over the breakfast bar at something my friends said in the living room. My roommates and I arranged and re-arranged the boxes of knickknacks and furniture. Items we spent the summer collecting at various estate sales and GoodWills throughout East-Central PA with stars in our eyes.
I fell completely, instantly in love.
I remember growing up glued to 90s sitcoms set in New York or LA. I grew up in a small town with a humongous family. My own space shared with friends in a city that excited me had been my dream for as long as I could remember. Going to college? A huge goal of mine, sure. I attended interesting classes taught by engaging professors. I felt genuinely prepared for a career I held a passion for. But college wasn’t my dream. It felt like a steppingstone to building the life I imagined for myself as a child. Having a place of my own felt like really, finally getting started on living that life.
Unfortunately, my devotion, true as it came, made no match for years of water damage and mold. The leaks persisted, our downstairs neighbor’s hallway ceiling caved in and actual toadstools pushed through the plaster of the stairwell. Further research showed that the man we paid our rent to? Actually, a slumlord in Barbados with a fake Philadelphia address.
We needed to get out of there and fast.
Luckily, getting out of the lease posed no problem. Our leasing company let us out of the contract as soon as we threatened to call the health inspector. Not surprising when you consider that the building got condemned a little over a year later. Finding a new place to live by the end of the month didn’t wind up being as simple a task, but we managed it. Within two weeks we signed a new lease with a much more reliable company two blocks down the street. We ended up with cheaper rent for two bathrooms, a washer-dryer in unit and no mold.
A less fortunate outcome? The way these stressors impacted my grades that semester. Temple ran fully online at the time and it seemed insane to spend my time in a Zoom class with the threat of housing insecurity looming over me. All of this coupled with previous mental health struggles and general coming-of-age growing pains left me completely overwhelmed. I fell behind majorly and ended up failing a class I needed as one of my core curriculum courses.
Of course, there were positives that came from this series of unfortunate events. The situation made me more resourceful and cautious through what I consider a valuable life experience. More importantly it changed the way I thought about school. I realized that prior to this reality-check I did not value the actual experience of getting an education. It seemed easy enough to succeed when my other priorities had more manageable issues associated with them.
That semester’s failures seriously reframed the way I thought about school
College didn’t exist as just a ‘means to an end’—it held a privilege I missed finding joy in. I started thinking of school as an opportunity that deserved my full attention. Regardless of whether or not I’m embodying the very cool bohemian-metropolitan lifestyle I envisioned as a 10-year-old. I needed to start prioritizing my education. It’s the constant I could count on when other things in life became difficult.