I’m paying for graduate school on my own and that surprises a lot of international students at Columbia. Questions I often get – Your parents aren’t paying anything? You saved that much money before graduate school? How are you doing it? There’s an untold story here at Columbia and we need more students who are working multiple jobs, who have children and/or spouses, who come from low-income or first-generation backgrounds to speak up. We can support each other in so many ways – from day to day budgeting, to saving, to long-term planning. We don’t have to do it alone.
I took out fewer loans that I needed so I would feel stressed at the thought of having a negative bank balance and work harder to earn money. Taking out less than the suggested loan amounts on our SIPA page forced me to get creative and more thoughtful about my budget. It also builds discipline for long-term planning – like putting money towards your retirement, planning the costs of your wedding, or helping your parents with retirement.
So, what does paying for graduate school look like when your parents/government/scholarships aren’t financing you? For me, it meant taking time between undergrad and graduate school to save money. Lots of money. It’s not easy to save money. I lived in a three-bedroom apartment with five people and shared a room with a girl who did not value my privacy. It meant eating dinner before going out to a dinner with your friends and then still feeling guilty about ordering the cheapest appetizer. I crowdsourced my credit card to my family and friends so that they would spend money on it, and I would get points. It was taking two hours one way to get to work in DC using buses and trains.
It means holding our administration accountable to providing need-based aid because we are going crazy applying to scholarships, working multiple jobs, finding jobs ourselves, AND taking 6 or 7 classes each semester to maximize our cost of education.
This is me being vulnerable. I don’t ask for help - especially from my family - because my parents have worked hard enough. The last thing I want to do is lean on them for even a little, because they should finally use it for themselves. And from an academic affairs perspective, the financial aid situation is pathetic – second year students witnessed our TA/assistantship salaries nearly halved in ONE YEAR. We have to make more specific asks and consistently demand more from the administration (schedule a meeting with Dean McIntyre and speak up about your circumstances).
I want students to remember debt is not real money – you have to pay it all back with interest, and it takes a lot longer to pay things off than you think. Also, while student debt allows people to make leaps in social and intellectual mobility, it’s something that can cause resentment in relationships, it will affect your credit score, and it affects your job search.
I encourage first and second years to really introspect about your spending habits and your debt. And if you don’t have debt, understand what students do to invest in themselves for a top-quality education. Demand the same as someone who’s paying for SIPA fully out of pocket would – for better lighting in our study areas, for subsidized trips, for better Teaching Assistants and Professors, for an environment that supports students working multiple jobs like myself.
I want to write more about this, along with: opportunities to do good in the private sector, the importance of thinking long-term, and the necessity of spending your two years at SIPA thinking global while acting local – focusing on race in American society, the quality of education and housing just blocks away. Comment below, and let me know if this is important to you. Let’s work together and support each other through our higher ed experiences.