first to start, last to finish
On December 1st, 2014, an email changed my life. I only read the first 3 words: “Dear Josh, congratulations…” I had just received a full scholarship to the University of Virginia (UVA). To me, this scholarship was my golden ticket to UVA, one of the top universities in the nation. I had been dreaming of this day for over 7 years, a chance for a stable life. That dream energized me enough to attend 2 schools as well as work at both a local McDonalds, and a local diner throughout my high school years.
8 months later, I excitedly left home and headed to UVA.
Unfortunately, I felt out of place the moment I arrived on campus. The marble exterior and Corinthian columns felt so different than the jaded mobile homes and brick apartment complexes I was used to back home. Making friends was also difficult. I remember at a party being asked the typical questions students ask, “What’s your name? What’s your major? Where are you from? There was always that one question that eventually led down a rabbit hole:
Them: “What do your parents do?”
Me: “Well my mom’s not working right now. My step-dad is a custodian and my dad is incarcerated.” I casually sipped my water.
This typically led to a series of questions that I am comfortable answering, but they are uncomfortable knowing:
“Oh wow, can I ask for what?”
“Damn that’s rough. What are you drinking?”
“Just water.I have a lot of alcoholics in my family.” I sipped.
Then they always end the same way:
“Oh okay. Ya know, you should meet a friend of mine. Let me introduce you!”
For them, my story was novel. For me, my story was normal.
I sometimes forget that fact.
I wanted to belong, have friends, connect, but not at the expense of my roots. It’s part of who I am. I grew up in a small, rural, farming community in Southwest Va. With only around 1,000 people, even strangers were familiar. We pride ourselves on supporting each other, whether stopping to help someone with a broken-down car, or to raise money for the sudden death of a loved one. Lack of money made us resourceful and creative in how we solved our problems. We made do with what we had and that often encouraged creativity. I see my community in myself.
I also see bits of my family in myself. I have my mom’s resilient fire. No matter what happened to us, she always found a solution. If we needed coats for winter, she asked the salvation army. If we needed food, she would file for food stamps and find a food bank. If we needed heat when it’s cold, she would ask a church to pay our electricity. For all her flaws, my mom taught me to be resourceful and ask for help. My mom taught me strength.
I have my dad’s charisma. My dad will talk to anyone. He makes even strangers seem like long-lost friends. For all his flaws, my dad is often generous. My dad used to work as a tractor trailer driver. When I went with him on trips, we often encounter beggars. Even if my dad didn’t have a lot of money, he always bought them a meal. Through my dad, my blood courses with kindness, charisma, and creativity.
These roots helped me survive. In the ideal environment, my roots would allow me to thrive.
Soon after arriving at UVA,I began to search for a community that shared my roots. I found a student group named called United for Undergraduate Socio-economic Diversity (UFUSED), who had an upcoming meeting. I ran through a storm to attend. Drenched, I arrived and found a classroom with about five students, two being the leaders. There were no more meetings. There was no community to unite. Fortunately, I found solace in the dining hall workers. We often had similar roots. It wasn’t always sufficient, but I always had someone to talk to during meals. My peers and professors may not get me, but they did.
Still, life in college with a full scholarship was the ticket out of poverty I expected. In reality, I was stuck in between two worlds. Managing school and home was difficult. My family constantly kept suffering and I kept supporting. I was used to handling my home life on my own.
They call, I respond: They Call: The police invade at night, prohibit my mom to go to work (she was fired), and arrest my brother.
I Respond: I give money for rent until she finds work and to my brother for toiletries and food. Then I finish and turn in my paper.
They Call: My 13 year old brother gets sick. He won’t wake up. My step-dad misses work and rushes him to the hospital. He’s fired.
I Respond: I pay for the electricity bill and for groceries while he finds work. Then I walk into my first class of the day.
They Call: The landlord learns of the raid, ends our lease, and my grandma’s house burns down.
I Respond: I raise $2,000 with a gofundme and then head to my part-time job.
Their suffering motivated me to work harder and achieve more. For me, there was more at stake than the grade. I had to learn to not only support them, but advocate for myself at UVA, for those in similar situations. For instance, late one night, I was working on an assignment due at 8am the next morning. My incarcerated dad called me, wanting help. By the end of the call, it was 11:30pm. I had too many late nights already. I emailed my professor, disclosing a bit of my life and requested an extension. He granted it. Asking for help is challenging, but it can at times be rewarding.
Other times, asking for help isn’t enough. You have to fight for what you need. I remember being told one March that the Financial Aid Office (SFS) received my mountain of yearly required paperwork. August came around, classes began, and still no scholarship disbursement. “It’s okay. It’s late most semesters. Just be patient.” I told myself. Until the registrar emailed me:
“You have 3 days to pay your tuition before being unenrolled.”
ALL of my required classes were full. Once unenrolled, I wouldn’t get back in. SFS said I didn’t complete all of my documents. After showing them the confirmation from the previous semester, they said my request would require up to 2 weeks to process. I didn’t have that kind of time.
Luckily, I remembered a talk the Dean of Students gave the previous semester. Dean Groves mentioned he starts his day at 7am by responding to emails. I emailed him that night and attached the email confirmation from March. I did nothing wrong and while being at UVA was isolating, I was not throwing away my only opportunity for something more in life. The next morning, he sent it to the finance director and my financial aid was ‘magically’ processed. Magic requires privileged knowledge and connections. We hardly understand our financial aid, let alone what a dean does.
I continued in my journey at UVA thinking I was the only one that encountered these issues. One March, I discovered a conference occurring in Washington D.C. for First-Generation and Low-Income (FGLI) college students. Curious, I registered and attended. It changed my life. There I learned that I was not the only one that encountered the issues I faced. I found a community that could relate to my struggles.
I became so hopeful that I brought the conference to UVA. I knew I wanted to create a change before I graduated, and this conference was that change. The conference was my search for a community, for a place where students like me could belong. I never wanted anyone else to have to go through what I went through without support. I wanted administrators to pay attention. I wanted them to know we were here, and we needed their help.
I can only wish for the day when we have a community to share our experiences and the resources we have. One day perhaps we’ll have more advocates to demand for the resources we need. Maybe there’ll be collaboration between students, faculty, and administrators at all levels. Our unique traits do have value to the university: We have the discipline to get what we need. We persist in the face of struggle. We create solutions others think are improbable. Our own struggles endow us with empathy and kindness for the struggles of others. We need to feel valued to express them. Our roots ensure we survive. With support, our roots allow us to thrive.
I’ve gotten a great education and I intend to use it. I lament on not having a community for those that share similar backgrounds as my own. I think about the many that don’t arrive to the finish line. I know my struggles are not my own, and I question how I navigated the struggles I’ve endured.
Our narratives are powerful, so let’s share them to empower ourselves and others to create change. With us, our universities can be both great and good. Let’s call on them for a seat at the table and let’s see if they respond.
- Josh Farris
University of Virginia, 2019