The Unexpected Trauma of Applying to College
I never realized how broken my life and family relationships were until I started to apply to college. Before I began the college application process, my everyday life seemed normal. I have a mother who loves me, a stable home and a supportive school community. I felt secure. That all changed when I begin to apply to college.
For any high school senior, applying to college comes with many emotions and challenges. The thought of making a mistake when deciding your future and where you want to spend the next years of your life can wreck your mind. We also may have dreams to go places that are beyond what’s possible. It can be overwhelming for one person to think through all of this alone, yet you are the one who must ultimately decide and live with the consequences of your decisions. For this reason, applying to college is a process that balances striving toward independence with seeking outside help.
Neither of my parents graduated from high school, and I will be the first in my family to attend college. For those of us who are the first-generation college students, the application process asks a lot of parents, and those requirements can bring on added pressure. In my case, it wasn't that my mother was unsupportive. It was just that she was unable to contribute to a process she's never experienced. When I asked her for advice, she had little to nothing to say. She was ready to be on board with anything. I can't help but worry: What if what I want is not what's best? After a while, I stopped asking my mother’s opinion. Now, I just tell her what my plan is because I know she doesn't want to have input and feel like she contributed to a wrong decision.
There are a lot of assumptions in the college process. One of the biggest assumptions is that students have the fortunate situation of having both parents in their life. Many of the students in my New York City public high school do not. Financial aid forms ask for justification of your family situation and proof that a non-custodial parent is unavailable to contribute to the cost of your education. For many students, this is extremely difficult. How are students expected to find, get in contact with, or get financial information from someone with whom they may not even remember their last conversation?
In my case, I live with my mother. While I speak to and see my dad regularly, the college application process has created tension. When I needed information from my dad—even something as simple as his birthday and social security number—it dug up family issues that were being avoided or hidden. In some cases, my asking for income documents and clarity on household information even caused altercations between my parents, who don’t speak much otherwise. It hurt me to feel like a burden to my family when I asked for basic details.
All I wanted to do was go to college, and I felt like no one in my home could help me financially or emotionally. There were times when I felt like giving up, but stopping was not an option.
This was a rigorous process, I had to sacrifice my lunch period during school, stay after school, work with many counselors and complete at least 8 scholarship applications which all required an abundance of writing.
Even now, with all my applications completed and sent in, the process is still taking an emotional toll. All I can do is wait.
I would tell other students in my situation to prepare themselves for the unexpected challenges they’ll face as they apply to college. I would tell parents to be available to listen to what their children are going through, even if they do not fully understand the process or do not feel confident about giving advice.
Most of all, I would tell colleges to show some understanding for students whose families may not be whole. Reduce the paperwork burdens (as some colleges are doing) and offer more support to students in low-income and single-parent families. Leaving home and going to college is stressful enough. I don’t want other students to feel like their families are broken just because they can’t provide the particular level of support that the college application process demands.
Janaisa Walker, the SparkAction Journalism and Advocacy Fellow Spring-Summer 2016,is currently a senior at the Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies, a public high school. In the fall, she will become the first member of her family to attend college.