Even when they’re not in the midst of finals week, college students are zombies. The bags under their eyes rival even the best makeup done on the Walking Dead. Their insatiable hunger shows through their empty eyes considering all they’ve eaten for the last week is a Cup o’ Noodles. It’s not uncommon to see a few college students begging for coupons just to buy a box of cereal since their wallets are as empty as Lieutenant Welles’ undead head. But while some students just break even with their alcohol funds, others work three jobs just to cover tuition.
I came from a lower middle-class family. Ordinary in all the ways you would expect. I lived in a little suburban home with my siblings and a dog. Add a white picket fence, and my childhood could’ve been straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting.
I always thought I’d go to college; after all, that’s what millennials do, right? I came out of high school fresh off the fumes of the American dream–you know, where your teachers tell you that you can be an actor even though you can hardly raise your hand in class or a doctor even though you fainted the last time you got a paper cut. I always knew that school would be a financial commitment, but comprehending how much was difficult when my only experience with money was budgeting my minimum wage job.
Now, flashback to the day my parents told me that they couldn’t pay for my college–at least not all by themselves. I was doing my homework at the dining room table with my college acceptance letters pinned to the fridge behind me bigger than my own school pictures. My parents tried to tell me as gently as possible, interjecting a lot of apologies and trying to put a positive spin: “It won’t be so bad. That just means you’ll get to spend more time with us!” Cue internal screaming.
I realize now that telling me they couldn’t afford to send me to the school of my dreams must have broken their hearts. I didn’t know what to say. After all, my friends were entertaining dreams of Harvard or Princeton, and here my financial cushion didn’t even cover public state school tuition. I felt angry at first. Angry at my parents for being teachers, and angry at myself for ever thinking I could go to college away from home. I told myself that it wasn’t my fault, that it had nothing to do with me. I deserved to be able to go to whatever school I wanted, especially after working so hard to get accepted. Not going out-of-state wasn’t because my SAT score was too low. It wasn’t because I didn’t have enough leadership positions either. A door was closed to me because of something I couldn’t control.
I spent a few days moping around after that, wallowing in my own self-pity and making over-dramatic tweets like, “Nothing really matters in the end,” and pseudo-philosophical musings that I really just googled like, “Always be thankful for what you have, because one day, it will all be gone.” It took a couple of days for me to figure out that my education wasn’t only my parents responsibility anymore. I reached a turning point. I got off my own lazy butt and went to work.
While most of my friends spent their summers vacationing in exotic locales or tanning for hours on the beach, I spent my days rotating (not in the sand) between three different jobs. These jobs weren’t exactly something I’d brag about on my resume either. I worked as a hostess at a barbecue restaurant, where all I really learned was that the customer was always right (no matter how wrong they were), and as a receptionist at a local law firm, where I learned that maybe bringing your dog to work every day wasn’t the best idea (this was after more than a few lunches went missing).
The phrase, “I can’t, I have work” became my go-to comment whenever anyone wanted to hang out. I would work one shift, change into my uniform for my next job and work another, leaving little time to do anything else. As months passed and move-in day approached, I started to think that maybe everything was going to work out.
And it did…in a way. I got to attend a school that has given me countless opportunities that I wouldn’t have been able to get at a community college. I got to meet people I never would’ve known if I hadn’t moved out of my comfort zone and gone away from home. And most importantly, I got to find parts of myself that I never knew existed by embarking on the crazy adventure we all know as college. But college came with a cost.
While my friends complain about not having enough money to pay for their Chik-fil-a habit, I check my account just to make sure I still have funds to pay for my meal plan. When some people go on about how they can’t lose a scholarship because it means taking out student loans, I can’t help but think of how my loans are already stacking up.
I might be a zombie like my fellow freshmen, but I’m a zombie on a budget. My dark circles aren’t just from a hangover; they’re from a hangover and working 26-hour weeks at a part time job. I’m hungry, but not just because I haven’t been to Chipotle yet, but because ramen isn’t always the heartiest meal. Paying for my own schooling is hard, but I know that it’ll pay off in the end. I might be a college zombie, but those dark circles are going to be worth it.