$7,000 dollars stands in the way of me returning to your school to finish my Sociology degree. I’d like to use this letter to explain to you why I think I am a good enough bet for you to allow me to return to your school before the debt is paid (versus after).
I became pregnant with my oldest son at age 16. I was an independent studies student at the time (the equivalent of self-directed homeschool) and I remember my teacher telling me that this was it, I would never graduate high school on time with the rest of my peers. I had already had a difficult time with school all along and was very behind in high school credits, so her lack of faith was simply what was staring back at her on the stack of paper that made up my cumulative file.
That wasn’t good enough for me. Though I was no longer living in Santa Cruz or going to Soquel High where all of my lifelong peers were, I couldn’t bear the thought of me, Melissa Strawn, not graduating high school. I knew I was smart deep down, I knew I had some gifts that could take me great places in life, but I also very much knew that not finishing high school would set me up for great difficulty in landing the kind of job I wanted.
I knew this because I had already worked since age 13 in sales. I had seen enough job listings in the classifieds and had enough interviews to know that degrees are important. They matter. Not having one will allow someone to look directly through me as a person and determine that I am not qualified.
So at four months pregnant and after the father of the child bailed completely, I enrolled myself in the community college right next to my school. And at five months pregnant, I began a full-time schedule at San Jose City College, 12 full units, while also doing double time in my high school classes to finish up on time. I graduated. And as I walked down that isle while my mom held my two-week-old son in her arms, crying her eyes out with pride, I knew that absolutely nothing could stand in my way in life. That someone telling me I can’t do something triggers something in my brain that must find a way where I can. This was a valuable lesson that has served me quite well.
I continued on at SJCC after that. They had a guaranteed transfer program that if I followed, would allow me to attend San Jose State University. Hearing that made my heart leap. I, the high-school-dropout-teen-mom-fuck-up would get to go to a real university. And I worked my butt off, juggling single teen mom-hood, part-time work, and full-time school. And I got accepted into San Jose State.
But the summer before I started my first semester there, I got a job at a startup doing lead gen. It turned out that I was still quite good at sales and when I got promoted to making $60K a year at age 20 (this is back in 2005), I was addicted to the thought of never having to live in a cockroach infested low-income apartment again or never having to stand in line at the food stamp office or food bank again. And so I did not go on to start at SJSU. In my mind, I had already made it. Someone gave me a chance without a degree and I stepped up and made it.
But that decision still haunts me. I was too naive to know that almost all of the higher paying jobs I wanted after that would require a degree and so I would be offered a lower paying job because I didn’t have one. There was even one time where I had had five interviews with Oracle for a $150K a year sales job and at the final moment of decision, they told me they had to hire the person with the degree. But, but, my skills! My awards! My track record! Nothing. It meant nothing to them without a degree.
And even though things are changing a bit now and companies are willing to take chances more on people without degrees, and even though I am the founder and CEO of a startup and am not even trying to get a job, I still want my degree. I am a semester and a half away and the online WSU Sociology degree is a perfect fit for me and my circumstances. But I owe them $7,000 and can’t start until that is paid.
Why do I owe them $7,000? Back in 2015, I had officially transferred to WSU and was doing amazingly. It’s funny. All throughout grade school and high school, I “knew” I was dumb. But once I got to college, it became clear that I wasn’t. I did very well in all of my classes and Sociology was my true calling. But my eldest son, the one I birthed as a teen, was diagnosed with an eating disorder and required 11-hour-a-day eating disorder treatment. I had to drop my semester of classes at WSU and because I also had to leave my full-time sales job to help care for him and take him to appointments, I had to spend the financial aid money the school gave me on living expenses. This is the money I owe back.
My dream is not just to stop at a 4-year Sociology degree. I plan on applying to WSU’s PhD program and becoming a doctor of Sociology. My goal is to make a massive impact on the face of poverty as we know it and I have already founded the company to aid me in doing just that.
I don’t want to be another teen mom statistic. The stats show that only 40% of teen moms finish high school and only 2% of teen moms graduate college by age 30. Though I am already 33 so this stat doesn’t fully apply to me, the struggle to finish school when starting out as a teen mom is real. And even though my four siblings were not teen parents, none of them have gone on to finish their degree. I believe wholeheartedly that this is because of our growing up in extreme poverty. It affects you. Eats away at you. Makes you feel not good enough and like you don’t belong. Not to mention, the financial means to send your kids to college is simply not there, so college is a lot less of a topic or goal. On paper, I am destined to never graduate – none of my background is in my favor. But in my heart, I feel a different fate.
I know I will eventually get to go back to WSU because I religiously make the payments on my account every month. But it will be years before I am allowed back in, years that I could be studying and earning degrees.
And so I ask, not that you forgive my debt, but allow me to enroll concurrently while I pay it. I promise to be the kind of hard-working and accolade-earning student that would make you proud to have me as your graduate.
Melissa Anne Strawn