Monday, August 31, 2009
The Wonderful Whirlwind
The above photograph is of a dormitory building on the campus of Major University. It is where I live now.
Back in May, I signed up for the very-full Major University housing wait-list, fully expecting that I'd be granted a room because I'd added my name within minutes of the list opening. I began the summer at number 147, before those participating were divided by gender and a small group (only fifteen people) was offered slots.
At the beginning of August, I was number 67 on the list and still very hopeful about housing. Then, to my dismay, an unexpected influx of two hundred Freshmen turned everything on its head; first-year students receive priority in matters of housing, and I knew that my dreams of living on campus had been effectively dashed.
Five thousand students already reside here and new dormitory buildings are going up every year, but there still isn't enough room to meet the heavy demand for beds.
The prospect of being denied room left me so upset that I was still up at one-thirty one morning thinking about it. What was I to do? Was I to wait an entire school year, apply again, and then face almost certain denial? Would the next two years of my education, my last as an undergraduate, be squandered living at home?
As my readers know, I've recently begun my life as an openly-gay person, and campus offered the propsect of new new friends and new lovers, opportunities not available in my small rural town.
Unsure what else to do, I sat down and typed out a letter to my school's housing director at two in the morning.
Ms. Housing Director,
My name is BB and I am a student at Major University. I know that you're probably very busy, but I didn't know who else to write to concerning this issue.
I will be as of this Fall a fourth-year student, and plan to graduate as a fifth-year senior in 2011.
Last year, following two years on campus, I opted to commute from home. I love Major University and greatly enjoyed my time in residence, but my family simply could not afford to provide me with both tuition and room and board, and the money I made at my part-time job was not enough to cover the expenses.
As a junior, I worked throughout the school year and managed to save up some money, and was hoping to move back onto campus this semester. I signed up for the waiting list the day it opened in May, but as the beginning of the term has drawn nearer my being granted housing has appeared less and less likely.
I am now faced with a two-hour commute from the Western City area four days a week and the isolation from school social events that the distance of my drive includes.
Another issue is that of inclement weather; I live in a mountainous area, and during the 2009 Spring semester had to miss a significant amount of class time due to unsafe traveling conditions in my part of Southern State that did not affect the Goldlands area.
I love Major University with all my heart, and I fear that if I'm unable to secure housing on campus, I'll miss out on the rest of my college experience and not be able to enjoy all that this wonderful institution has to offer, including proximity to Marble City and with it vital internship opportunities for someone facing the job market in two years' time.
I know that there are many Major University students out there who want housing, but I'm sure there must be something I could do to make my selection more likely. Is there a way to apply early for next semester's housing? I can't imagine spending the next two years at Major University without actually getting to be at Major University.
If there's any way you could help me, or anything I could do to improve the probability of being granted housing, please let me know. I would be open to the possibility of working for the school on a volunteer basis or some other such arrangement in addition to paying the regular costs of room and board.
I'm well aware that the current semester is about to start, but hope that perhaps in the spring I might be able to be on campus again.
As I said, I'm open to options whereby I could provide some service for the school in return for consideration.
If the situation can't be helped, I understand, but I hope that my personal circumstances might be taken into account.
Thank you for your time.
The Director wrote me back urging me to inquire about no-show spaces after the first week of the semester and assuring me that wait-list students would continue to be housed throughout the Fall semester, but I didn't really think anything of it.
On Friday I went to school, paid my tuition, and even went so far as to pick up my commuter's parking permit.
At one o'clock on Saturday morning, I decided to check my e-mail one more time before going to bed. The new message in my in-box was simple and to the point:
We are able to offer you housing in _______ _______. It is a 4 bedroom single the cost per semester is ****. Please let me know immediately if you are or are not interested in this assignment.
The two-sentence reply I typed out while screaming like a little girl in spite of the late hour read only: "YES, YES, YES! I accept."
Then came the issue of payment.
I'd accepted as a consequence of my living on campus the fact that I would have to assume substantially more debt than I have done thus far. My parents paid for my Freshman and half of my Sophomore Years, and as a Junior I commuted, cutting my expenses in half. As a Senior, however, serious loans would be needed to finance my education.
The school had offered me an amount of money in federal Stafford loans that mostly covered this semester's costs, and aside from the anxiety I instinctively felt at the idea of using so much of someone else's money, I was mostly alright with it.
That is, until I got home from work on Saturday night and read the financial aid form that had come in the mail that day.
"Wait," I said to my mother. "They're not offering me this for the semester; they're offering me this for the year."
I felt hysteria rise in my chest as I realized the implications.
"This is half," I said, frantically reading over the document. "This is less than half!"
The United States, unique among industrialized countries, has allowed college expenses to spiral so ridiculously out of control that I, from a household with a six-figure income and attending a state school, could not afford a university education, housing excluded, without taking on loans.
The Stafford loans offered to most students, among the fairest on the market solely because the program is under the supervision of the federal government and not a private entity, are meager. I had no idea what to do.
I phoned my grandmother for advice, and together we ran over the calculations.
My grandmother could hear the tension in my voice, the quiet despair already building that the awful thought that, having at last been granted housing against high odds, I would have to relinquish it the next day.
"BB," she asked. "Do you want me to help you?"
I paused. In fact I did. That had been the object of the whole phone call. I felt guilty about going to her, though, petitioning her to fulfill a responsibility that should have fallen to my parents, not a grandparent. So instead I felt her out, seeing if she wanted to assist me. Evidently the idea was in her head.
"I mean..." I hesistated. "Not if you can't."
I really did harbor shame at turning to my grandmother in so sudden a moment of need, but who else was I going to go to? I called Anne, knowing even as I dialed the numbers how pointless it was to try and wring pennies from the penniless. When she replied, with total honesty, that she had nothing, I was left with one alternative.
"Alright, BB, don't get upset," she said. "I'm going to send you a check for $5,000.00."
"What?" I asked. I was surprised; I'd expected at most a thousand.
"Yes," she said. "I was saving it for some bills, but I have other money to back that up."
"Grand Ma, if you need it I don't want to take it," I said.
"BB," she replied. "If I could, I'd pay for all of your school. I offered to two years ago, remember?" I did. On the occasion, my father threatened to kick me out of the house if I agreed to the gift, deciding that it would somehow make more sense for me to plunge myself into debt than to accept my grandmother's generosity.
"I can't do what I wanted to then," she said. "When the stock market crashed I lost a lot of money, and I have to watch it now. But I will help you as much as I am able, and I promise you that you will be able to go to school."
"Thanks, Grand Ma," I said.
I was in disbelief. In one decision, my grandmother had lifted an emormous financial burden from my shoulders and given me the immeasurable gift of a life on campus. I would be able to attend university, would take out only as much in loans as I normally did, and would still have my savings intact. She knew all of this.
The financial worries out of the way, I turned my attention, or rather attempted not to turn my attention, to my roommates.
The one with whom I share a bathroom added me as a friend on Facebook, and I saw that he was a member of a fraternity. It made sense that his fraternity brothers would live in the room with him, given that we are all Seniors and have been here three years.
I have a history of terrible luck with roommates. My first ones Freshman Year were so awful, with their drinking, pranks, cruel jokes, and threats of fighting, that I had to transfer rooms in September. The ones after that were tolerable but barely spoke to me, to the point that they would meet their friends in our room prior to a social engagement and then leave in a large group without even acknowledging me. That is part of the reason why Freshman Year I had no friends.
My Sophomore roommate was easy enough to get along with, but he was somewhat creepy and had the tendency to stay up playing World of Warcraft until five o'clock every morning while I was trying to sleep.
I had every precedent to reinforce my fears.
My stomach flung itself into its own acid all of Sunday, but I refused to admit to it because I was trying my damndest to keep a positive attitude about the situation.
This afternoon, when Powell helped me move into my dorm, I felt my heart sink.
A Coors Light welcome mat graced the tile before the front door, and empty beer bottles stood on the deserted kitchen counter.
"Can you believe this?" I asked. "They drank on the first night."
I spotted a National Geographic poster on a table, detailing the differences between the east coast of North America in 1491 and 1650.
"Now that gives me hope," I told my brother. "There's four of us here. If just one of them could be a dork..."
The place was at least spacious; we had access to a living room, a full kitchen, and our own bedrooms, and were placed just two to a bathroom. No shower slippers here.
It is easily the nicest dorm I've ever lived in.
Powell and I got something to eat, and then he departed with a friend and I returned to my dorm, knowing full and well that there would likely be someone else there now that it was later.
There was. He was a little bit shorter than me, with a yellow and blue polo and a thick brown beard.
We introduced ourselves and started talking.
Within five minutes, my fears about our not getting along had evaporated. To begin with, when I walked in he was chatting with a friend who is among the most blatantly homosexual men I have ever encoutered. Camaraderie with one of that sort showed a tolerance and openness of mind rarely seen among fraternity brothers, at least on this campus, where the residual elements of society unwilling to accept those with differences and committed to preserving the withering reign of the white, the straight, the strong, and the beautiful are able to flourish in Greek houses.
"We are drinkers," he explained the bottles. "But we don't party a lot. We'll just chill out and drink pretty much every night, but it's rare that we actually throw a party. We'll do that probably once or twice a year."
"I'm a drinker, too," I said. "But I couldn't just have a beer or something. I'd get tipsy off of that. I'll have to keep it to weekends."
"Oh, a lightweight," he laughed.
"Yeah," I said. "You should have seen me at my twenty-first birthday party."
The only strike against him immediately followed this statement, when he asked, "Oh, so you are twenty-one?"
"Yes," I answered.
"Whew!" he wiped his forehead in a gesture of mock relief. "I was worried they gave us a Freshman."
As our discussion progressed, we found that he'd dated a girl I knew in high school and was actually good friends with several of my former classmates. The conversation turned to health care (don't ask me how), where Smart Roommate surprised me with the breadth and depth of his knowledge. I consider myself a studious political observer, but next to him I felt uninformed.
The other two, Heavy Drinker Roommate and Very Tall Roommate, were both courteous, friendly, and respectful. I couldn't believe my luck.
As I retired to the shower to wash off the day's sweat, I found myself praying the same thing over and over again.
"Thank you, thank you, thank you," I repeated the mantra, knowing that if I said it a thousand times it wouldn't be enough.
The truth is, in recent days I've been the beneficiary of incredible good luck. Against extraordinary probabilities, and in the face of hundreds of others seeking the same thing, I was granted housing. When financial shortages placed that housing in jeopardy, a relative stepped in with an amazing gift to secure the situation. And when I was dropped into a dorm full of frat guys, they turned out, in a direct conflict with logic, to be the friendliest and most likeable frat guys I've ever met.
I have a lot to be grateful for.
I start classes tomorrow.