You Say, “Figure It Out,” I Say, “Watch Me”: Paying for College On My Own

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When another door closes, find a window to jump through. That’s what my dad always told me. In this case, FAFSA slammed the door on my hopes of going to college.

From a young age, my parents instilled a strong work ethic in me. They each experienced their own personal struggles growing up, so they wanted to see my siblings and I overcome our own and succeed. My parents viewed a college degree as important, but not necessary. Rising tuition costs and watching their first six kids already leave the nest stacked the odds against me.

My parents refused to help me pay for college, but I set my sights on getting there anyway.

I researched schools, called financial aid offices and got a job the second I turned 16. I worked at Goodwill picking out donated clothes still in good condition. Yes, this included used socks and underwear people so graciously donated.

I moved on to hostessing between playing varsity volleyball and taking AP classes. When I turned 18, I became the youngest server the restaurant ever employed.

I reassured myself everything would work out. I read all the college advice forums and followed them like the yellow brick road. Applying early, getting letters of recommendation, picking up shifts for extra cash and saving every penny. I did it all. But my hard work didn’t cut it.

I found that out the hard way on a normal, sunny South Florida day. I arrived home from school, started watching Criminal Minds and decided to check if FAFSA updated.

We’ve all felt our stomachs drop when checking FAFSA. They usually award a financial aid award so small and saddening it looks comical. So I laughed. My laughing turned into crying and my crying turned into anger. Seething, blood-boiling anger. Financial aid, the final missing piece to making my dream a reality, stayed missing.

I grew angry that my parents stayed selfish and hard-headed. I dedicated years of my adolescence toward a goal stolen out from under me. My heart broke. Rage and defeat coursed through me because I was not enough, my hard work was not enough. My family told me to give up, take a year off and go another route. But I didn’t want to give in.

After weeks of self-loathing and grasping at straws, I toured Florida State University with my best friend and her parents. They inspired me to talk to the financial aid office and figure out another way to attend school.

Fast forward two years to my junior year at FSU living my dream. However, my life looks much different from my peers’. I waitress forty hours a week while juggling a full course load, following a strict budget and relying on myself for everything. I don’t have time or money to go out often. I can’t join multiple clubs or enjoy Greek life. But all the “cannots” feel worth it.

When my friends need help budgeting, I chime in with my extensive knowledge. When they need to make $30 of groceries last for a month, I have recipes and ideas to stretch their food supply. When my friends become overwhelmed and just need a hug because life feels like a scary storm, I support them.

Living independently still terrifies me. I lose sleep worrying if I can make rent or have enough money to buy groceries. I debate skipping classes to work extra shifts or always putting my classes first.

At the end of the day, I take pride in supporting myself and showing other people they can do it, too. Figuring out my future entirely on my own gives me confidence, responsibility and accountability I wouldn’t otherwise attain until after graduation. The real world doesn’t seem so scary when you already have the tools to conquer it. After all, no one conquers us Seminoles.

Joanna is a junior at Florida State University studying Editing, Writing, and Media and Environmental Science. She loves travelling and hiking and hopes to one day call Vancouver Island home.

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