Becoming A Nun And Other Wacky Ways We And Our Families Paid For College

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Ester: Can I share a fun food-related airplane story quickly?

Nicole: There are FUN food-related airplane stories? I want to hear that!

Ester: That’s what makes this one a novelty. So, we flew back from Asheville on Monday, via the Greenville-Spartanburg airport, and our flight was seriously delayed thanks to massive thunderstorms in New York. Especially when you’re traveling with a toddler who has been on her best behavior for several days already and is ready to erupt, this is a disaster. After finding out we would be stuck in the terminal for an extra couple of hours with a squalling, energetic two-and-a-half year old, I went into the newsstand and splurged on a bag of York Peppermint Patties and another bag of Veggie Chips for sustenance / comfort. $10 total. BUT.


The lovely ladies of Delta airlines — and I am not being facetious; they were lovely! — apologized several times for the delay and to compensate us, or maybe to placate us, they brought out a whole huge cart full of snacks and candy and left it there by the gate, so that we could all eat our feelings to our stomachs’ and hearts’ content.

Nicole: That sounds both delicious and delightful. Did you see people sneaking wrapped snacks into their purse? Because I might have done that, if I were there. Snacks for later are as important as snacks now! 

Ester: Yes and yes. Also one flight attendant brought over a book of stickers, a coloring book, and a box of crayons for Babygirl, all free. It was pretty amazing. Anyway, the best part was that I could save the snacks I bought and eat / serve them gradually over the course of the week; with the help of company, I finally polished off both last night. Thank you, Delta! Also the employee at the newsstand asked if I needed a hug but she backed off when I said no. #TheSouth

Anyway, we were going to talk about tuition!

Nicole: Oh my goodness, tuition. So I learned what a “college fund” was from TV, and after seeing it on some show I asked my parents if I had a college fund, and they laughed but in a kind way and said no. My college fund was my brain. What about you?

Ester: Oh wow. No, I had a college fund; my parents set it up, and my grandparents began contributing to it, probably the day I was born. Such things were taken very seriously in my family.

On my dad’s side, he hadn’t had any family backing or support: when he went to college, it was understood that he would have to get a full ride somewhere, and he did, to the University of Chicago. That changed his life, catapulted him into a different class — and, by extension, my brothers and me too. Reading Nicole & Nicole’s fascinating discussion about this on The Toast brought his experience vividly to mind.

On my mom’s side, both her parents went to college: my grandpa, who grew up virtually penniless on the Lower East Side, went to CUNY, which was free at the time, and my grandma, whose family was more well-established in Flatbush, Brooklyn, went to NYU.

At 102, she might be NYU’s oldest living alumnus. One of them, anyway.

Nicole: I loved that Toast piece, because it was both similar to and very different from my own experiences. My parents were not first-generation college students: my great-aunt, for example, became a nun so she could get the opportunity to go to college. [UPDATE: I got the definition of first-generation student wrong. My parents count as first-generation students because their parents did not go to college, regardless of my great-aunt.]

But they also did not necessarily come from a College Tradition Family—and then they both ended up teaching, and my father became a college dean, and his older sister also became a college dean, which is awesome because by the time my sister and I were around, it was clear that Education Was Important.

Also, as an aside to the “your college fund is your brain” thing: my folks also knew that my sister and I would have access to the Tuition Remission program for children of college professors; it’s this network of smaller colleges that offer tuition remission to professor kids to encourage them to go to one of those schools. So if we didn’t get full ride scholarships, there was always that option.

Ester: That is fascinating. I don’t think I knew that was a thing. Also, becoming a nun so as to be able to go to college?? That is an incredible beginning of a story. How does that work? Did she have to stay a nun, even after graduation?

Nicole: Yes, she remained a nun, and taught, and wrote a book, and she is generally badass. Can you call a nun badass? Is that sacrilegious?

Ester: No, God understands. Badass nuns are the best kind. I would like to watch a movie about your great-aunt, please.

Nicole: Me too. Starring Blake Lively, now that we’ve all seen her play that era in Age of Adeline. Or at least in the previews for Age of Adeline.

Ester: Um, I was thinking more like Amy Adams, since she was so good in Doubt.

Nicole: Amy Adams is good in everything.

Ester: So true. I love gingers onscreen: Amy Adams, Julianne Moore, Emma Stone, Nicole Kidman (in Moulin Rouge), Sam Heughan (in “Outlander”) … But now we’re quite off-track. Did your aid package determine where you went to school? And grad school, since I know you also got an MFA?

Nicole: In addition to being eligible for Tuition Remission at various schools, I also received three full-ride scholarships. One of them was at Miami University, where I ended up attending. Another was at a very good school that was way too close to home for me; I wanted to see the world! Starting with small-town Ohio!

The third was the hilarious one: a tiny college in the middle of nowhere wrote me a letter offering me a full ride even though I had never applied there. They were that excited to add me to their ranks. I wonder if the ACT people sent my scores over or something.

Then for grad school, I got in to a handful of places and got offered a full ride at Illinois State, so I went there. If you believe in the multiverse theory, there’s another universe in which I accepted the Big Famous School that offered me a spot but no money. Who knows what my life would have been like then.

How about you? Did you seek out full-ride scholarships? How did you do your college+money decisions?

Ester: Um, so, embarrassingly, I was one of those privileged people who didn’t consider money for even one second. I’m not sure I could have told you how much college cost. It was made clear to me that I would go to the best school I got into, and it was my parents’ responsibility to pay my way, and that was that. I applied early to Swarthmore, got in, and never thought about tuition until I got there and realized virtually all of my friends had to deal with the financial aid office.

Later, I applied to grad school and got in — and didn’t go, which I think was the right decision — but even then I didn’t consider what it cost. I assumed my parents would pay, and as gross as that sounds, I think they probably would have; and if it was a burden to them (and how could it not be?) they would not have shared that information with me.

I do remember feeling guilty, though, because I had good friends who were smarter and/or harder working than I was and whose parents told them they had to go to state schools for financial reasons. It felt vaguely horrifying to me — and yes, I feel guilty about that too — and my parents’ reaction was to question my friends’ parents’ priorities. Like, how could they value anything more than their kids getting the best possible education?

Nowadays, of course, I understand those decisions in a much more nuanced way, and besides, I’ve had the opportunity to watch my U Maryland friends succeed exactly as well as my Harvard and Yale friends. You wouldn’t even be able to guess which was which.

Nicole: Yeah, ten years out it seems like college matters much less than it did when we were all graduating. You come into your own, as it were.

Also, I totally understand the guilt feelings. I also did not have to interact with the financial aid office; they took care of everything and sent me a check for living expenses (the first year, anyway; that benefit got phased out). I remember understanding that some of my peers were going into debt for this experience but not fully understanding what that meant.

I was also really aware that some students had a lot more money to throw around than I did. So … guilt and resentment! A winning combination!

Ester: Ha! Always.

Nicole: If you had to do college over again, knowing what you do now, what do you think you would do?

Ester: I would do exactly the same thing. I loved my college experience, education and all, and, like I said, I was lucky enough that I never had to ask myself, “Is this worth the money?” My parents just took care of it, like grabbing the bill after a nice lunch, and I am extraordinarily grateful. What about you?

Nicole: I would have thought more about what I wanted out of college, I think, besides the “does it give me all the money” question. I kind of assumed that I could get anything I wanted just by showing up. I realize how entitled that sounds. But I literally walked in the door with a musical that I had written under one arm, saying “PAY ATTENTION TO ME,” and… college isn’t about that, not necessarily. (A student group did stage the musical, though.)

I feel like I would have done college much better if I had the chance to do it again now.

Ester: That makes a lot of sense. Did grad school give you an opportunity to try again in that way? Have a do-over?

Nicole: When I went to grad school, our department was going through some turnover issues which… without going into detail, let’s just say they weren’t great for the students or the environment. But in grad school, I learned one of the best lessons ever, which was “how to get along with people in a corporate situation.” I had a mentor take me aside and say “you are going to do a lot better if you learn how to play the game.” This meant that when it was finally time for me to transition into Real Jobs, I was tempered and humbled. I was not the kid who sat in on the staff meeting and told everyone else why they were wrong. I got that behavior well stamped out of me in grad school.

I know this sounds like a non-educational message. Play the game! With, like, Littlefinger whispering that in your ear. But it was an extraordinarily useful lesson when I was in my early 20s.



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