Week one of my junior year at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee was moving at a record slow pace.
I constantly checked my phone, making sure I wasn’t late, as I hurried to the basement of Merrill for my first class of the day. The majority of my long days this semester would be spent in this building. It was 9:24 in the morning, but a group of us were starting to crowd outside of the classroom. I stood there attempting to finish the assigned reading in the remaining six minutes before the class was set to start. It was supposed to be done before this class, but I waited until the night before and quit early when my eyes became too heavy.
Two girls were sitting below me with the contents of their backpacks spread out around them like cooks, ready to make a pizza from scratch, their ingredients arranged and organized in front of them. As I listened in on their conversation I wandered out of consciousness. The girl furthest from me had a sandy blonde braid hanging over her shoulder, perfectly unkempt with just the right amount of loose ends, it looked like it could’ve been done the night before. The other girl had on a hat with her long, dark hair fanning out from underneath. They were both wearing yoga pants. It was obvious neither of them had come from yoga. Neither of their strewn about belongings included a yoga mat, and they both looked fresh faced. I, mystified, tried to answer all the questions that were flooding my head as I picked the two girls apart. How did they look so put together? Are we living on two different ends of the college life spectrum? Their end the one where you take the time during college to study and make lifelong friends and mine throwing my oily hair in a top knot before rushing from class to work and back again.
To keep my busy life in order I regularly make lists. I make budget lists, so I know how much I owe, to whom and when. I make to-do lists for everything from work to school to laundry, and on occasion I even plan out my showers on these little pieces of paper.
After spending the day hurrying from class to class I was relieved to finally be home. I settled in to begin a bout of homework, searched my eight TV channels for background noise, and found that the only thing on was the Republican National Debate. I blocked out the sound of Donald Trump’s voice, and told myself I’d catch up on the highlights later. I’ve lived through a few elections, so I already know they’re well-versed politicians trained to say the right things. We all know where each party stands. The left wants free education and the right doesn’t. The only thing they can both agree on is it’s the next big financial crisis – student loans. Between Sallie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two largest student loan providers, trillions of dollars are owed in student loan debt. So as a higher education student, with debt included in those trillions, I can’t stand to listen. I stayed up finishing homework until long after the debate finished.
Fridays morning, as I got ready for a half day of classes and a night of bartending, I thought about the two put-together, anonymous girls from my class. I was sure, like most college students, they’d be spending their Friday night in a bar too, not on the same side as me. I work behind a local college bar on Friday and Saturday nights with Bryan and Kelsey, religiously. Bryan’s a student at the same university and Kelsey graduated last year, she now works forty hours a week at the bar until she can find a job using her microbiology degree. In some respects it’s the typical waitress stereotype, struggling to pay bills with accumulating student loans.
The reality of life as a college student is every day we show up with a blind optimism. Like receiving a phone call that a loved one is dead, you don’t understand at that moment how much it will impact your future. It’s impossible to know if we’ll get a job that allows us to pay off the loans or if we’ll have to continue working as a bartender until we don’t have to anymore. For some, in the twenty first century, if we choose to go to college we also have to work to support ourselves. It’s a balancing act that can qualify as an Olympic sport. I’m balancing school and work impressively. Even if I cannot completely feel the impact of my decisions yet, I know with a good work ethic and balance I have a good shot.