I am a graduate student in a science department at an Ivy League university, and I don’t have any student loans. I never have. But getting here was not necessarily a great experience for me. Navigating college was a difficult choice between following my filial duty and choosing to do what I wanted to do. My filial duty won out.
My parents and I emigrated here from Eastern Europe in 1999. My father came first, with about $1,500 and a guaranteed hourly job as an engineer at a small firm staffed almost entirely by other Eastern Europeans. He worked a ton of overtime. My mother was a doctor, but she could not get a medical license in the U.S. and was unable to get a job for a long time after we moved. By the time I entered college, we were still a one-income family. My father was in charge of every aspect of our finances. During the first six or so months we were here, we rented one bedroom that the three of us shared. This was made especially poignant by the fact that we lived in a very affluent town, the kind where all my schoolmates had their own ponies and lived in houses that could comfortably be on the Real Housewives of Wherever.
I was lucky enough to get a full two-year scholarship to a tiny private college. I’d treated those years as free college, but I now realize this wasn’t the case. My parents had to fly me out there (it was on the other side of the country), and they started giving me an allowance, a luxury I had not had before. I was there because they helped me be there.
When my two-year scholarship was over, my father told me that I had to transfer. Tuition was over $40,000/year, and he told me that even with financial support from the school, I would be buried in loans. I didn’t want to transfer. I was upset about it. I was scared of losing the friends I’d spent two years making, and I was scared of trying to make new friends. My social life consumed my thoughts. My friends asked why I would just bow down to my father’s demands rather than try to fight back or get loans on my own.
Part of it was that I really admire my father, and I seek his approval in most matters—financial included. But I also knew he was right. The practical thing to do was to go to a state school to finish out my degree. It would be much cheaper, and the science program I was interested in was stronger. So I transferred to a huge state university in our hometown that cost about $8,000 per year, and lived at home with my parents. I am incredibly grateful to them, but I was resentful that I never had the free-wheeling college experience that seems to be glorified in the U.S., and I missed my friends and the small classes I used to take. My parents were paying my tuition, and I was living in their house. There were so generous, but I felt trapped by their decisions.
My parents do not expect that I will pay them back. Where we are from, family helps family. The money for college was never a loan. Sometimes I wish it were. If I had borrowed money from them, I think I would have felt more autonomy over my education—what to study, where to attend. Since it wasn’t a loan, there were strings attached.
There is little movement in this never-ending degree program, but I have no loans, I have a stipend, and in the end, I’ll have a Ph.D. I’m terrified of poverty and forced deprivation, and on this track, I don’t need to fear it. I’m passionate about cultural anthropology, and sometimes I daydream about taking off and teaching English in China. But I can’t square that with the person I’ve now become, after more than eight years of college.
I became a scientist because my parents were scientists. Other options didn’t seem as practical. The truth is, they weren’t. I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished, and my parents are, too. But I’m also looking forward to making my own decisions. Accepting the money meant I would do what they told me to do. I did, and now we’re done.
Camelia Smith is a third-year Ph.D. candidate.