When I wake up in John Jay for my 9 a.m. class, there begins the daily struggle to forget. Waking up in shelters for the homeless, at some distant family member’s house, or not knowing where I’m waking up at all have left scars on me over the years, as they would anyone. Sure, I fought my way out and earned the right to pursue a degree here at Columbia, but happy endings don’t erase the past. Sometimes as I sit in JJ’s Place, watching “Criminal Minds” or whatever other drama my crazy friends put on the television, there will be a scene that resembles a moment in my family’s journey through homelessness—and I’ll have to hide the tears from the memory that creeps up behind me and tackles me.
I’m surrounded by beautiful buildings, extraordinary minds and the most amazing city in the world, so everything should be right with the world right? You would think so ... I definitely thought so. But it didn’t take long to discover how wrong I was. All the beautiful things I see and am around every day as a privilege of being a Columbia student don’t replace the ugly things I’ve grown up around for 18 years. So those memories come back in my dreams, when I’m alone and when I’m stressed. The past was trying to catch up with me, and I was trying to outrun it. But if I kept running, who would ever learn from or be inspired by what I went through? And what would all those years be worth, if I don’t share them so people struggling with poverty can know that social mobility is possible?
Sharing is much harder than it would seem. Throughout NSOP, while meeting new people, I always felt like I was lying, or being closed off to people. Other new students spoke to me about their lives back home, their schools or even their families and I did not (or could not) offer anything in return. Mine is a hard story to tell—most of my family was not around. The furthest our family ever extended was to my mom’s parents in Mississippi. Other than that, it was always me, my mom and my two younger siblings.
I don’t like to talk about high school, because I went to too many. I don’t want to talk about life at home because I didn’t really have one. I moved too much and was too ambitious for my unaccredited high school to have more than one friend, so I read and watched TV for most of my home life. I’d rather people find out in the newspaper or on TV about my life, so I don’t have to talk about it intimately. I can admit this may be a cowardly approach, but I’m learning how to handle it. It’s a constant battle—a battle I intend to keep fighting.
Impoverished people need to know that they can get out, and that has to be more important than trying to forget or hide my past. Moreover, it’s hard to forget something that has helped make you who you are. The confidence and resourcefulness that overcoming poverty has given me are invaluable in my new daily life here at Columbia. So taking the good with the bad, I’ve stopped running from my past—because people need to know about it Not only for people who need a real life example to do what I did, but also for people who feel bound by a future they feel has already been chosen for them. It’s time that we stop underestimating the power of the human spirit. We can create our own destinies, and we are never the product of our environments unless we choose to be. I don’t want my story only to be that I lived through poverty and now attend Columbia University. The new and perhaps most important part of the story is that the past is no longer holding me back from being who I am. And that’s something any student of any socioeconomic background can learn from.
The author is a Columbia College first-year. She participated in Columbia’s ASP Summer Bridge Program this summer.
To respond to this op-ed, or to submit an op-ed, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.