In my adult life, the only time I ever asked my parents for money was when I needed to buy a winter coat.
I was a freshman in college at the time, attending Emerson College, a private school in Boston. I’d lived in northern Michigan my whole life, and I was sick of all of it — the weather, the people, the idea of staying close to my family. So I got out. Ran as far away as I could. And that meant running halfway across the country to a school I knew I couldn’t pay for but chose to go to anyway.
I underestimated the biting cold of fall and winter on the East Coast.
Somehow I had gone all of high school and much of middle school without a winter coat. My reasoning was simple — the only time I needed one was to walk from my car into school. Besides, I had three younger sisters who were not nearly as practical nor frugal as me, insisting that they needed a new winter coat every year. So, I resigned myself to hand-me-down fabric coats from my aunts.
But then freshman year of college came around and suddenly I was walking upward of two miles a day in Massachusetts. I realized a flimsy fabric coat simply wasn’t going to cut it. I knew nor’easters were a big part of the coast’s meteorological makeup, and I knew I’d need something warmer to walk to class in if something like that happened.
And sure, half the people I knew were walking around in Michael Kors coats, or sporting a Tommy Hilfiger jacket, but those were the same people who lamented about how the financial aid at the school just wasn’t enough. They were the same people who already had student debt simply because a private school on an urban campus is exorbitantly expensive for anyone. There was an openness, and a sense of camaraderie, in that we all understood the price tag of the school was nothing to scoff at.
I sent my parents a text, the request for a new coat veiled through laments about how cold it was and how different East Coast winter was to “Michigan cold.” But they didn’t catch the hint. Or maybe they purposely ignored it. Either way, I finally came out and asked them if they could pay for a winter coat. I’d go to Primark — before I knew what a disastrous company it was — and get something for cheap. The Macy’s in Downtown Crossing was also having a sale. Or I’d find something discounted at Marshalls.
Their response was a resounding ‘no.’
At Emerson, I worked in the registrar’s office. I knew the amount of money some of the students at that school were dealing with. But I also witnessed the pain firsthand when I had to file withdrawal forms from students explaining that they just couldn’t keep up with tuition. On average, private colleges can cost upward of $40,000 per academic year, while public schools can range from $10,000 for in-state students and $20,000 for out-of-state students. Scholarships and financial aid could only go so far when a year of Emerson’s tuition alone was nearly as much as my father made in an entire year.
I transferred to the University of Michigan specifically for their financial aid program. I knew my parents wouldn’t help me pay for tuition and I needed a school I could pay for myself, or receive enough financial aid to survive off of. I figured that a school like the University would be different somehow. After all, I personally receive the “Go-Blue Guarantee” and know many other students who receive substantial financial assistance.
I should feel like I belong, right?
I can’t pinpoint exactly when I noticed this subtle isolation, but it became more apparent after a conversation I had with a friend during my sophomore year. I described my feelings of impostor syndrome and how I feared that the University only accepted me because I filled a quota and not for my academic merit. I theorized that they need to accept some students from the lowest income bracket to show that they do, in fact, have a great financial aid system. They needed enough charity cases so that they could blast their “Free Tuition” ad on every Youtube and Facebook page, talking about how they give students opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have.
My friend laughed and said to me, “Yeah, you’re probably right.”
Taken aback by the response, suddenly I was watching everything I did and said about my financial status around anyone. And, I was watching others. I watched my roommate buy a week’s worth of groceries on her mom’s credit card. I watched someone buy two pairs of Lululemon leggings without calling her parents before swiping their bank card. I watched a friend leave a tip at a restaurant with their dad’s money.
The markers of wealth are subtler in Ann Arbor than in Boston. I don’t regularly see people walking down the street in Gucci sweaters here, but I do see people sporting Canada Goose everywhere I turn. People don’t pop across the city for cannolis and genuine Italian coffee during their lunch break, but they get oat milk and cold foam and an extra shot of espresso in their daily Starbucks drinks.
And no one talks about financial aid.
When it’s the middle of December and I’m waiting for my next semester’s aid to be processed so I can pay rent, I don’t hear anyone else mention how their reimbursement checks are late. I realized, at some point, many U-M students were not paying their own rent, including most of my friends — their parents were. Meanwhile, I learned how to sign a lease by myself, remembering to pay rent on the first of every month. I hunted for and secured an apartment in the hellscape that is the Ann Arbor rental pool while my friends had parents who were willing to help them find housing and pay for it outright.
When I walk out of Ulrich’s in tears because of the amount textbooks put me back, most of my friends don’t empathize. Their parents had paid for all their books, while I was hoping I had enough leftover aid money to pay for mine.
I worked 12 hours a week on top of classes and extracurriculars, learning that many of my friends had never worked a job in their life.
Here, the discrepancies are small and almost invisible. And I can’t help but think that’s on purpose.
Once, I found myself crying in the storage room of the office I work at because I couldn’t get more hours and, thus, couldn’t pay for grad school applications. Asking my parents for a penny wasn’t even a thought. My education has always been and will forever be my responsibility, on both a personal and financial level, because my family simply doesn’t have the resources to support me.
My dad crafts metal parts for a living. When I first started filling out undergraduate applications, there was a section concerning your parents’ professions. I was 17 years old and I didn’t know what my father did when he went to work, other than that he made these mysterious parts. My mom said to write ‘machinist,’ so I did.
He has worked the same job his whole adult life. Neither he nor my mother went on to college, his pay supporting a family of six. Essentially, that puts us firmly within the poverty line. Like my grandparents before us. And their parents before them. Turtles all the way down, or whatever the phrase is.
And here I am, desperately trying to be something different. Attending a University that will supposedly help me break this cycle and elevate me to a different course. And yet, being First Gen is an increasingly isolating experience.
My senior year of high school, one of the first things my parents told me when I started applying for colleges was that they would not be helping me. The statement was delivered on a casual afternoon, when I got home from school and mentioned the colleges I was thinking about applying to. It was a quick and to-the-point remark — they didn’t know how to fill out the applications, or how to apply for financial aid and they weren’t going to help me figure it out, either.
To this day, I think that statement was meant to be a deterrent from applying at all. I think it disappointed them that I wanted something different for myself than what everyone else in the family had done. I think I disappointed them by not settling down and starting a family right away. I don’t think they ever wanted me to go to college at all.
I remember the moment graduate school crept into my mind, when my research mentor suggested it and said I would be a good fit for it. Only then did I let myself consider it, and realize that I wanted it. My initial emotion was not excitement at the possibility, but dread of telling my family. I knew they wouldn’t like it.
Some days it feels like I’m playing at adulthood, flouncing around in academia until I can fulfill my parents’ wishes. Sometimes it feels like I won’t be a worthwhile member of my family until I have a 9-5 job, a husband and a kid. As if that were the true definition of adulthood.
The thing about being a first generation college student is that most of the time you have no idea what the hell you are doing and asking someone feels like crossing a social boundary. I don’t ask my friends for help applying to graduate schools because I know they’ll launch into the exact explanation that their parents gave them, and I don’t want that.
In fact, I don’t ask my friends about a lot of things.
“Where did your parents go to college?”
“What do they do for a living? My mom is a surgeon and my dad is a dentist.”
“My mom stays at home and my dad is in the skilled trades profession.”
And like that, the conversation is dead. Because when so many students at the school have parents in the top 20% income bracket, how could they relate to someone who got free and reduced lunch all throughout high school? Someone who has the most substantial financial aid the school has to offer? Someone who has to pay their own rent?
It isn’t their fault their parents are wealthy. I shouldn’t be mad at them for flaunting their privilege, using it as much as they can just because they have it. I think I’m just tired of never having enough — never being enough — for this school.
Statement Columnist Mackenzie Hubbard can be reached at email@example.com.