When It Came to College, I Begrudgingly Did What My Parents Told Me to Do

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.


9 Comments / Post A Comment

probs (#296)

Great article. Says a lot in a short space. The dilemma of being indebted to responsibility/family vs. being literally indebted is an interesting one.

aetataureate (#1,310)

Thank you for sharing this.

Maybe sometime in the future you can do interdisciplinary work that will help scratch that anthropological itch or send you to China. I went to a college where many of the professors either held dual degrees or taught broadly interdisciplinary courses — my math advisor had a history degree. I hope that for you!

highjump (#39)

@aetataureate Yes, don’t discount interdisciplinary work. Digital humanities people are always searching for collaborators with STEM skills and an interest in the field.

thiscallsforsoap (#3,530)

Hah! I went to graduate school in science to indulge my childhood passion, and it was considered a wild, damn-the-consequences decision by my family, who wanted me to do the sensible thing and go to medical school like my sister did.

I did live with them for undergrad, but paid for tuition/everything else myself, and ended up with loans which will hopefully be paid off by the wealthy spouse who should be showing up any day now.

s. dekker (#3,301)

Heh. I’m also an immigrant child and I went into the sciences for similar reasons, but I still have student loans because my parents couldn’t help me with all the expenses. The good news is that thanks to my career of choice I can pay them back? No loans would be ideal but it’s getting harder and harder.

Trilby (#191)

That joyful free-spirited college experience is growing scare– not just for you. Only the very rich can manage it anymore. Sad but true.

WayDownSouth (#3,431)

It’s a very interesting article. Thanks for writing it.

I’d be quite interested in your friends who graduated from the private university with the level of debt that you would have accumulated. Do they feel that it’s worth it? Are they happy to trade the seven years of a private university experience for the years of paying that debt off?

My brother teaches anthopology at university level and is quite distressed about the poor job prospects of current students. A combination of large debt and low-end employment would have created very different stresses for you. Anthropology is interesting and fun, but a very difficult foundation for establishing a financially-stable life.

EM (#1,012)

@WayDownSouth Yes to your last paragraph! I was an anthropology major and in my third year of study a professor said, “Well, I hope you all really love this subject, because you’re definitely not going to stay in it for the prestige or the money.” And that’s why I did an MPH and not a graduate degree in Anthropology.

Fortunately, there are lots of interesting ways to integrate social and cultural study into other fields, especially if you are studying something medical/health-related! I hope you find a way to blend your interests into your work.

WayDownSouth (#3,431)

@Michelle yes, it’s a difficult problem. So many of the university degrees (e.g., English, anthropology, sociology) are saturated and exist almost solely for people who plan to remain in an academic environment. There a few tenure track positions available because the existing people hold onto them with both hands.

There’s a different way for this writer to look at the problem. If she gets a good job, she can save up for vacations and travel to these places on her own. It’s certainly much more enjoyable to travel to different countries when you can set your own schedule and budget, as opposed to work-related travel. You can see what you want and stay where you want. Provided that she gets a good job, I think the advice from her parents works in her favour.

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