When You Have Nothing, and Nothing to Lose — My Struggle Out of Poverty
It’s true, what you read, that not all that are homeless are jobless. I was a graduate student and homeless for a year. I slept on the couches in my university and often in the dorm couches of friends. I came from an impoverished country and family to the US alone at 16. How did I become homeless?
I was an undergraduate student and despite a 2.6 GPA, I managed to get an internship at a defense contractor one summer. I ooze passion for engineering. I work long and hard, and show tenacity. My GPA was only a sign of my first semester being a struggle with being thrown into a new country at 16 and learning to stand up on my own, and one man saw this and gave me a shot, and I wasn’t about to ever let him down. I am forever grateful to this man. But sometimes, things are beyond our control. The company had me sign a contract after leaving the internship for full time position the summer afterwards. I went to school and finished my senior year, but received a call from HR the day before graduation that there wasn’t money to bring me on. The floor was taken from underneath me, and I had almost no chance to react.
Without a job and nowhere to go in a country far from my home, I found myself at 20 years old, scrambling for a plan. Any of my friends in the same position would have just gone home, but I had wasted my money on a plane ticket to a state I was scheduled to start working at only to be told, “Change of plans!” the day before. I was stuck alone, jobless and broke, and suddenly without a place to stay after walking across the stage for my bachelors degree. One of my professors suggested I enroll in graduate school, and I did.
A month later, I get called by that manager, and was told he pulled some strings and gotten me a temporary position at a different part of the company. I spent what little money I had and moved over to the new location for the new job. I quickly learned there was some resentment for being forced into this position by the manager of that team, and that the future of the company was going to get worse before it was going to get better. Things were not going well for me, since my pay for a small town in the south was not enough to keep up with the high taxes and my loans in Massachusetts. I was struggling to pay rent, forgoing eating to ensure I could pay my landlord. I came from poverty as a kid, but it wasn’t until I was the one unable to pay for my own rent at that moment that I understood what my father endured. I had an engineering degree, a entry level job, and still I felt like I was in the same position he was with only a high school education. My landlord was also a coworker, although not one with a great reputation. I was struggling and I asked him for an extension on rent to make up the last bit I owed. I was confronted near the open office door of my temporary manager and threatened with eviction! What embarrassment to have coworkers talking about what new renovations they were working on their house, while I was known to be the kid struggling to pay for dinner at times.
I had to find a new place to live that was cheaper, and I did, but it was almost an hour away from where I worked in Massachusetts. The commute didn’t bother me, but my days were 12 hours long on average as a result. I poked at my actual manager in the Carolinas to know when the situation was going to be re-mediated, and I constantly kept hearing that things were getting worse and worse. I waited three months, and things didn’t get better. I was accepted to graduate school though, and at that time, it seemed like the only opportunity I would have to get a Masters.
I got acceptance into the graduate school, with one ultimatum. I needed to quit my job at this defense contractor to demonstrate my commitment to my graduate studies. That’s right. Demonstrate my commitment, because my GPA was not acceptable, despite my work ethic being strong and well known in my department. Between a rock and a hard place, I jumped ship from that job. I went for a Masters, and despite looking around the area, I wasn’t able to find a place to live near the university. There was a place an hour away that costed more than I made as a teaching assistant, and I considered it. Some things are just not feasible, though. And there I was. Not that I couldn’t pay for a place, but that in the middle of nowhere New York location I was in, I couldn’t get a place close enough to financially afford living. Suddenly, I was a homeless graduate student, living on the couches of the university. There was an interesting side effect, which was quite fortunate…I was able to pay into my student loans during this time because I had few other obligations to pay for.
It’s funny. I’m now 26, and almost debt free. This was only possible because of my time spent homeless alongside sacrificing going home and other luxuries, working any job regardless of how remedial, and taking massive risks that required some serious work on my part to succeed. A lot of my wealthier (middle class) peers in college lived in nice houses and posted pictures of their home cooked meals and family trips to Disney Land during breaks. I was jealous of it then, sure, but wanting that kind of life made me work harder. I was homeless and scavenging for a cheap meal, paying off my loans so that I wouldn’t be crushed by them again, and forgoing seeing my own family for several years. Some students from my university now complain about massive student debt, and about paying taxes on all expense paid graduate scholarships and fellowships, and they complain of being unemployed and living at home long after they graduate because working a minimum wage job with a STEM degree is beneath them. I worked non-stop since 16 any job that would take me and I saved everything I could to pay off only the important things; like rent, food and my loans to not become delinquent. Sometimes all I had to eat was some crackers with peanut butter that were sitting out in the cafe because they were free, owned a single pair of pants until they ripped and then I would need to get a new pair, couldn’t afford to go home for any holidays, and sometimes I couldn’t tell you were my next shower was going to be (which as a female you can imagine was unpleasant at times), but I had my priorities straight since 16, because failure wasn’t an option.
My boyfriend and his family think I am very career oriented, which to an extent they are right. I have to be though, because I know what awaits for me if I ever misstep.
I want to be that success story for other minorities and females aspiring to greater things than living in poverty and wishing for that college education. It’s hard, but it’s not impossible. My advice is to take the risk, and push through relentlessly. It was the hardest thing I have ever endured, and my journey is just beginning. I can’t help but wonder what some of my college peers outcome would have been in my position…rising out of poverty is hard, but it’s certainly possible. I am nowhere close to being millionaire, or even high middle class, but I am better than I was yesterday, and better than the day before that.
Here’s to striving to become the middle class. Those of us that do? That’s true grit. Here’s to the American Dream, and those willing to fight for it.