“Everything is going to be OK,” my dad assured me as I sat cross-legged on my bed, pressing my phone against my ear and suppressing a fit of formidable sobs. His composure did little to quell the onset of emotions I experienced; if anything, it intensified them.
For some context, here is a brief timeline of unfortunate events:
About a month ago, my dad was terminated from his job of 18 years with no severance pay, no unemployment benefits and very little experience navigating the 21st-century job market. Not one week later, my mom’s union announced its decision to strike — a strenuous effort that offered little in the way of compensation for its participants — which cut her pay in half and forced her to work overtime to make up the difference. And precisely one hour prior to my writing of this article, my dad called to tell me that we are at risk of losing our house.
My family has never been what one would deem “financially stable.” When I was growing up, we received welfare benefits as my mom searched for a full-time job. Most of our food came from church pantries, our clothes from Goodwill. Over time, though, things gradually became more tolerable. My mom found work, and we were living relatively comfortably on a salary of $60,000 for our family of four. Extravagance was still out of the question, but at least we were stable. One thing that remained consistent throughout the course of my childhood was my dad’s job, which contributed more than half of our income once my mom reentered the workforce. For it to vanish so abruptly was not just shocking — it was absolutely devastating.
“I just can’t not work,” my dad told me over the phone. “It doesn’t feel right. I need to keep busy. I need to get out there.”
“What can I do?” I asked him over and over again. “I want to help.”
“You just stay in school,” he replied. “Knowing that you’re out there bettering yourself is enough. I don’t want you to end up like us. I want you to be comfortable.”
This rationale does not console me in the slightest, even though I knew he was right. My parents never attended college and have always emphasized the importance of a quality education — the fact that I am studying at the University is not only a source of pride for them, but also a one-way ticket to a life of financial security, which, among other things, is what they have always wanted for me. My dad reiterates how delighted he is that I am in school in every conversation I have with him, but in spite of his gratitude, I cannot help but feel a sense of overwhelming guilt about my detachment from the pressing issues that currently plague my family. I have a roof over my head, a meal plan and running water. I have access to an array of opportunities for advancement. I am comfortable and content; they are not, and there is absolutely nothing I can do about it.
Giving up on academia is not an option, and even if it is, it is not a particularly appealing one. Some days I feel as though I am not only pursuing higher education for myself, but for my family as well. Much more is at stake for me than just a degree — I am launching my lineage in the direction of a new lifestyle of prosperity. I am leading a crusade of upward mobility, but it is not without its anxieties.
While my parents worry about paying the bills, I worry about the fact that I am not worried about anything remotely financial. I am thankful for the luxuries of university life, but agonize over the fact that it may come at the expense of my relationship with my parents. There is a glaring disconnect that resurfaces whenever I mention my classes or organizations, and they counter with an anecdote about a new obstacle that has pervaded their sense of security. I can do nothing to ease the burden of poverty for them except prevail over my studies, and at least for now, that is enough for them.
“I love you, Lauren,” my dad told me. “I am so proud of you.”
I hung up the phone and pondered our situation for a long time. I am angry, I am powerless, and I am more determined than ever before. My family may not have the means to afford much in the way of amenities, but we do have each other. They offer unconditional support as I work my way through the system so we may one day achieve a better life, together. It is not guaranteed, but it keeps me going and it keeps them hopeful, and at the moment, that is all we need to get by.
Lauren Schandevel is an editorial board member.