“You’re so lucky. I can’t get any financial aid.”
My friend expressed her jealousy in a way that I didn’t understand―Lucky? For what? Because my parents couldn’t afford to pay for college like hers could? I expected her to grab my glasses next and tell me how jealous she was that she couldn’t have her own pair on account of her perfect sight.
My friend and I grew up in two different worlds. Harvard recognized this but decided to give me a chance anyway―diagnosing me as “low-income” and prescribing me with financial aid. With this financial aid, I assumed I was somehow cured of this disadvantage. It wasn’t until later that I realized I was just receiving something to make life more bearable.
Growing up, my family and I lived in a small apartment in Connecticut. We’d rarely eat out or go on vacation. I happily accepted my sister’s hand-me-downs and would hold my mother’s hand as she pulled us towards the clearance aisle at Old Navy or Kohl’s. I explored colorful bookshelves as we waited for appointments at the clinic that could treat us without health insurance. I ate burgers and fries from the McDonald’s dollar menu when my parents got home too late to make dinner.
My siblings and I knew not to demand too much because we couldn’t have all the things that we wanted. Our family got by, but our future was always up in the air. We therefore looked for a cure in education: My parents pushed my siblings and me to work hard so that someday this disease would release its hold on us.
Their push ended up paying off. Feelings of fulfillment rushed through my body and escaped in the form of tears as I read the word “Congratulations” on my laptop screen. I was left speechless as I thought about what this opportunity would mean for my family. My mom hugged me as I cried tears of joy but waited no longer than five minutes before asking when I would receive the financial aid package. Money was the deciding factor. We couldn’t afford to be happy yet.
I wasn’t able to commit to Harvard until I was notified that not only had I gotten in, but also that I was going for free. I rejoiced in the news that Harvard would provide me with health insurance, a startup grant, and even a winter coat fund.
For the first time in my life, I can present my health insurance card when asked for it. I can pay for books, and even enjoy occasional dinners with friends. I can return home with long-deserved Christmas presents for my family and stories of how my first semester went. I share these stories with my parents of how much my life has changed for the better, but am met with the same stories of hardship I left behind six months ago.
While I buy blazers for business formal meetings at Harvard, my dad buys white t-shirts and matching painters’ pants, a uniform that is rendered useless for several months when winter comes and work doesn’t. My mom buys boots and thick socks to protect herself from the snow that hits unforgivingly as she walks to the bus stop to get to work. I find out that my dad pulled his shoulder at work and is still in pain. My mom shares her worries as she wonders how they will pay for the next month’s rent. I feel guilty and helpless. As I enjoy everything Harvard gives me, my parents continue to struggle.
Although Harvard has provided me with so much, it has not changed the fact that I continue to test positive for poverty. Harvard uses its financial aid blanket to try to stop us from seeing it, but we can’t be cured so easily. We continue to struggle to keep up. We continue to check the price tag first before buying anything. We continue to call back home to hear about the same struggles that plague our families.
And we continue to strive to use our education as a cure to poverty the way our parents wanted. But it’s hard to focus on our classes when this disease gnaws on our brains.Laura Veira-Ramírez ’20, a Crimson Editorial writer, lives in Canaday Hall.