From a very early age, my mom had pounded into my head the idea that I had to go to college. When you hear something day in and day out, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, a do-or-die proposition, but the truth is that I didn’t need my mom telling me this because, by the time I had reached nine years old, I had figured it out by myself. All I had to do was look around me.
Dad trudged through his life like a drone set on auto-pilot working a physically-demanding job that barely kept him ahead. When he returned to his job after the four-year layoff, he still bore the look of a man trapped in a dreary, no-win situation. He never said it to me directly, but I believe he hated his job. I could see it on his face, in his demeanor, and in the way he self-medicated. To his credit, he kept going, however reluctantly, until he was able to retire after 31 years on the job. As much as I loved my dad, I didn’t want to be like him. There had to be more to life.
When I entered high school, it was a foregone conclusion that I’d go to college. My sole focus was on getting good grades and getting into a good school. My grades were good, but my SAT scores were underwhelming. I’d never been good at taking timed tests throughout my school career. It wasn’t until after high school that I really learned the strategy behind them, which helped me immensely on the other tests I had yet to take.
While I took the steps in the right direction for college, I was pretty clueless on how to choose an actual school. I limited my choices to schools close to home with one school, The University of Miami, chosen simply because I still had a hangover from the heyday of Miami Vice and fantasized about living in Miami (I had shed my pseudo-Don Johnson suits by then, thankfully).
In the end, my choice came down to money, as did everything else in my life at that time. Neither my parents nor I had any substantial savings to pay for college, so I had to go with the school that offered the biggest scholarship. Luckily, Oglethorpe University, a private, underrated college in Atlanta provided a financial package that essentially paid for three of the four years (a student loan filled in the gap for the one year).
If I felt like a fish out of water in high school, I was definitely out of my league at Oglethorpe. I had never met a group of people with which I had so little in common in my entire life. It was like I was at a party to which I hadn’t been invited. My fellow students were simply living in a universe unrecognizable to me. To put things in perspective, one of the freshman students drove a DeLorean to school, and he parked it among the Mercedes and BMWs that dotted the parking lot, right next to my beat-up, sometimes-it-may-not-crank Ford Escort.
While I was worried about how I was going to pay for housing for the second semester, one of the guys I met was worried about how he was going to do laundry since he had never done it on his own. He ended up taking his laundry home each weekend so that his mother could do it. When I was frantically searching for a job before my meager savings ran out, many of my fellow students were worried about pledging for a fraternity or sorority and if they’d be forced to settle for something less than their dream social affiliation.
Being ignored by the creme de la creme of the social hierarchy can certainly leave one dejected, but I had more down-to-earth worries. I did manage to find a job in the fall of my freshman year working for a company that cold-called people and asked them to complete surveys. The pay was surprisingly good, but the job only lasted a few weeks as the company went out of business not long after I started. I scrambled to find another job that would fit into my school schedule so that I could pay for housing. My tuition and books were covered for the most part, but on-campus housing was not, and it was expensive. I could have moved back home and commuted the 50-plus miles to school everyday in the dreadful and inefficient Atlanta traffic, but I would have rather lived in my car than do that, which was something I seriously considered.
Even then, I had a persistent feeling of being late to the party, but sometimes, luck strikes at the most opportune moment. The first of two very lucky instances came in the fall and spring of my freshman year. First, I managed to find a job doing accounting clerical work for a small company just a few train stops from my school. That job was only 15-20 hours a week, but it provided the flexibility and income I needed to keep going. The second stroke of luck came when I managed to land an early morning job at UPS, which added another 20 hours of work to my week. The UPS job paid very well and included health insurance. These two jobs sustained me throughout my entire college career and kept my head above water. I no longer had to worry about how to pay for my housing and felt confident that I might actually make it for the entire four years.
While I was fortunate to have enough income to sustain myself, my schedule reduced my college experience to yet another endurance race. I’d get up at 3:15 AM every morning during the week to work my shift at UPS, and come home in time for my morning classes. On the three days a week when I worked the accounting job, I’d spend my afternoons in midtown Atlanta and my evenings doing homework. I never worked weekends, thankfully, but the grinding monotony was not without its moments.
On some of those early mornings, when my alarm blared into the hollow darkness of my tiny, off-campus apartment, I questioned my own motivations. I doubted my ability to continue. I wanted to quit the whole damn thing and just walk away. It wasn’t the freedom I had envisioned when I had escaped my parents’ house. Four years isn’t that long in the grand scheme of things, but in the thick of misery, it seems like an endless lifetime.
It was during those moments that my mom’s insipid mantras about not quitting would bounce back into my conscience. I couldn’t imagine moving back home and admitting defeat. I couldn’t fathom actually giving up. I just had to hold on, however tenuously, and make it to graduation. At least there was a light at the end of the tunnel even if the oncoming train threatened to grind me into the tracks.
Four years later, when I walked across that stage on the main lawn at Oglethorpe University on that rather warm May morning and accepted my college diploma from the Dean, I almost cried. I felt like crying, not because my wonderful college years were coming to an end (they weren’t so wonderful) and I’d be forced to be an adult, but because I had made it. I had survived. All those early morning doubts were washed away when I heard the Dean call my name. By then, I had accepted a real job and quit that thankless job at UPS. I had a three-week break before I started my first real job, and for the first time I experienced that elusive freedom I had sought four years earlier. Or so I thought.