I was just getting settled into the first semester in my new residence hall room when I heard a distinct “ding” coming from my laptop – an email reading “e-bill invoice.” My anxiety leaped, my heart pounded and my brain would not quiet itself as I stared at the notification. The unspeakable stress hit me like a train and left me immobile at my desk. At the beginning of the semester, I had paid off the outstanding amount in my account with all of my savings, but now I had to pay for another semester – money I did not have and would not be able to get.
Dealing with the financial stress of budgeting and paying for college as a first-generation and low-income student causes me constant anxiety. I battle with myself, cautiously weighing each option for financial support – a job, a loan or a scholarship if I’m lucky. I feel like I’m walking on a ledge, calculating each step I take, scared of making the wrong choice that could cost me my education.
For many first-generation and low-income students, a college education is one of the first steps we have taken toward success and financial security for ourselves and future generations. But it is also an extremely gut-wrenching route. I have to try and reach the top despite facing so many financial obstacles and disadvantages.
When I was about 10 years old, I learned education would be the key to a better life. My teachers told me so in school, and I saw it firsthand. I watched my brother’s best friends earn scholarships and leave for college. It seemed like working just hard enough would allow me to succeed. School became my life, as it does for many students aspiring for higher education. But the education in my hometown of Imperial Valley, California is lacking at best. I had to do everything in my power to excel by getting good grades, participating in extracurriculars, performing community service, taking standardized tests and racking up AP scores.
Once I was accepted into college, I needed to earn additional scholarships and financial aid to pay for it. I aspired to make my family proud, from my father who never finished middle school to my mother who never got to be a career woman to my gifted brother – all of whom did not get to pursue their goals due to financial hardships.
When I received the e-bill invoice, I opened up the federal loans application – I needed money immediately. In high school, I was always told that college is an investment. But I am borrowing money that I have no possible way of paying back. I would be killing myself after college to pay off loans, rent, utilities and necessities. I knew exactly what would happen – I would return to the Imperial Valley because it was too good to be true for a first-generation and low-income student traversing college alone.
When I was leaving for college, my brother told me, “People with money get to screw up. We don’t, Andrea.” I can’t ask my family for guidance – my relatives have no experience attending a university or balancing school, jobs and extracurriculars. If I prioritize the wrong thing – work, grades, extracurriculars or internships – it could all be over. Giving up internship experiences would put me at a disadvantage, which is a big price to pay at an institution that is predominantly upper-class students who don’t need to prioritize jobs to get by.
Juggling academics with college finances can seem hopeless at times. Focusing grades and extracurriculars would mean no job and even more loans, which could ruin my future financial stability. Working full-time could put my scholarship in jeopardy, but placing all my faith in competitive scholarships could risk making no money at all. A combination of each could leave me burnt out and eventually out of a GW education.
If they’re accessible to the students who need them most, scholarships can help first-generation and low-income students pay tuition, room and board, books and even basic necessities like shampoo and menstrual products. Most of GW’s schools offer merit or need-based scholarships. GW offers emergency funds to students with unprecedented financial issues through initiatives like the Cokie and Steve Roberts SMPA Student Support Fund, which helped me pay off my fall semester. GW launched the Scholarship Endowment Match last semester, and it has already started making a difference by helping students pay off their tuition and housing.
The path to higher education as a first-generation and low-income student is dark, worrisome and uncertain. I often wonder whether I am taking the right steps or even the right path. Sometimes I feel like I’m being selfish for wanting to leave my hometown to get an education, deviating from my entire family. Perhaps I was too ambitious to want more out of life than the rest of my family, to aim for success and security despite depressing statistics of college dropouts, debts and the job market.
There will always be an unending train of worries, pressure and anxiety over grades, jobs, internships, loans and money as we are in college. They will be persistent and stubborn, but so will we. Failure has never been an option. Even if we were to fall off the financial ledge, it still wouldn’t be the end of our story because we were wired to never give up.
Being a low-income student and constantly weighing my options to stay afloat is terrifying, but all I can do is hope that everything I have fought for – not just for myself, but for my family – will help me succeed enough so that I never have to worry about falling ever again.
Andrea Mendoza-Melchor, a freshman majoring in journalism and mass communication, is an opinions writer.
This article appeared in the February 9, 2023 issue of the Hatchet.