This is the story about one of my heroes.
It’s a story about the failings of our collegiate system and the horrible economy and hope in the face of all that.
Yesterday, my youngest sister, Claire, got into Chapman University. I wept when she told me over the phone.
If you knew what Claire had been through in the last several years, you’d cry too.
Claire was a 4.0 student in high school. She took all the AP classes, took Running Start, volunteered, and ran herself ragged doing everything that a student can do to get into college. She got accepted to several colleges and took the one with the best financial package: New York University.
Claire’s freshman year at NYU was wonderful. She fell in love with the city, made great friends and blossomed being out of our house which, as great a family as we are, is nonetheless crowded at seven people, especially if you’re the youngest.
At the end of her first year, however, she received a shock. NYU wasn’t going to continue to take care of her financially, despite her excellent grades. They went back on the offer that had led her to turn down other colleges and raised general tuition on top of her rescinded financial aid. When she explained that her parents were putting three other children through college and they had lost their land development business after the Stock Market Crash of 2008, they said the only factor they could consider is how much our father made. He made too much for them to consider helping Claire, even though she had earned their help through her hard work in highschool. They refused to offer her any financial help, as they did to many other students that year. Claire had no choice. She couldn’t pay her way. Mom and Dad couldn’t sign for loans. She had to drop out of school.
I don’t think I know anyone in my life who embodies perseverance like Claire does. She was devastated, returning home to life in the country after life in New York. We may live 30 minutes away from Seattle by car, but it takes 45 minutes to walk to a bus stop from our house. On top of the loss of city-life and her new friends, her future was uncertain. She had worked so hard all of her life. She’d been told that if she worked hard, she’d achieve success, only to be thrust into a situation where her only options seemed like retail.
But Claire, though discouraged, wasn’t destroyed. She began working on her first album later that year. A talented songwriter, singer and musician, Claire’s first official album was more than I ever thought possible, and I’ve heard her playing for years. Her songs were beautiful, catchy and incredibly intelligent… specifically my personal favorite, “David”. It affirmed to me that no matter what Claire’s collegiate future would be, her talent would lead her to great success.
Unfortunately, not a lot of people bought the first album, although people streamed it (and still do) like crazy. And yes, if you’re in that group, I am trying to make you feel guilty. You’re not ripping off Britney Spears here. You’re robbing someone who desperately needs the money so you can have something to listen to while you browse the internet. Do the right thing and pay the four dollars today.
*backing down off my soap box*
Claire pressed on, both with her musical career, recording and playing local gigs, and with college applications, despite the discouragement coming at her in both arenas. Last year, she was turned down from USC. After that, she decided her next plan of attack was to finish up her AA at Bellevue College and then apply to a whole host of colleges again this last Fall and Winter.
Each month that’s gone on, as we’ve heard of more and more colleges doing exactly what NYU did to Claire, as Republicans in Congress suggest cutting Federal loans to students, as publications write about the death of college, we all wondered what would happen to Claire. Even our local university, University of Washington, is barring in-state applicants in favor of out-of-state students that they can gouge more, and still, they’re raising tuition two to three times a year, every year since we went there.
It’s one thing to say that college is dead, and it’s another thing to be out in the world. Employers don’t know that college is dead yet. We knew that she was talented and insanely dedicated, not only continuing with her music, but going to community college for her Associate’s and interning at Richard Hugo House with me. But what would happen to her talent if doors kept being slammed in her face?
Then, last week, she began to hear back from colleges. She got accepted to Bennington, who agreed to pay half her tuition, leaving her with the burden of $38,000. They, like NYU, would only look at the most basic financial information on my father, showing his earnings, not his failed business, his family of seven, his sick parents, dead mother-in-law and sick wife. Claire plead with a financial aid officer who seemed, as so many of them do, not to understand English unless it’s specifically worded on a pre-approved form in front of them.
All of that, of course, ruled Bennington out. Within days, she was turned down from the next two. Claire could only go to school if she had over 95% of the full cost covered. This began to seem almost impossible. But Claire, as frightened as she was, continued to believe that something would work out.
And that’s the thing I love about Claire. She has been very depressed over the last several years. She has been enraged by the injustice of the systems that beckoned her and demanded her hard work and then rejected her over technicalities. She’s been sick. She’s been frightened.
But she never lost hope or courage to keep trying.
You see, that’s the thing about courage and hope. They don’t require your happiness. They don’t require a stalwart repose. There is no zen-master calm that you have to have. In fact, the more scared you are, the greater courage you must have to balance it out and a brighter hope you that you have to keep to outshine the darkness in your own heart.
Courageous people are scared. Hopeful people are dark. The only thing that keeps them from being cowards is that they persevere. They believe. The press on. Their hearts are strong.
Claire only sent out those applications this last Fall and Winter, after being rejected year after year, because she is one of the absolute bravest people I know.
She got into Chapman, who will be covering the requisite 95%, because she didn’t stop believing and working hard to fulfill that belief. It would’ve been so easy. She is so young and has been so stomped on. But she believed. She put her songs out there for us to hear, whether or not we pay for them. She worked hard at a community college, though her high school prep had aimed her at the Ivy League, believing that it would all be for something, even though she constantly doubted and feared that it might come to nothing.
But now… it won’t! Claire now gets to finish her four year degree. She gets to continue to work hard, learn amazing things that will help her in her writing, her music, her view of the world. She gets to meet people who will connect her to opportunities and get that STUPID PIECE OF PAPER that still means so much to employers!
Does this mean all will be perfect in her life from now on? Of course not. But this is a win. A big win, in a day and age when colleges are raising costs and screwing over students. This is an incredible win, and it never would’ve happened if Claire had taken the first several rejections as a sign to stop believing.
She dealt with her pain and her fear and her anger and she kept hoping, courageously, against the odds, that she’d make it if she kept trying. And this win inspires me. I hope it inspires you to read about it.
This win doesn’t protect her against future losses. But like any good story, it will give her and those who hear the story, courage to believe in the face of hardship, courage to keep hoping and trying and struggling when all seems lost.
I look up to her so much, nine years younger than me, and she is truly one of my heroes.
So if you don’t follow my sister’s tumblr, and if you haven’t bought her album, remedy that. This won’t be the last time I sing her praises on my blog and they’ll only get more impressive as she presses on.