A faulty diagnosis and a dream deferred

Sunday, August 30, 2020 - 7:50pm

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Waiting for a financial aid offer is a lot like waiting for a medical diagnosis. The unknown creates a fear so piercing, so all-consuming, that when the anticipated phone call or email finally comes through, holding your fate in a short string of sentences, your life halts for a second. And then, the shock: Maybe it’s a temporary loss of hearing. Maybe your heart begins to race so much you forget to breathe. Maybe you grow limp, wilting under the weight of life-altering information. And you can’t quite decide what’s worse: The anticipatory dread that precedes the news or the physiological, traumatic reaction that the news elicits.

I’ve experienced this kind of reaction only a few times in my life before one night at the end of July, when a handful of large numbers on a financial aid document told me I might not be able to return to the University of Michigan in the fall. The earliest time I can remember was when I first got my period. I had just returned home from going sledding with a couple of friends, and I pulled down my snow pants to find my baby-blue underwear stained with a small streak of beet-red blood. I clumsily redressed myself and hysterically reported my cherry-colored discovery to my mom. I remember feeling like I was speaking inside a fishbowl, the words muffled and distant. 

Then there was the time I came home from sixth grade to find my house had been robbed. Neither the driveway littered with my mom’s jewelry nor the front door that had been left swung open and battered on the perimeter registered in my brain as red flags. It was the gaping space left next to our fireplace, where a TV had been the day prior, that finally triggered my primal fight-or-flight response. Panicked, I incorrectly dialed 911 a couple times before finally collecting myself and dialing the correct digits.

And then there was the night I got rejected from Northwestern University’s prestigious Medill School of Journalism. The purple text on my application portal seemed to distort in front of me until I finally found the words: “We regret to inform you ...” The place I had spent months researching and fantasizing about and pining for had closed its doors to me; I felt like I had lost a future I hadn’t been able to live yet. 

Shifting my sights from the fiercely capable version of myself I dreamed I would be at Northwestern to some other, unknown person that would excel at a different school felt impossible. This, compounded by a brutal flare-up of my generalized anxiety disorder, meant that I would need to navigate a life-changing college decision process inside the headspace of someone I didn’t recognize. 

Like most of my peers, I was tackling countless admissions essays and scholarship applications, but found myself trying to navigate anti-anxiety medications and intensive therapy, too. In a moment of panic, I told my mom I didn’t want to live like this anymore, constantly adjusting my dosages and undergoing therapy to counteract my worsened symptoms only to be back at the same place: Anxious and uncertain and unsure about where in the world I wanted to go to college. A couple weeks before college decisions were due, my mom sat me down on our brown leather couch and told me college might not be the right choice for me. Her eyes, big and blue and brimming with tears, looked into mine with intense worry. She knew that the version of me sitting in front of her was not ready for any sort of undergraduate education come August. 

Then I was accepted into the University of Michigan. A younger version of myself in a better frame of mind might have seen my acceptance letter that spring and cried with joy. She might have then seen my official financial aid offer a few weeks later and be overcome with pride looking at the considerable amount of aid I had received in grants and awards. That single offer, that single document told me where I needed to be. But my anxiety told me otherwise — that I was incapable, damaged, too mentally unstable to go to college. 

And when I was at my senior prom, dateless and severely bummed out, I looked around at my classmates, all of whom I’d known since first grade, and knew in my gut that I owed it to myself to start over, outside of Indiana and at the University. 

So, after a few more months of therapy, leaning into friends and family and allowing myself to regain the kind of confidence I carried before my Northwestern rejection, I found myself in Ann Arbor in the fall of 2019. I was anxiety-free and confident in my ability to excel in my classes, constantly riding a high of meeting new people and going to new places. Even when I would experience a wave of anxiety, a quick trip to a buzzing and happening Shapiro Undergraduate Library would remind me that this place and all the people in it are so much bigger than my anxieties will ever be. 

Come Halloween, I found a group of people I loved to be around, I had two work-study jobs and I was writing for an online magazine. Even throughout quarantine and the transition to online classes, I was talking with my U-M friends every day, naively hopeful for a fall semester back in Ann Arbor, where I would be a sophomore once again living off of over-priced lattes and the thrill of short-lived eye contact with a pretty stranger.

When the isolation grew to be disheartening, I would picture myself in the places I thought would be waiting for me in the fall: An East Quad Dining Hall bustling with professors and students speaking different languages; a crisp, leaf-covered lane leading me to Tappan Hall; a bright window seat in the Literati Coffee shop. One year as a Wolverine meant that I had this bountiful stash of memories and experiences to store away and return to, pockets of joy and contentment to relive when life grew dull.

This made it all the more devastating when my parents delivered the crushing diagnosis this past July, a month before my sophomore year was supposed to begin: You cannot afford the University this year. My heart sank in disbelief and that odd, fishbowl-type of sensation came over me as my parents’ voices warped into muffled noises.

After a few moments, the news found its place in the logical part of my brain and I started panicking. Was I supposed to bail on my roommate? What would happen to my credits? What would I tell my friends with whom I was supposed to live junior year? Where would I transfer? 

The morning after I received Michigan’s diagnosis, I sent in my transfer application to an in-state institution with tears streaming down my face. I was overcome with panic — how could one document usher so much change into my life? I couldn’t eat or sleep for two days. Every waking moment was spent attempting to grieve the loss of the life I created for myself at U-M, while frantically trying to secure admission and housing somewhere in Indiana.

My family and I called the financial aid office to inquire about the reasoning behind the significant reduction in my aid package. The officers spoke of formulas and the FAFSA, essentially attributing the entire reduction in my aid to a shift in our household as shown on the FAFSA. “Michigan” or “no Michigan” was determined by one highly-intricate financial aid formula calculated in just the right way. During this award cycle, the office explained, a faulty number was plugged into my application. So, it seemed, the answer was “no Michigan.”

But nevertheless, I am here, writing this article as a U-M student, as a sophomore gearing up for the beginning of a year marked by social distance guidelines and other COVID-19 precautions. While my original diagnosis seemed to be completely inalterable, extensive communication with the financial aid office helped me undo the faulty digit that led me to the blunt, cold end of a “no Michigan” equation. 

And so, I along with all of my peers are met with the sour taste of a different diagnosis: One that marks this entire academic year with “cautious optimism” toward delivering a “health-informed semester.” One that involves a Michigan Union meticulously reconfigured so students study from a safe social distance, dining hall lines stretching for blocks and a campus-wide animosity that allows us to berate freshmen for partying. And we’re paying full, even increased, tuition for all of this.

Campus does not look like the University I remembered while straining for first-year memories during an isolating quarantine or sitting across from my parents, crying at the thought of not being able to afford returning this fall. We’re struggling, endlessly irritated with our administration and with each other as we clumsily navigate a “culture of care.” Nevertheless, all we can do with the reality of this school year is conduct ourselves in a way that ensures no one else has to grapple with a similar fate. The diagnosis is seemingly crushing, but we’ve got to make do with it somehow.