When I got my acceptance letter from Harvard, my parents decided they would stop at nothing to afford the expense. Raised in immigrant working class families, they knew the opportunity being presented and so decided to sell their San Francisco home to cover tuition.
With the doubling of student loan rates this week, I am reminded of their sacrifice and wonder about the increasing lengths families like mine go to for the sake of education.
My parents have worked harder in the past ten years than they ever have. My mom will turn 63 this month and is a bus driver; my dad is in his 50s and working in tech, which is a difficult field to be in if you’re no longer young. He recently asked me to recommend a brand of eye cream because he says he needs to look like he’s in his 30s for at least another 15 years.
We have purchased a cream and are holding our breath.
My maternal grandmother, who lives here in San Francisco, was born to a family of Mexican migrant workers in Candelaria, Texas. Her parents died when she was very young and she spent most of her childhood at an orphanage in Santa Fe. She only recently told me that she never graduated from Santa Fe High. She wishes she could have, but she could only stay at the orphanage until she was 16, and once she was on her own she had to work.
In the early 1940s, she came to San Francisco to work on the Liberty ships being built in Richmond – she was a Rosie the Riveter (or in her case, a Rosie the Welder). After the war she worked as a waitress and put her kids through St. Agnes School in the Haight Ashbury. It was just a few months ago that she finally stopped waitressing at Bill’s Place, a little after her 91st birthday.
My dad’s mother came to San Francisco from the Basque Country in the 1950s. She raised my dad on her own and was a waitress at the Fairmont and the Jack Tar Hotel on Van Ness. She died young, when my dad was in his 20s and had just gotten out of the Marines, but not before saving enough money to buy two pieces of property in the city (which would be impossible for a waitress here today). As a kid, my dad would duct tape his shoes back together when they fell apart, but the property his mom left him would be my ticket to private school, and then Harvard.
My mom took her GED exams when I was a kid, and my dad went to City College and then graduated from SF State. As far as money went, the top priority in our household was always education; my three siblings and I all went to Catholic school.
It was there that a teacher encouraged me to apply to Harvard; when I got in, it was a foregone conclusion that I was going to go, despite the exorbitant costs.
Then came the breaking point. My second year at Harvard my dad lost his job at Sun Microsystems and my family quickly moved to sell the house where I grew up in the Outer Sunset. It was a blow, but for my parents, they simply did what many others have done to give their children what they thought was their best chance.
I graduated from Harvard in 2005, and thanks to them have no student loan debt. Still, when not living up to my own expectations, I sometimes ask myself what it was that my parents and their parents worked so hard for. I think about my grandmothers collecting their incomes from among plates on restaurant tables and wonder whether it was worth it.
As for the answer, I don’t know. I have freedom and choices, but Harvard didn’t give me those – that was my family. I’ve been able to take a series of jobs that didn’t pay much because I don’t have a mountain of debt on my shoulders. And if I feel like I have options, it’s partially because I didn’t have loans dragging me down before I even got started.
Not so for millions of others for whom the mountain of student debt just climbed that much higher.
Those we elect to represent us seem complacent in their willingness to allow the burden of recession-era budget solutions, like the rate hike, to fall on those who can least afford it. I didn’t have to shoulder the expense of college on my own, and neither should anybody who wants an education. We either believe in investing in our future workforce, or we’re content with forcing people to fend for themselves in a world where that’s increasingly impossible.
Anna Challet is a reporter and project manager with New America Media working on issues related to young people’s health.