So a Poor Girl Walks into SoCal…
Here’s a true story:
A year ago today, Southwest carried me home on flight 1814. LAX was under renovation, so my last sights on foot in Los Angeles fell short of all my glamorous hopes, but this didn’t register at the time because I didn’t think they would be my last.
I enrolled at the University of Southern California in August of 2015 a freshman by matriculation date and a junior by credit hours. Despite being offered better scholarships elsewhere, I chose USC because it was the best school on my list for my then-field, Computer Science. My best friend and I both felt the financial burden breathing down our necks, but we took the plunge together thinking, “We will never forgive ourselves if we choose money over what we love.”
So California was sunny and the culture was sweeter than the flesh of a desert date, but I was drowning in the consequences of a perfectionist drive gone sour, overworked and underfed. I had thrown myself into my academics and they had swallowed me whole. I lived in Leavey library, which was open 24 hours, and learned to like lattes that weren’t drenched in caramel. They earned me 86% exam scores and 70% on homework, acceptable by general standards but unthinkable by my own. The numbers kept me up at night — at this rate, my $20,000 in undergraduate loans would earn me a mediocre job which I will use to pay off the loans that paid for my mediocrity. Less than three years later, I would be competing with peers far smarter than I was to prove that I was the best person for jobs we were all qualified to do. I stopped sleeping and opted instead, to study harder.
This cycle led me to a psychiatrist, who led me to a pharmacist, who led me to help. But even then, I was not okay. A university counselor removed the sharp objects from my room, and my big sister talked me to sleep over the phone, staying there on the line until my all sobs were snores. A few days later, I withdrew from the university for a personal leave of absence. Within a week, I kissed the West coast goodbye and planned to return recuperated in the spring.
I’m at Western Kentucky University now, on a fraction of the scholarship they had originally offered me, working to stay afloat. And it is easy to regret the decision I made to go to USC at all, but the problem was never the school, it was me. It was unforgiving, relentless ambition and knowing that unlike my peers, who complained about “only” having fifteen hundred dollars in their bank accounts, I did not have a financial security blanket to fall back on beyond on the $5.64 on my debit card. If loans put too much pressure on my future, I could not talk my parents into putting forth the money, even in monthly installments, because they did not have it. My grandparents helped the best they could and called every couple of weeks to ask if I “still had all A’s.” Of course, I lied.
Not being able to afford an elite university is a privileged problem to have, I know. But imagine for a moment what it is like to return home to your sleepy Kentucky town, knowing full and well that you have failed; or to sit in a classroom where a tired TA reads blankly from a powerpoint slide, eventually deciding to conclude class early, and contrast it with the excitement of a young, tenured engineering professor teaching you multivariable calculus, his chalk energetically dancing across the board until the last drop of his time is up. Spot the difference between two job interviews — one, asking if you can meet the demands of a retail schedule, the other, if you can write Java code to solve the following problem on the dry erase board in front of you while talking through your thought process. USC was worth every penny, but ultimately, they were pennies I did not have.
I miss Southern California everyday. I still have dreams about waking up in my dorm on the south side of campus, grabbing a breakfast of granola, almond milk, and as many watermelon slices as I can stomach before walking across that sprawling sculpture of a campus to get to class five minutes early. I think about the Starbucks where I met an educated, aspiring actor for a coffee date and the mochi shop in Little Tokyo where my friends and I always went to settle our debts to one another. I miss the man who hired me as a software developer at only eighteen years old, who gave me the chance to earn money to do what I would’ve done anyway just for fun. I still reminisce with the best friend who surmounted the trials I did not.
And I have spoken little about all of this in the past year because it is embarrassing, even now, to admit that the future I so badly wanted and worked so hard to prepare myself for was not the future I got. I want to tell you that I am better now for having experienced all of this, that the bitterness of financial distress is a thing of the past for me, but I don’t think either of these are true. The truth is that I am still hurt by not being able to afford the education I was lucky enough to rent but unfortunately too poor to purchase. I do not feel stronger or smarter or more qualified for having lost what I put so much on the line to gain.
I feel like I left a whole life out there, waiting on the corner of Exposition and Figueroa in downtown L.A., where I could have gone on to be a Silicon Valley powerhouse or a small start-up entrepreneur, and no one I meet from this point forward will ever believe that the Staples Center used to be my backyard, that my friends and I once saw Patrick Schwarzenegger strutting with an entitled angst down a campus sidewalk, that the tiny apartment complex I now barely pay the rent for was really just a consolation prize after I gave up what was everything.
I am writing all this to tell you that I survived being my own biggest disappointment. That if I can do it, you can too. That I still find myself angry at times but for the most part, I have acclimated, have left what might have been where it was and have set my sights on a career in medicine — surgery, specifically — where my potential effect on others has and will continue to pull me through every troubled midnight hour, and where all those hours (even the panicked, anxious, suffocating ones) will undoubtedly feel worthwhile.
And who knows, maybe I will be lucky enough to find myself back there, on that corner of Exposition and Figueroa, for medical school or to visit a friend or just to retrace those now-romanticized steps.
And God, I hope those renovations at LAX will be complete. That place was a real eyesore.