I didn’t really process that I was poor until University. I remember sitting in my first year Sociology class listening to my professor speak about wage gaps, the working poor, and poverty in London. I remember thinking “Wait a second… she’s talking about us like we’re not even here.” I sat quietly, looking at the other students around me… remembering the conversation I’d had with my first University friend about the $300 pair of sunglasses she lost, but it was okay because her dad was planning to send her allowance soon.
And just like that I understood the concept of ‘Us’ and ‘Them’… the realization of being “them” weighed heavily. I suddenly felt very alone.
I grew up in the South East end of the city, in the Westminster community, with my single mom and two of my sisters. I was, and still am, profoundly close to my best friends. I remember feeling very comfortable in the world that I lived in.
I remember the room I shared with two of my sisters in the two-bedroom apartment my grandparents built for us in their house. And I remember my mom sleeping on three small couch cushions on the floor every night when my older sister desperately wanted a bedroom to herself.
I remember what it felt like doing an inventory of what I had received for Christmas one year with friends who, for some reason, were given way more from Santa than I was.
And when I got older, I remember what if felt like trying to hide the fact that my back-to-school clothes were from Wal-Mart while my friends were wearing name brand.
I remember my sister and I making our worn down boots “waterproof” by wrapping our feet in grocery bags to keep the snow from soaking through. Necessity is the mother of invention they say.
I remember my best friend’s mom, Kathy, bringing over “extra” lasagne when things got a little bit tougher.
And I remember turning the oven on every day after school to heat up the house when the furnace broke, and laughing with my mom at the amount of layers we had to wear to keep warm while we slept that winter.
I remember my mom crying. Crying when bills were piling up, crying when she couldn’t get us the things the world told us we needed, crying because she just couldn’t get ahead.
But these were mere moments in time. And truth be told, my life was not unlike the majority of friends that I spent my time with. This was our normal. And we were happy. We had just what we needed, when we needed it, and we became more resilient for the challenges we faced.
It stopped feeling quite so normal when I reached University, however. When I decided to go to University I knew that I would receive OSAP – with an estranged Father and a family income well below the poverty line I didn’t worry about where I would get the money for school. But I don’t think I truly anticipated the level of stress that such a financial burden can cause for a young person trying to pursue their education.
While I was in school I worked two jobs for the majority of my academic career. I also began volunteering in first year and maintained a weekly gig for four years. I needed to continue working to cover my expenses, and I also knew that I was not going to graduate with the social capital that many of my peers would – I needed to build my resume and create my own networks if I was going to find a career when I was done school. Although this might appear to be a great plan on paper, it was not easy.
One night during first year when I was feeling particularly overwhelmed, tear soaked notes in front of me, I remember my mom trying to console me while I cried that “University isn’t for poor people!” I decided I should drop out and apply for a program at the College because it would be more affordable, I would be done faster, and could start working full-time.
Luckily I calmed down and continued on the path that I was on. I loved school. I loved University. This was where I was supposed to be.
Nevertheless, the breakdowns continued year after year. I’d love to tell you that eventually this little ritual subsided, but the truth is, they only shifted from once a year, to once a month… every time I sit down to pay my bills.
Today is my 30th Birthday. And as the title of this post might suggest, I am 30 G’s deep… $30,000 in debt that is.
If I could go back in time to that moment that my University friend looked at me and told me I was “lucky” that I got OSAP because I had “extra money” (poor guy had his tuition fully covered by his parents) I would kick him, really hard, right in the shin. But alas… I can’t go back in time… I can’t really go anywhere whilst buried under this gigantic mound of student debt.
I know what you’re probably thinking – “But OSAP is GOOD debt”. Well I can promise you, it doesn’t feel that way. What it feels like is unfair.
It doesn’t feel fair that what I will pay in tuition will double, if not triple, by the time I can pay off my loans, simply because I grew up poor.
It doesn’t feel fair that I worked my ass off in school and have continued to work my ass off at every job I have had since, and yet I am still broke.
It doesn’t feel fair that I have to choose between enjoying life, and making the “right” financial choice – and it really doesn’t feel fair that I be judged for choosing joy every once in a while.
It doesn’t feel fair that I can’t save money for my future, for a house, or for retirement because everything I have goes to my student debt.
It doesn’t feel fair that I was promised that an education would break the cycle of poverty, and yet it seems to be the very thing that has put me in this over flowing box of the working poor.
But you know what seems even more unfair? That despite all we know and all we are capable of, there are still going to be thousands of young people with the drive and brilliance to change their lives who will not be able to get ahead. The systems in which we are living and working are set up to benefit some, while the walls others are expected to climb are being built higher and higher.
My mother did not choose to be poor. My mother’s life has been a complex tapestry of challenge after challenge – mixed in with the reality of being undervalued and underpaid – she did better than her best with what she was given.
I did not choose to be poor. Did I make all the right financial decisions? Absolutely not. My best friends could tell you stories of the countless times I bought the next round at the bar while screaming “Money isn’t real!”
Despite the torture I face every month when the bills roll in, I made a decision that I would not wait to enjoy my life or to do the very same things that many of my peers do simply because I have student debt. I refuse to be shackled to my student loans.
I also made the decision that my experiences would not be for nothing. I am not ashamed of my poverty. My reality is the outcome of a broken system – a system that values some over others.
But I think it’s time we do something about this. I decided a while back that one day, when I was financially stable, I would find a way to offer financial support to students coming from my world. Well – I’m 30 years old, and 30 G’s deep and the end is nowhere in sight. If I wait for the circumstances to be ideal, I may just be waiting forever. Meanwhile, each year that passes there are thousands of students starting school who are in need of the same support that I was.
So as this milestone Birthday was approaching, I asked myself, “What am I waiting for?” Like the London Community Foundation says… “you don’t need to be a millionaire to give back to the community.” And they are right. I don’t need to be a millionaire, all I need is purpose, focus and you, my community.
So I’m done waiting.
Today I am beyond thrilled to announce that I am launching the Southdale Education Fund. With the support of the London Community Foundation I am setting up a long-term, sustainable fund to support young people pursuing their education.
The Southdale Education Fund will exist to alleviate the financial challenges that far too many young people face while pursuing post-secondary education. Students deserve to experience the beautiful journey of learning free from the burdens of poverty.
Each year, the Southdale Education Fund will distribute at minimum a $1000 bursary to a deserving student from a single-parent family, facing financial challenges and living in the Westminster community of London, Ontario.
The bursary is intended to support students in whatever way that they need – whether it be tuition, textbooks, food, or bills (and possibly a little bit of joy once in a while).
We have the opportunity to come together as a community and make a difference. I hope that you will join me.