The minute I stepped out of my uncle’s car and arrived at Harrison College House, I should have known that my life would change forever. I should have known that I would encounter several experiences that would make me question why I chose Penn. But instead, I naively checked myself into my new dorm, anticipating that my freshman year would be the best year of my life. If I could, I probably would smack my older self with my back hand and tell myself “You tried it! Try again.”
If only someone told me that adjusting to college would be difficult. That I would have lonely nights in my room because unlike countless other students at Penn, I could not afford to eat out with my friends in Center City. But the truth is, nobody told me anything — I had to figure a lot of this stuff out on my own.
Coming from this narrative, I think that we as a Penn community should be mindful of the experiences of other low-income students that have been often ignored. My story is not very different from the stories of other first-generation low-income students at Penn. But to provide a narrative, here’s my experience.
Living in a shelter home for most of my adolescence, neither my family nor I was equipped with basic financial literacy to know how to budget or save our money. So guess who had to learn it on his own — me.
Before I discovered how to get a bank account, I had to rely on my boss from my work-study job to cash my checks for me. After getting tired of meeting her every week to cash it, I decided to find out how to get a bank account.
I went to various banks, and they all told me the same thing: You need some form of ID to create a basic checking account. My mother did not have a state ID or passport, and neither did I. And every time I mentioned that to the bank representatives, they looked at me like I was crazy. So, getting this annoying ID was going to be the first obstacle.
I did not realize that in order to get a state ID, I needed other forms of identification. This was a difficult and confusing situation. First, I needed identification in order to get identification. Then, I needed the identification to get a bank account so I could finally be able to cash my work study checks. I spent months going back and forth to both the DMV in Philly and the DMV in New York trying to retrieve enough documents to prove my identity.
This situation resulted in a lot of stress and anxiety. I had several instances where I cried in my room, defeated. And I thought to myself: If this was only my first semester in college and I was already going through situations like this, how could I ever endure three more years of this? Eventually I got the state ID and was even able to get a bank account, but the fact that I had to go through a lot of obstacles to attain it really showed me that the worst was yet to come for the rest of my freshman year.
This is just one of the examples of the ways in which I was at a disadvantage my first year at Penn. There were several other social, emotional, physical and mental challenges I faced in addition to the financial struggles. But as a first-generation, low-income student, I was not blessed like the majority of students at Penn. I did not have parents that went to college, nor did I have parents that could provide me with the resources I needed to succeed in college.
But looking back on it, I realize that I had all of the tools that I needed. I had a hardworking mother that dedicated her life to ensure that her children had a better life than her. I also had a motivation that pushed me to use all of the resources available to me to make sure that I had a chance to go to a prestigious school like Penn. A combination of these things, along with my hard work and determination, not only helped me get into Penn, they also kept me motivated enough to stay.
I am now at a better place because I understand that although my experiences in life may have been hard, they also made me the strong-minded, smart, intelligent and beautiful person I am today. And it only goes up from here.
JAMES FISHER is a College sophomore from the Bronx, N.Y., studying communication. “Spilling the Real Tea” usually appears every other Thursday.
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