Working Your Way Through School IRL Is About Way More Than Just Hustle

by Lilli Petersen
Courtesy of Lilli Petersen

It’s 2019, and us millennials are just starting to get the hang of this #adulting thing. And so of course, we’re all thinking about the universal albatross around our necks — namely, student debt. When I say that I paid for college while I was still a student, people look at me like I’m a unicorn. I can almost see the assumptions travel through their brains: She must have rich parents. She must have gotten some outrageous scholarship. She must be a trust-fund baby. How else do you go to college in New York and not take out any debt? The truth is that at the end of the day it was a combination of luck and hustle, more than anything else.

That I ended up without debt was almost an accident. As a high school senior, I had decided to take part in a cheap gap year program. It was a great idea, until I got back the following June and found that the college where I had deferred my admission hadn’t carried over the financial aid package. For me to enroll, my parents and I would have had to come up with $40,000, stat. Worse, my parents’ finances weren’t nearly good enough to qualify for loans that big, that fast. With less than two months until freshman orientation, my parents and I scoured college websites to find a school with rolling admission. I landed at CUNY City College (CCNY), a classically-designed campus smack in the middle of New York City’s Harlem neighborhood. It was a great deal, at just over $5,000 a year adjusted for inflation, and it had the program I wanted to study. Best of all, it had a tuition payment plan, and I could pay in installments.

It was maybe luck, maybe fate that landed me at CCNY, a school which was originally free to students with the goal of making higher education accessible to all, particularly low-income and minority students. As of the 2017-2018 school year, the average in-state college tuition at a public school was $9,970, according to College Board, with private schools running tabs up to $34,740. Meanwhile, the median household income in 2017 was $61,372, per U.S. Census data. It doesn’t take an economics major to see the discrepancy. But my cheap tuition meant it was doable. So, I did what any New Yorker does. I hustled.

My family gave me a deal to help me get on my feet: My parents could cover my tuition for one year while I lived with my elderly grandparents and job-hunted, taking care of the mousetraps and replacing the fuses in exchange for reduced rent. The first year of college, I lived off a total of $50 a week after rent and tuition. My lunches were a Diet Coke and two hard-boiled eggs; my dinners, freebies from the restaurants I worked in.

For me, it was unacceptable not to graduate.

If I had to be financially independent at 19, at least I was doing it in a city where a 19-year-old with some motivation could get a decent-paying job. I worked my way from one restaurant job to another — some more lucrative than others. For awhile, I leveraged my fresh-faced innocence into a gig at one of the trendiest restaurants in New York, where I could make $250 a night. I got home at 2 a.m. and rolled out of bed at 8 a.m. to commute to class an hour away. My motto was, anything’s easy if the alternative is unacceptable. For me, it was unacceptable not to graduate. During my years in school, my annual tuition increased by nearly 150%, and I didn’t even notice — I had tunnel vision, and whatever number my tuition installment plan put in front of me, I would pay it.

Courtesy of Lilli Petersen

Somehow, in the middle of all this, I managed to make consistently good grades. It turns out it’s a lot harder to justify skipping class when you paid $700 out of pocket for those credits.

Because I was still paying, every month. $700 for tuition. $800 for rent. $100 for transportation. $100 for a phone bill, $50 for internet. $200 for food. At times, I was making an average of $550 a week after taxes, or even less. It was like a child would imagine a budget, in which every dollar in tallies up neatly against every dollar out, and you never want to go see a movie or forget to bring lunch. Every month, I scrambled to gather my money together as it dribbled away to odds and ends — $30 for a cab on a night I didn’t feel safe walking home alone, or $20 for a few drinks out with a friend after a long shift. At the end of every month, I would look at my bank balance with a sinking heart. Where did it all go? I wondered.

My hustle got me most of the way there. But in the months that it didn’t, when I took that one cab ride too many or had that one textbook that was too expensive, it was my friends who helped me make it. My boyfriend once slipped me $500 dollars on 8th Avenue, palm-to-palm like a drug deal, except it was for my tuition payment. When I lost my job during my junior year, my roommate at the time, who owned our apartment, gave me a discount on rent until I could get myself together. I even managed to get some scholarships through school. When my academic mentor told me that I was getting that $1,000, I went home and cried.

That semester, after I paid my tuition bill, I used the extra breathing room the scholarship had given me to buy a deeply discounted handbag that I had been coveting for months. It was real leather, embossed with a geometric design, and it represented everything I wanted to be when I had finished my degree. It was the kind of handbag a successful woman carried, I thought, the kind of woman who worked hard, played hard, and knew exactly what she was doing and why she was doing it. I carried my textbooks to campus in it, simultaneously proud and guilty that even a cent of the money had gone to something so frivolous. I still have it.

I didn’t realize until after I graduated how lucky I was, in ways I hadn’t realized.

I graduated college without any loan debt in May of 2013. What I remember most about that day are two things — one, what a bad idea it was to make graduation robes out of cheap polyester for an outdoor ceremony in the baking, 89-degree sun; and two, how glad I was it was finally, finally over.

I didn’t realize until after I graduated how lucky I was, in ways I hadn’t realized. As of 2019, more than 44 million Americans still owe on their college education, for a total of $1.56 trillion in debt nationwide, according to Student Loan Hero. The average student graduates with about $29,800 in debt, and, per the Federal Reserve, some 62% of young adults age 18-29 have incurred debt for their education. The more I read about the student debt crisis, the more I feel like that unicorn everyone thinks I am. I feel, ultimately, like I dodged a bullet.

Courtesy of Lilli Petersen

Don’t let my story fool you — it was hard, every day. But as difficult as it was, it could have been worse. I didn’t have anyone depending on me financially, and even if my parents couldn’t support me fully, they were able to give me enough to get started. Not everyone has those advantages: According to a 2015 study from Georgetown University, 40% of undergraduate students are also working full-time. Almost 20% of those working through school have children to support. While I’m proud of what I did, I’m not sure if I deserve a gold star for it.

I also don’t want to be the example for someone to claim millennials are overreacting about student debt, or that you can still easily work your way through school. It was luck, as much as hustle, that got me to the finish line: luck that my school was affordable, luck that I had the right support system, luck that my professors were understanding when I had to leave class early to make it to work, even luck the day I found $200 — the exact amount I needed to make rent — rolling down 6th Avenue like a tumbleweed. There are a million things that could have hamstrung me, determination or not. As a wise woman once said, you can give everything you have, and still lose.

But I didn’t. I have my degree. And my handbag.

Kelsey Cadenas/Elite Daily