Left Behind: My Effort To Take Advantage Of An Education Close To Home

Occasionally, Jabberwockracy will share submissions from guest contributors who want to join the conversation. Today’s contributor, Alex Baldwin, is a sophomore at the University of West Georgia, studying political science and philosophy. Anyone looking to submit a letter to the editor for consideration is welcome to do so here.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of students are forced to make tough choices about where they go to college due to the massive financial commitment some institutions incur upon students. The mental and emotional burden some students have to bear in settling for a different school because of an unshoulderable financial burden can be almost damning, but it isn’t as bad as some prospective college students may think. The key, for me at least, was just a matter of perspective.

It was the spring semester of my senior year of high school. I, like the rest of my classmates, had dutifully spent the last year submitting college applications and scholarship essays. When the letters started coming back, I was elated – I had been accepted to my first choice, Emory University, as well as Wake Forest and the University of Florida. The last letter came from the University of West Georgia, a university in my hometown that was, for all intents and purposes, my backup plan. UWG was considered the last resort for any student worth their salt. I was always told to aim for the University of Georgia or Georgia Tech, and never, ever for the University of West Georgia. I should quantify that while UWG has made fantastic steps in making itself a competitive university in the past decade, it still has a long way to go before it can rival the top schools in Georgia.

The blow came when I reviewed what scholarship offers I had received. Wake Forest and the University of Florida offered to pay for two years of my time there. Had I taken either of those offers, I would be in either Winston-Salem, N.C. or Gainesville, Fla. right now struggling for ways to pay for my next two years, or glumly packing my bags to head back home at the end of the semester. The real disappointment was Emory, which only offered me mild subsidies, nowhere near enough for consideration. Outside of scholarship offers, I didn’t want to go into debt to earn a bachelor’s degree, and placing the financial burden on my family wasn’t an option.

So, slowly, almost painfully, I committed to the University of West Georgia. The reactions from friends and family were exactly what I expected – comments along the lines of “surely you could’ve done better” and “I can’t believe you’re staying in Carrollton.” There was even a sarcastic, “at least you’re going to college,” and more than one “well bless your heart.” It was by no means sympathetic. The summer before my freshman year of college I had to watch nearly all of my friends and acquaintances leave home for a laundry list of high-caliber universities: the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech, Emory, the University of Connecticut, Brigham Young University, George Washington University, even Stanford, Yale, and MIT. Almost everyone I knew was going out into the world to begin their college experiences away from home. Everyone except me. I wasn’t a fool, I heard what went on behind my back. I was the loser, I was immature because I was staying at home, I couldn’t hack it by myself, I didn’t make the cut, maybe I was just stupid. I was heartbroken.

My first semester at UWG went exactly how I expected it to. I made a 4.0 without so much as lifting a finger in effort, all while watching my Facebook feed fill slowly with pictures of my friends, now scattered to the four winds, enjoying their new college experiences. For months, I lived vicariously from the sofa in my room of my grandparents’ house, where I had lived since my junior year of high school. Eventually, I got sick of it. I stopped looking at the pictures on my feed. I grew bitter with every commute to and from my house. I started convincing myself that my financial woes had nothing to do with my choice of school, that I really was immature or too stupid to go anywhere but the local college. My self-loathing reached levels I hadn’t even thought possible, all because of a college.

I decided one day to talk to Richard Bracknell, my old high school debate coach and an alumnus of the University of West Georgia, and my long-time mentor. I told him everything, my disappointment and anger, and my less-than-positive thoughts about the college. He smacked me in the side of the head. He told me that it wasn’t where I got the degree, it was what I did with it once I had it, and more importantly, how I used my extra years in Carrollton, whether that was bettering myself or benefiting others.

I started by taking up a job with Mr. Bracknell, spending my weekends helping high school forensics students better themselves in the competition space, something that has been more rewarding to me in two years than all four years of my high school debate career combined. It was an opportunity that opened new pathways in my life, opportunities that never would have presented themselves had I left home. During the week, I spent more and more time on campus, getting involved with the Student Government Association, working with multiple professors on research projects, and planning the track for my career, rather than passive-aggressively loathing my time on campus.

Outside of work and school, I focused on spending more time with my family. One day, I reached grabbed a bag of sugar off of a high shelf for my grandmother. She pulled me into a tight embrace, smiled and said, “y’know, Alex, I really don’t know what I would have done if you had left,” words she had said to me hundreds of time since I had told her about my decision to stay at home, but had never really sunk in until that moment. She and my grandfather had always supported my decision to stay at home, and had always greeted me with a smile every day. It was them that really mattered, not the ones who had called me immature, or the ones who had called me a loser for staying at home.

In the end, it was those people that were really my main motivating factor. I wanted so badly to prove them wrong, to prove that I really could still be worth something with a degree from a local university. I knew that, all things considered, they really had no traction to call me what they did, I made the cut at every university I applied to, and I graduated with a solid GPA and class ranking, so I should’ve let everything they ever told me slide right off of my back, but I didn’t. I took what those people said to heart because I thought they were right. I thought going to UWG meant watching my goals and dreams slip through my fingers because they were going off into the world to pursue theirs while I was stuck at home. I took all the negative feelings I had, all the anger and sadness, all the frustration at being denied the schools I had chosen, and have used those feelings every day since then to try and prove them wrong.

For anyone reading this, I want you to know sincerely that losing out on your school of choice isn’t the end of the world, and it won’t be the end of you. Because it’s not where you earn the degree that counts, it’s what you do with it once you get it, and how you spend the time in between your freshman year and graduation that really matters. Use every opportunity you’re given to better yourself or benefit others. Even if it’s at a college or a university you swore you wouldn’t be caught dead at, what matters is your experience. Life is full of experiences that have intrinsic values in themselves, and you shouldn’t let those experiences be dampened by losing out on your first, second, or even third choice of school. So to anyone reading this that has to make tough choices about going to, staying at, or leaving an expensive university, don’t ever feel like choosing one way or the other makes you any less of a person, and don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise.

Finally, to anyone that thought that I was a loser, to anyone that thought I was immature, or was nothing, thank you. Thank you for giving me the motivation I needed. I’m glad you got to pursue your dreams at a big university like I couldn’t, and I hope you can stay there for the entirety of your undergraduate career. I hope you never have to face a reality where you can’t afford the education you wanted, and I hope you never have to come back to Carrollton if you choose not to. I don’t wish any of you any ill will whatsoever, but know this: I haven’t forgotten you, and I will prove you wrong.