Running home from the bus stop after school only to be met with no cable or running water defined my elementary through high school years. My two braids swayed back and forth on a mission to catch the 3pm Food Network program. Instead, I often found my mom waiting at the door heartbroken, hiding behind a forced smile. I still remember the pain in my mother’s voice when she sincerely said, “Sorry, honey, I couldn’t pay the cable bill on time,” almost as if I would love her any less. That could never be possible.
Instead, these times actually increased my appreciation for my upbringing and influenced how I respond to any conversation that begins with an apology. My mother worked hard to keep things afloat for my siblings and me, but I am working harder so my future looks different. Not necessarily better, but different. My financial advice to my peers and other students is that your circumstances and upbringing don’t define you, but how you react to those situations does define you.
My mom raised three kids on her own. To be honest, she is still raising three kids; we are just now able to pay our own cable and water bills. Having sole custody of the kids put a lot of pressure on my mother financially, mentally, and emotionally. My siblings and I have this unspoken understanding that we will do everything in our power to not burden our mom, because she sacrificed everything for us to feel loved. For me, this meant looking for financial assistance opportunities as soon as I was able to understand the severity of our situation.
In middle school, this led me to apply for every scholarship that I could qualify for based on my classification of being a free-and-reduced-lunch student. After exhausting all possibilities, I was awarded a state scholarship that completely redirected my educational goals and made me feel helpful in the eyes of my mom.
Through a non-profit organization, called Take Stock in Children, I was able to confidently apply to college without thinking about the financial burden it would create. Through TSIC, I was given a mentor to guide me through my schooling, meeting with me once a week to talk about finances, school, and life. Money and mentorship? What a win-win! I still speak with my mentor today, 14 years later. These programs exist everywhere, and they are changing the lives of young low-income students. You just need to put in the work and look for them. Because of TSIC, I could finally really start thinking about what I wanted to pursue as a career.
It turns out that my health had other plans and decided for me. Being told you need jaw surgery during your awkward, teenage years is . . . not fun. According to my dentist, I had maxillary and midfacial deficiencies requiring a Le Fort I jaw surgery procedure. My mother and I went back and forth for years on whether we should follow through with the surgery. I thought I relieved some financial burden off my family through my scholarship, but here we were back in the red again. This time, with even more weight placed on my shoulders. I knew it was time to, once again, exhaust all opportunities and find a solution. Through my Take Stock in Children scholarship, there was an additional, more selective, fellowship called Leaders for Life sponsored by the Asofsky Family Foundation. I wanted nothing more than to help my mom. I wrote the essay and filled out the application feeling the importance of every . . . single . . . word. To my surprise, I was one of six in the state to be awarded the L4L Fellowship. A loud sigh of relief escaped my body. Did I make her proud, again?
I was able to help my mom with the medical bills by becoming financially independent in college with the assistance of these scholarships. I did not allow my situation to define me or especially define my health. In my senior year of high school, I had the procedure, and it changed my life. This experience inspired my passion for dentistry. My unique journey led me to treat my own patients in dental school seven years after my surgery—a full circle moment!
Now, in my final year of dental school, I still find it as important as ever to advocate for your financial health. My family contribution is still zero, but my experiences have allowed me to deal with this reality by working hard to find a solution. In dental school, this meant applying to every paid mentor position and teaching assistant position. I've cut classmates’ hair (why they trust me I will never know), and I've been a dog-walker—my personal favorite. I have spread the word to my classmates about these financial opportunities, and several students have started watching and walking dogs on the side to help with their financial goals. Becoming financially literate does not have to be complex, but it does require effort. In order for this to happen, you have to put in the work and find those opportunities that are waiting to be discovered.
Financial burdens do not discriminate. They will affect everyone to some degree. But how we respond to them is everything. From as far back as I can remember, I have been aware of my financial situation. I used to be embarrassed and hide the fact that I was on free-and-reduced-lunch, that I had to visit the guidance counselor because I was under a different socioeconomic category, and so on. This has changed. Now, I openly encourage everyone around me to fight for their financial freedom. I encourage growth, learning, finding resources, and searching for those opportunities out there that will help get you to where you hope to be one day financially.
My experiences have allowed me to see adversity as a tool to use for a bigger and better outcome around the corner. We just have to be open enough to search for it.