Through all of my school years — elementary and high — I never had any doubt that I’d go to university. I performed well academically; I was a bookworm and all about learning and I saw no better future for myself than learning more for as long as I possibly could. My career goals changed and faded, with being a writer always staying put as the foundation, but my academic goals only did in terms of what I would study at university.
(Creative Writing either isn’t or wasn’t a college degree in Spain, and I was never that drawn to studying creative subjects, anyway. It seemed far too subjective a field to be graded on.)
Growing up, my family were a bit more financially stable than we are now; my father usually had a job and we had my grandfather living with us, helping out and funding the whims of his grandbaby, aka me. Even when times were tight, college was still in the horizon for a simple reason: scholarships.
In Spain, scholarships are given based on your level of income, and most non-medicine-related degrees have a passing grade fence, so you don’t have to try very hard to get in. Even after my mental health issues extended to physical symptoms and my average went from A to B, I wasn’t worried about getting into college. I didn’t have to write essays or pay to apply.
I like this system. I support this system. Everyone should have access to education, and scholarships are much better than loans, in my opinion. It’s great not owing tens of thousands of insert-currency-here to the government. You just had to meet certain criteria to get the money, and achieve certain low-pressure goals to keep it.
I dropped out of college three months in, bought a MacBook and a Canon camera, went back to sit two exams in September and didn’t have to give any money back. I couldn’t get another scholarship for my first year doing English in my hometown the year after that and my parents couldn’t afford one, so it’s one chance and you blow it, but that’s much better than many, many people get, and my laptop lasted me quite long and my camera — I still use it on the regular. I’m building a blog and a business with that camera.
But here’s the thing.
It’s September. I’m sitting at the dining table with my host family in Bounds Green, London. It’s the first time I’ve been out of the country, traveled on my own, or lived with anyone I wasn’t related to. It’s only for a couple of weeks — another ministry scholarship for English language immersion learning. You book a course at an ESL school and the school handles your accommodation. Host families are the least expensive option, especially one in zone 4.
I don’t remember what we’re talking about, but the subject of my upcoming university move comes up. I mention I’ll miss having the Internet because I don’t have a laptop.
She looks dubious. She says, “Everyone at university has a laptop. You need it. You should get one.”
I look down at my food and mumble, “Well, I can’t afford one. Hopefully when my scholarship money comes in.”
I’m more dubious than she is. I’m bad with people — I haven’t caught on that I have acute social anxiety disorder yet — and I decided to move to a dorm because I couldn’t handle flathunting in another city. I’m sharing a room and the monthly fee is pretty fucking high. My scholarship will cover my tuition and most of my accommodation, but not all. I’m not sure how I’m going to wrangle a laptop out of it, and my entire support system is online. The idea of being without a computer terrifies me.
It’s mid September and I’m due to move to my dorm on October 2. My three weeks in London and my move to Madrid nearly overlap because I booked the trip as late as possible to catch a Millais exhibit at the Tate Britain.
I was approved for my scholarship sometime in June. I booked my dorm around the same time, after the exams to access university caused me a mild post-grading breakdown that destroyed my faith in academia.
The scholarship money isn’t coming in until December. My parents are doing their best to cover the dorm — first and last month, then November, then December — and my expenses until then. My grandfather died last year. My mom bought me a set of sheets that I hate — it was on sale — and some towels I’m okay with. I’m taking everything with me in a suitcase.
I don’t even fill a fifth of my closet with my clothes. Everyone else has so much shit. My roommate has a laptop, of course. I ask her if I can use it, and she says — understandably — that she can let me have it sometimes if I ask first.
I’m so embarrassed by so many things. I can’t go down to eat because it involves asking someone if I can sit with them, and that kills me. There’s weird low-key but incredibly stressful hazing going on, even if they let me opt out of it.
There’s a computer room, and there’s always people in it. I can’t communicate with my friends. I write on my journal and I watch things on a small portable DVD player I brought with me. I spend most of my money — 200€ a month my parents are pulling from somewhere — on DVDs and Burger King food. It’s a ten-minute walk to the one in Callao. At one point, I’m so underfed I lose consciousness in the shower.
I don’t want to spend the little money I have on transport, and I need to catch the metro for university. Most days I wake up so late it’s not worth it just to catch a class or two.
I’m embarrassed by how few clothes I have, and my lack of interest in parties. The last hurrah of the hazing month involves pooling 600€ to spend on alcohol to pour over people’s heads. It makes me feel sick. I don’t understand makeup and I hate my eyebrows. I develop trich and depression. I don’t know those things have names, or that I’m ill.
I don’t have a support system, and I move back home in December, before the scholarship money’s even come in.
Last month, I relived some of my experience through a friend. Bethany has been trying to get her shit together, working really hard at her freelance career and trying to find opportunities. She has borderline personality disorder, bulimia and anxiety and she was hospitalized a few times this summer, then spent a few weeks going to a clinic every day for hours. She got a lot better — it was a joy to watch — and she applied to go to university.
She got in, and was approved for a student loan.
The three weeks before she started — weeks that should have been spent getting ready to move into dorms, packing, being excited to begin a new phase of her life — were instead spent trying to sell her beloved iPad and receive donations to cover the upfront costs of the materials she needed for lessons. She spoke to relatives, advisors, university people who told her if she couldn’t pay the £1400 needed for her materials she’d have to drop out before she even started. People rallied around her, suggesting small day loans, suggesting talking to admin again and seeing if there wasn’t anything they could do, because there should be, shouldn’t there?
There should be, and there are things they do. Because this happens all the time. Because there are wait times, and mix-ups, and bureaucracy gets in the way.
Because another friend I follow on Twitter couldn’t get her loan and in fact had to resend her application because they’d given her the wrong thing to fill out.
The university came through for Bethany, and she got to stay. My parents came through for me, and I got to stay. But waiting for money put us through the fucking ringer, and I don’t know if this something banks and governments are working on or if it’s just something everyone has to deal with because who cares, really, if going to university is a nightmare instead of a dream? You get to go, don’t you? That’s more than many can say. And then, of course, it’s on you if you can’t make it through the pain.
I still have my camera, and I also still have trich and depression. That’s what going to university on a low income left me with, even with financial help that wasn’t even a loan but a real scholarship I never have to pay back. There was a lot that went into it, and into dropping out, and I can’t help but wonder — what if I hadn’t had to be unnecessarily resourceless for half a year?
Back then, I probably would have been eligible for loans from banks, but coming from a low-income family who hated debt, I wasn’t even aware that was not, in fact, an absolutely terrible choice. This post is sponsored by TSB, who have put up a Savvy Students Guide and offer student bank accounts with available credit cards, interest-free overdrafts up to a certain amount — for me, enough for a laptop and a month of dorm living. It’s really worth checking out if you’re new to uni, or even if you’ve been there for a bit.