The Straw that Broke the #RealCollege Student’s Back: Flames, Fatigue, and the Power of Generosity

By: Sarah Griffin (she/her), University of Montana

Although I concede that everyone’s life is unique, those who know me well would agree that my upbringing was a little extraordinary. I belong to an average middle class family, the mother of which was a nurse at the local hospital, the father of which was a contractor, and the two children of which were enrolled in the public school of our 5,000 person Montana town. Seems pretty normal. That is, of course, until you follow that family’s old chevy truck home up those bumpy 10 miles of washboarded road, and you realize that home is a camper.

When I was five years old, my family moved from its lakeside town in northern Michigan to Dillon, Montana with the dream of starting over. And start over we did, again, and again, and again. After less than a year of happy country living, our house was maliciously burnt to the ground. My family lost everything.

We spent a couple of years in a rental on the west side of town. In that time, my father was cleaning up the mess of ashen rubble, hopes, and dreams, my mother was keeping life as normal for us kids as possible, and together they were putting back the pieces of our family finances that my brother and I were completely unaware of.

By the time I was 10, my parents had saved enough to start rebuilding atop the blackened foundation of our first mountain home. We packed up the rental, moved our replaced belongings into storage, and packed a couple of suitcases with clothes, toiletries, and dishes into the camper which my father towed up those bumpy 10 miles of washboarded road. For six years, that was home; six brutal winters, six Thanksgivings and Christmases, six years saw my brother and I through the growing pains of middle school and high school in a camper that shook with the wind and whose pipes we thawed with a hair dryer in freezing temps.

You may be asking yourself, “Why is she telling me this story of her childhood? Isn’t this a blog about college kids?” Well yes. But the thing is, I’m still that kid. I now live in Missoula instead of Dillon; I have an apartment that I call home, fully furnished by my own hard earned cash; I am in sixteenth grade as opposed to sixth grade, but the trajectory of my college career and education was set by the strike of that match 15 years ago.

My parents worked hard, and they still do. Watching the way they persisted through setbacks (those that I mentioned and those that I didn’t), taught me this: The world doesn’t owe me much of anything. And whether you agree with that or not, it’s the way I was raised and the narrative that has shaped my time as a Spanish and Environmental Studies major at the University of Montana.

As I was preparing to come to college, I knew my parents didn’t have any money to put me through (not to say that they would have without their significant financial setbacks — remember, the world doesn’t owe me anything). I’m a nerd. Generally speaking, I love school and I always have, which I consider to be a blessing. So I applied for every scholarship that was available to me. Based on my GPA and ACT scores I was fortunate enough to qualify for a tuition waiver. With the addition of several smaller scholarships and my savings from the two jobs I held throughout high school, I was able to put myself through my first semester of college job-free.

That was the pleasant case for one semester, and one semester only.

You see, money goes fast when you have at least $2,000 worth of “enrollment fees” every semester, upwards of $300 worth of books, $8,000 dedicated to room and board, and unforeseen expenses like broken toes and broken down vehicles. Financial stress consumes a sickening amount of energy and mental space, which is a problem for young people who depend on that energy to keep them awake until 1:00 am writing papers. It’s a problem for young people who rely on that mental space to retain information for exams — a poor performance on either those papers or exams will result in less financial aid, more financial stress, and a perpetuation of the vicious cycle.

From my second semester onward, I have had no less than two jobs at a time. I’ve woken up at 3:00 am daily to shovel the snow of 15 houses for my landscaping boss, just so I could finish before my 8:00 am classes. I have poured foundations with my father in the summertimes and reroofed houses. I have bottled beer in a factory and packaged magazines in warehouses. I have served drinks five nights a week until 2:00 in the morning. I have been an RA for the Christian House I was living in and developed my own copywriting business. I have been an office worker on campus and I have been a tutor.

And aside from that, I am biologically wired to be a social creature, just like you. Us humans need community and play and laughter, love and joy. Apart from the robotic demands of university finances, I am a dancer. I have made time to audition and participate in shows that feed my soul. I am a musician and have sacrificed an hour of homework every week to play in the university flute choir. I am an outdoor enthusiast. I am a runner, a skier, and a theater actress. I am an entrepreneur and a cancer camp volunteer. I am an artist and a friend, a daughter, a sister, a student, an employee, and coworker.

The stress experienced by college students is grossly underestimated and exemplified by our national higher ed system, alarming rates of substance abuse, depression, anxiety, and hopelessness in young adults, and by the lack of resources to combat them.

This past year, I reached my fever pitch. Like the rest of the world, I was trying to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, online classes with unreliable wifi, my social, mental, spiritual, and physical health, rerailing and derailing plans, and five jobs just to make ends meet.

I don’t tell you this to say, “Woe is me.” In fact, I tell you this for exactly the opposite reason — I am very proud of what I have done and where I have come. But I also couldn’t have done it without the generous help of those who understand the true difficulty of such an accomplishment.

At the height of the pandemic, I was lucky enough to benefit from a FAST Fund donation, which is a Believe in Students initiative. Donors that contribute to scholarship funds for students truly change lives. They have changed mine. When funds were available and I was lucky enough to receive them, they would sometimes be the difference between a 50 hour work week plus school and a 25 hour work week plus school. The difference between 7 hours of sleep every night and sometimes 3 or 4. The difference between cooking a healthy meal and grabbing a hunk of bread and peanut butter. The difference between calling home and weeks without communication. These differences are measurable and make for a thriving student as opposed to a surviving student.

If you are a student, I implore you; apply for those scholarships. Ask for that homework extension so you can get the applications in. Walk into your financial aid office, look a real human in the eye and say, “I’m looking for help. What is available to me?”

If you have found yourself besmirching the younger generations, complaining about our work ethic, and bemoaning our entitlement; consider my story. And consider what questions you aren’t asking.

If you have the capacity to donate, I urge you to do so. You could be the difference between a student hoisting the victory flag on graduation day, and a student throwing in the towel.

I appreciate the opportunity to tell my story. May it be used for the good of students everywhere. #RealCollege #BelieveinStudents

Sarah Griffin is currently a senior in the Honors College at the University of Montana. In May she will graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in Spanish and Environmental Studies, with a Global Leadership Certificate from the Franke Global Leadership Initiative Program. She owns her own copywriting business and recently quit her job as a server to teach Spanish at a local Montessori.

#RealCollege students, presidents, educators, and more will lend their voices here with support from The Hope Center and Believe in Students.