“I never slept, but at least I made the Dean’s List a few times.” – James’s Student Loan Story
Guest Post by James Scott
This is a difficult story to tell – in part because I have to live it all over again, but also because it sounds like an exaggerated Lifetime movie, and I wonder at times if people think I made it up. I never put college on a pedestal or had the dreams that are so cliché of children. I grew up quick and spent most of my time trying to survive. I didn’t have time to dream, and it would have been too painful to try.
I grew up on the bad side of Winston-Salem. Everyone knows where that side of town is. It’s the place where gunfire and the sound of helicopters aren’t uncommon. When I was five, a man was murdered in our front yard, and I remember that his daughters were sent to school the next day by their mother. From a very early age, I understood that the world could be a very grim place.
When I was twelve, we lost our home and everything we owned. My dad couldn’t find work, and as a result, we were forced to rely on food stamps from the government and donations from the church to get by. My family and I lived out of a car for several months. My sister moved out and dropped out of school, and my mom left my father and I.
I worked hard in middle school, landscaping and washing cars. When my father began working again, I cut school regularly to help with his contracting business. I would miss school to replumb a house or help install new waterlines for a customer. Dad and I were a team, and I did what I could to help out.
My father sacrificed a lot for me. He’d go without insulin to buy me something (he’s a diabetic) or take me out to eat with the last of his money. We ate ramen noodles twice a day for about a year, even after we got back on our feet and moved into a house. He helped me make flash cards and taught me how to play tennis in high school. He taught me how to work on cars and he always said that treating someone right was worth it regardless of the outcome. In 10th grade I decided to make something of myself. I wanted to do something to make my dad proud. I secretly committed to apply myself in school and take a stab at going to college. That was the ticket.
I took AP courses and participated in several extracurricular activities in addition to working 30+ hours per week. From then on, I rarely slept more than four or five hours a night. At times, I didn’t sleep at all, as my father’s blood sugar dropped during the night, and I had to pour syrup into his mouth to keep him alive.
To give you an idea what a regular day was like: I started school at 8 (assuming I didn’t go to work with dad), I was at work by 4, off by 10, and hopefully done with homework by 2am or so.
By the time I was a senior, I was ranked 5th in my class and had an excellent academic record, despite my work schedule and difficulty at home. This was, however, a rather bleak time for me. The guidance counselors didn’t pay very much attention to the students outside of the top two, and I was told (along with countless others) to consider the fine programs of the local community college. I was made to believe that I wouldn’t be accepted to any schools I wanted to go to, and even if I was accepted, I wouldn’t be able pay for it. I’d worked so hard, and I thought that it was for some magic scholarship that would pay for my education.
I stubbornly applied to UNC Chapel Hill, Wake Forest University, and UNC Greensboro, knowing full well I wasn’t going to be accepted to the first two, and feeling strongly that I wouldn’t be accepted to the third. I received the UNC Chapel Hill letter first. I had been accepted. It was a bittersweet moment. This was the school I’d always wanted to attend. I’d rooted for the TarHeels since I was in diapers. But I’d forgotten my dad. I couldn’t leave him, because I knew that right after I left I’d get a call in the middle of the night from a policeman, telling me that his blood sugar had fallen in the middle of the night, and that he’d died. I could never bring myself to respond to the letter. We had no other family to speak of, and I couldn’t leave my dad. I loved him and he was all I had.
Within a few weeks, I received a letter from Wake Forest. I opened it and looked for something like “although we commend your pursuits, we regret to inform you…”, but it wasn’t there. It was an acceptance letter. It was ten minutes away from my house and I’d logically concluded that it was the only school I could attend if I was going to go to college. Based on our financial situation, which included residence in a Section 8 rent-house, I qualified for the maximum amount of financial aid, or about 75% of Wake Forest’s $40k annual pricetag. I accepted, but had questions for the Financial Aid office.
By definition, need-based financial aid is determined by “the amount that your family is able to contribute toward your education.” Although I qualified for the maximum amount of aid, there is a cap on the amount of aid a student can receive. Let’s say your parents make $50,000 per year; you would qualify for the same amount of aid as a student whose parents are both on disability and make about $1,200 per month. Do you see the flaw here? The difference between your award and the cost of tuition is made up with governmen loans, most of which accrue interest while you’re in school.
I didn’t have a choice. If I didn’t like the offer, I couldn’t go to college. If I did, I’d finish school owing enough to pay for a new Corvette. So, I signed and tried to put it out of mind. I thought a college degree would enable me to do something I enjoy, rather than trudge through days at a dead-end job just because it pays the bills. Children are told that if they work hard now, it will pay off in the end. At the time, I thought that would happen.
I loved Wake Forest, and after the first day of school I realized that this was the place for me. The funny thing is, I never had time to even visit the campus. So my first day of class was pretty much my first time seeing the campus. I studied next to people whose parents were worth millions, and they never treated me like I was any different from them. My professors understood that I had a demanding work schedule and helped in any way they could. It was a wonderful place.
That having been said, I absolutely killed myself the first three years. At one point, I had three jobs: working for my dad when I didn’t have class, working nights at a Domino’s Pizza, and running a skate park in a nearby town two days a week – all of this while in school full-time and living at home. I never slept, but at least I made the Dean’s List a few times.
At the end of my Junior year, my dad got married, and I was able to move on campus for my final year. For once, I was going to be a normal student. The story about how I became involved with working for the school is funny, but depressing when you understand how cynical of a person my lifestyle had made me.
During your junior year at Wake Forest, when you’d begin your first official year with the undergraduate business program, you become eligible for scholarships with the Callaway Business School. However, no one told me that it’s rare for anyone to actually receive these scholarships their Junior year. I wrote this long, eloquent essay on the application, and was turned down for every scholarship. Disheartened, My Senior year, I wrote something like this on the essay : “I’m sure there’s someone here who needs this more than I do, and they should probably get it. But if there’s any left, I’d really appreciate it.” I got every one of those scholarships.
Apparently, few people send “thank you” letters to the scholarship donors. I wrote lengthy and grateful responses to my donors, and was promptly called upon to meet with someone in the Stewardship office. Coincidentally, this call came the day after I moved into my dorm. Once they heard my story, they asked me to speak on behalf of the school at fundraisers and write letters to scholarship donors.
My responsibilities with the Stewardship Department soon took the place of the jobs I’d worked before Senior year. I became the face of several fundraising campaigns with the school. I spoke at the annual Stewardship Banquet in November. Also that month, the school flew me, another student, and five members of the school administration, including President Nathan Hatch, to Orlando to speak with Wake Forest alum and golf legend Arnold Palmer about a new scholarship initiative. Our aim was to get Mr. Palmer’s endorsement, which would greatly raise awareness about the campaign. We returned with Palmer’s support.
The year continued this way, and the school raised millions of dollars from speeches and letters. When I finished school, the fun came to an abrupt end as I was made aware that I would have to pay the government nearly $50,000.
My world changed overnight. All I could think about was the money I owed. After graduation, I began working at a local car dealership which is, putting it mildly, miserable. In the words of one of my coworkers, “selling people **** they don’t need is the name of the game.” I won’t do that, and so I’ve had quite a difficult time with my bosses, although my customer service ratings are through the roof.
I don’t make very much money. I’m having difficulty finding another job, and all of a sudden I can’t find anyone that I used to work with in the Stewardship office or the school administration. I’m hurt. I didn’t go to college to sell oil changes. I wanted to change the world, and I don’t think anyone would blame me for that given my childhood. I wanted to make the world a better place.
I don’t know what to do now. I work 11 hour days, and I’ll be sending enough money to the bank to buy a house. I’m all alone. I was the first in my family to go to college. I don’t want to discourage the younger kids from striving to better themselves. But behind the laughs and dry humor, anyone who spends enough time with me knows I’m miserable. I never thought this was what it was all about. If I’d known, I might have done things differently. I could’ve sold oil changes anyway, but I wouldn’t have to worry about paying off more in debt than my dad earned while I was in college.
I want to write. I want to use my experiences and the personality they’ve given me to entertain and encourage people. But I’m afraid that by the time I’m out from under the weight of destitution, I will be a much more cynical person. I’m afraid that, in time, I will have forgotten all about the one dream I had – the one I’ve developed while in college.
My time in college showed me what it is I feel like I’m meant to do. The irony is that college is the one thing that may take it away.