On the evening of Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2016, I lounged in my old bedroom, exhausted from a particularly grueling competitive cheer practice, mindlessly scrolling through my phone after yet another day of going through the motions. Just after 8 p.m., I refreshed my Gmail, only expecting to delete more emails from various stores — hello, Victoria’s Secret and Forever21 — who flooded my inbox with promotions each day. Then, suddenly, there it was. An email with the subject line: “Your University of Michigan Admissions Decision.” Without even opening the email, I glanced at the first few words, written just under the subject line, that read: “CONGRATULATIONS Elayna — You’re IN!”
Startled and in utter shock, I jumped out of bed, sprinted out of my room and down the stairs to the living room — slipping multiple times in my socks on our wood floors — and ran up to my older sister. Wordlessly, I shoved my phone in her face as I stood in front of her, speechless and in tears, attempting to catch my breath. My parents looked at us in bewilderment, wondering what could possibly be on that phone screen. My sister, realizing I was at a loss for words, filled them in: “She got in!”
I got in.
I was quite apathetic throughout the entire college application process. My sister had matriculated to the University as well, but generally, attending a large, four-year university was an exception to the rule in our little 2,000-person hometown. For the most part, members of our tiny graduating classes found themselves attending local community colleges or small state schools, going to trade school or entering full-time work on family farms, in factories or local real estate. Many would stay in the town, or at least the county, for the rest of their lives, finding success and happiness in their homes, families and work.
The academics at our high school were tailored for this. A squat, one-story building shaped like a square with two small wings, Bronson Jr./Sr. High School did its very best to breed success for its students. Housing grades six through 12, with a generous estimate of 475 total students, the school was chronically underfunded. Our textbooks dated back to the early ‘90s and monstrous box televisions still hung from the ceilings in the corner of the classrooms, most of which still had chalkboards. We didn’t have any official International Baccalaureate or Advanced Placement programs; our sole AP class — AP U.S. History — couldn’t even be listed as an AP course on our transcripts, reputedly due to financial reasons, and we didn’t have calculus or biochemistry either. Seniors spent half the year taking a class on U.S. government and the other taking what was meant to be economics, but our teacher chose to focus on personal finance instead. This was a reasonable choice given that these skills are much more practical — therefore more likely to be used by most students after graduation — as compared to a high school-level understanding of macroeconomic concepts.
Many of my friends and family members, along with my entire community back in Bronson, found happiness and success by utilizing this education, finding work that they enjoyed and that allowed them to support their families. They not only embrace but thrive in their small-town, humble lifestyles, building friendships and tight-knit community bonds that last for generations. My community loves living in a place that feels familiar and intimate — where everybody literally knows everybody.
But, deep down, I always knew the small-town life wasn’t meant for me. I wanted to do something more. I didn’t know what “more” was, but I knew I had the potential to do it, and I knew I couldn’t find it in Bronson, Mich.
This has always been a source of guilt — the idea that the lives my family and community members lived somehow weren’t good enough for me. After announcing that I would be attending the University, I knew some members of the community would immediately label me as pretentious and arrogant — but it wasn’t about them. They found their own versions of success, and I am immensely proud of them for that. But my imagination was big, my desire to learn was bigger, and my feelings of being trapped inside such a small box were suffocating.
As I started to think about attending college, I had little hope that I would achieve my ever-lofty goals. I was aware that my education hardly compared to that of students from even the neighboring towns, let alone that of students from fancy private schools. My standardized test scores were in the top tier of my high school but in the bottom tier of the University’s average admissions. If it hadn’t been for the handful of Bronson graduates who had successfully matriculated to highly-ranked universities before me, including my sister, and the support I received from my parents and a few key family members, I probably never would have applied.
But I did. And I got in.
I truly never could have predicted what the next four years had in store for me. Despite my general awareness of how far behind I’d be in comparison to my future peers, I thought the dual enrollment courses I took at a local community college would help prepare me for the increased academic rigor. I thought that it would be easy to find friends and a community on such a large campus, given that there were literally tens of thousands of students to meet. I genuinely believed that after leaving the town that I never felt I belonged in for a place like Ann Arbor, I would find myself, my people and my passion quickly.
I was incredibly naive.
The very first hurdle I faced was the realization that all of the dual enrollment credits I had taken during high school were worthless — the credits couldn’t transfer because the classes I took at the community college weren’t on the University’s “approved” list. In order to appeal this decision, I was expected to obtain the syllabi from those courses and independently petition the professors of the congruent classes at the University to approve them. This is an outrageous and intimidating ask of a young, terrified freshman facing such a drastic transition, already aware of the gaps in her academic preparation. Anxious and intimidated, I didn’t even bother to try, knowing that the outcome was less than likely to be fruitful. Instead, I accepted my fate and surrendered nearly an entire semester’s worth of credits. I was reminded of this every semester as I tried to enroll for courses, always last in line due to having fewer credits under my belt than my peers in the same year as me.
With this happening in just the first few weeks of college, my feelings of inadequacy were underscored and came to define my freshman year at the University. My first semester was a blur of social anxiety, academic hardship and imposter syndrome. From the moment I opened my acceptance email, some part of me truly felt that my admission to the University was a fluke. I thought I wasn’t smart enough to be here and that all of my peers were far more enlightened and intelligent than I was. I felt that I could never succeed in a place like this. These feelings made the thought of opening up to my peers terrifying.
At home, I was always one of the “smart ones.” But suddenly, everyone around me at the University was talking about their IB diplomas and listing the entry-level courses they would skip because of their academic backgrounds. At the same time, I was struggling to keep up in those entry-level courses, as the professors frequently skipped over material they assumed I learned in high school. I was so insecure about whether I even deserved my place at this university that I thought that if I talked to my new classmates and dorm neighbors, they’d figure out that I wasn’t actually smart at all.
Between unawareness and a simple lack of resources, the University didn’t help much with this transition. I didn’t technically qualify as a first-generation student because my mom and stepdad earned their degrees online during my childhood, so the community and the resources for first-generation students weren’t available to me. There’s no program on campus that specifically seeks to aid students who are expected to teach themselves class material that professors assumed I had learned. I was too embarrassed to admit what I felt was my stupidity during office hours, so I had two options: seek out tutoring or deal with it. I couldn’t afford tutoring, so I was left to fend for myself.
Eventually, I started to adjust. During the second semester of my freshman year, I finally found a small, like-minded group of friends with similar academic experiences who made the transition a bit easier. Slowly but surely, I taught myself how to study, how to write papers and how to teach myself all of the material that professors skipped over. I really started to wish my high school economics teacher had placed more of an emphasis on those macroeconomic concepts. Still, I pushed through, even when I spent countless hours in the UgLi studying for an exam that I ultimately performed poorly on despite my best efforts and great desire to understand the material.
I later learned that my lack of academic preparedness wasn’t the only factor contributing to the hardship I’ve faced at the University. Just two months ago, as a second-semester senior, I was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder — meaning that I endured nearly the entirety of my undergraduate career undiagnosed and untreated for something that makes learning so much more difficult. Those times that I barely even managed to finish timed exams that I spent countless hours studying for, and that everyone else finished much more quickly, suddenly made a lot more sense.
I applied and chose to attend this university because I wanted to learn and I wanted to be challenged. I thought that the hardship I was facing was exactly what I had asked for. To an extent, it was. But I wasn’t supposed to face it alone. And it wasn’t supposed to be as hard as it was.
My acceptance into the School of Public Health saved me from giving up on my academic goals. As soon as I was able to dive into a field of study that I was deeply passionate about, I finally found myself performing better academically. The support I’ve received in this program from my advisors, professors and peers is invaluable.
As my undergraduate career comes to a close, I’ve managed to earn University Honors and obtained my first 4.0 semester grade point average in Fall 2020. These accomplishments feel so small to students who came in prepared, but for me and my family, I may as well have won an Olympic gold medal.
Still, looking back, I can’t help but wonder how my academic experience would have been different had there been resources available for students like me. It was hard to find people with similar backgrounds because I was too embarrassed to talk about my struggles — and they probably were, too. For those of us who don’t technically fall into those first-generation college student categories, or who attended a high school like mine, it’s incredibly intimidating to talk about our experiences without having feelings of inadequacy take over.
I felt all of those feelings, in addition to pure loneliness, for so much of my undergraduate career. It took until my senior year to truly feel that I belong here. Nobody should have to feel that way.
If you’re reading this and my story resonates with you in any way: you’re not alone. I wish that there was some cohesive community on campus for students like us, but unfortunately, there isn’t. Until there is, please remember: You belong here. You were admitted because you deserve to be here. You’re intelligent, competent, powerful and worthy. Go to office hours and don’t be afraid to ask for help. And, most of all, please don’t give up.
Statement Contributor Elayna Swift can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.