In the Pursuit of Ivy Degrees

Adriana Tache | SIPA Class of 2017 | December 6, 2016

To enter an Ivy League University, after growing up in a poor and often less educated family, is not only a realized dream but also the proof that sky is the limit for the truly determined. Up in New York City’s Morningside Heights, Columbia University has a long history of providing opportunity to students from all walks of life and origins. Just take a stroll on campus and you will notice the diversity of the student body, the richness of cultures, and the mix of languages. Despite current attendance costs surpassing $70,000 a year, the university prides in attracting strivers like Alexander Hamilton, who back in the XVIIIth century climbed from humble immigrant roots to becoming one of our nation’s founders.

No school at Columbia is more diverse than SIPA. For many years, it has attracted the brightest graduate minds from around the world, regardless of their financial circumstances. Foreign government employees, children of affluent families, offspring of the middle class, military veterans, and low-income students, all come together every year to pursue graduate-level education that will equip them with the tools necessary to solve real-world problems. The school appeals to applicants who not only seek a top-notch program but also easy access to United Nations, world renowned financial institutions, and the City that Never Sleeps.

Students who take less traditional paths to Columbia

For the past month, as part of a class project, I interviewed fellow students from non-affluent families, who took a less traditional path to make it into SIPA. Their life narratives are indicative of some of the same sacrifices I made in order to get where I am today. Their path that was often paved with financial struggles and psychological adjustments. These stories will unfold, one by one, for the next 11 days. I hope you will enjoy them and find them as inspiring as I did.

What most enticed me at SIPA was the school’s merit based partial fellowship that I was lucky to receive shortly after admission. Without those funds my attendance would have been hardly possible. According to the school’s fellowships page, 34.5% of the first-year students were awarded funding ranging from $2,300 to $70,000 in 2015, and 72.3% of the second-year students who applied for funding received awards ranging from $750 to $75,000. These fellowships are a combination of assistantships (various tuition credits, work commitments and accompanying salary) and scholarships (credited towards tuition that do not require work commitment). Students who did not receive them, and were not recipients of external funding, must have relied heavily on loans and jobs outside campus.

Anxiety about student debt

While my hard-earned fellowship covered a portion of my tuition costs, the rest of my financial needs are satisfied by student loans and credit card balance transfers. This is, of course, nothing new, as many of us grapple with student debt. However, a tight and unstable budget leads to anxiety that makes it hard to stay competitive among peers who don’t face the same challenges.

I am a second-year student at SIPA concentrating on International Economic Policy. I am about five months shy of graduating. Anxiety runs high as I approach my last semester because I was not able to secure a job from my summer internship. With student loans amounting to almost $85,000, I cannot afford to not have a job right after graduation.  But I have always found a way to stay motivated, and I want to believe that the best is yet to come.

I changed my home country, Romania, for the United States when I was 20-year-old. My family and friends waved at me as I was embarking on this trip without knowing when they would see me next. With $500 in my pocket, I waved back picturing the world of possibilities waiting for my arrival.

From KFC to Columbia

It has been almost 14 years since then. The road to SIPA started with my first job in the US, a job at KFC where I learned to fry chicken just the way I liked it. Moving from the fryer to the cash register was my first taste of a promotion.

Shortly after, I began cleaning houses and commercial buildings to support myself.  As I got accepted into Temple University in Philadelphia for undergraduate studies I needed the flexibility to make my own work schedule. Janitors have that freedom especially if they provide services after business hours.

“The cleaning lady”

Three years and a half later I graduated from Temple University with a triple concentration in Finance, Business Law, and International Business Administration. After years of inhaling chemicals and being referred to as “the cleaning lady” it felt like I hit the jackpot when I was selected for a job in finance during the financial crisis. Even though the job was grossly underpaid, it offered the luxury of an office job that made use of my analytical skills and allowed me to grow into a critical thinker. As I moved up the ladder, I was daily making myself into the person I am today: hard working and always driven by a higher purpose.

Daughter of a weaver, now soon to be graduating from SIPA

Never ending determination brought me to the doors of Columbia University, of which my family knows nothing. As the first one in my house to graduate from high school, let alone from a master’s program, I am proud and grateful for this privilege. Daughter of a weaver and a father who battled addiction to alcohol until the day he died, when I was 15, I know a thing or two about humbleness and resilience. I also know about the power of giving and inspiring others to become better versions of themselves.

Here at SIPA, I am not alone. Starting tomorrow, you will read about some unconventional ways of making ends meet at an early age, about achieving success against all odds, and about empathy and dedication to turn the world into a better place.