What I’ve learned paying my own way through a Queen’s education

Discovering the importance of self-advocacy and reaching out for help

Emily once struggled with fitting in because, unlike some of the people around her, she pays for her own education.
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The first time I told this story, I was in my first year of university. I was sitting on the grass at City Park, just a few blocks away from Queen’s, with my orientation leaders and group. We were playing Two Truths and a Lie, and one of my truths was that I was a 20-year-old first-year student.

I remember the surprised reactions of my 17- and 18-year-old peers, who were reluctant to believe any freshman could be so old. I also recall the shock of my Gaels. It seemed as if their training didn’t include how to give advice to freshmen who are older than you. Although they were inclusive and supportive of me, my insecurity about my age prevented me from feeling like a “normal” frosh. 

Immediately, I found myself in a unique situation where I was trying to fit in, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t do it.  I wasn’t a teenager fresh out of high school like most of my peers were. The fact that I had taken two years off to work full-time so that I could pay for my own education created a new dynamic that made me much different from most of the people around me. 

 I wasn’t a teenager fresh out of high school like most of my peers were.

Queen’s University is known for many things: providing a high-calibre education, being the hotspot for insane Homecoming celebrations that shut down streets, and hosting students from high-income households. But until I arrived here myself, I didn’t understand how alone I would feel surrounded by most of my friends who had never had a job before. It was hard finding support when it seemed as if no one else around me was struggling to budget the same way I was. 

I met people from all around the world who had no concept of money—or no concept of nothaving money.  I found myself telling my story of paying for my own education less and less to those around me. I was tired of feeling like an outsider at my own school and wanted to enjoy the carefree lifestyle of my peers. Whenever I shared my story with people, it seemed as if nobody related to my situation. I was embarrassed about always budgeting my money, and insecure about being older than my peers.

But in my three years at Queen’s, my perspective has changed, and I realize my journey is a major accomplishment that I should be proud of.

I started saving for university when I was 15 years old and got my first job at McDonald’s. My parents are incredibly hard workers and they always made sure our family was comfortable. But I knew growing up that every gift I was given had a price, and that price was paid for by my parents. So, when I started thinking about post-secondary education, I knew it was something that wouldn’t be attainable if I wasn’t ready to work for it. 

This became even more real to me when I graduated high school and realized just how expensive university could be. It was then that I decided to put off my education and focus on saving up for it.  I worked as a bartender and waitress during my two years off and made some incredible memories. During those gap years I learned a great deal about myself and I probably wouldn’t be at Queen’s today had I not decided to delay my post-secondary career.

I’m not going to lie—paying for my own education put a bad taste in my mouth during my first few years at Queen’s. A lot of the time it seemed as if the people I was befriending couldn’t understand why I was stressing out over more than just exams. Though I was fortunate enough to not have to work during my first year, that didn’t mean money wasn’t an issue.

It was a very stressful year, having moved so far from home and not knowing a single person. It was even harder when I knew I couldn’t attend trips to the mall or weekend getaways. I felt envious of those who spent their summers jet-setting or volunteering for experience.

Bitterness is something I’ve had to learn to overcome over the past few years. “It’s not my fault my parents are rich and yours aren’t,” was a line I heard often in my first year. At first, I was angry to hear such an ignorant statement. However, I realized that it was simply the truth. Everyone is dealt a different hand of cards in life. It’s not my business to judge others for what they have.

Everyone is dealt a different hand of cards in life. It’s not my business to judge others for what they have.

The past few years have taught me nothing if not time management skills. Working two jobs and having a full course load has been the toughest feat I’ve faced so far. My GPA took a hit when I was serving up beers at The Brooklyn until 2 a.m. one night, then attending an 8:30 a.m. lecture the next morning. To the professors who’ve seen me nod off once or twice during class, I’m sorry.

I’ve also met many students in similar situations. Working in the Hub allowed me to meet my crew of friends, and I’m so grateful for that. It’s been important for me to be among people who can support me, and that I can bond with over being an overworked, over-tired, and an overly-in-debt student. Because of them, I don’t fear burning out or losing my drive—I have an incredible support system in my long list of inspirational young people who know how to push through the toughest situations.

I expect this year to be an interesting one. The cuts to the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) announced last winter have hit me like a wrecking ball, and I know I’m not the only one feeling the effects. I was planning on dropping my second summer job before the start of the school so I could focus on my studies during fourth year. Unfortunately, this seems unrealistic now that my financial support is decreasing. However, I’m lucky to have two workplaces that accommodate my school schedule.

In previous years, I struggled to meet deadlines and attend classes due to being overworked. But I’ve since taken the time to learn about the resources that are available at Queen’s to ensure my success. Student Wellness Services has been an important resource for me, giving me the support I need when I’m feeling overwhelmed. 

I regret not accessing the accommodations that were available to me earlier on in my undergraduate career. Only now am I truly realizing that help is always available at Queen’s.

I regret not accessing the accommodations that were available to me earlier on in my undergraduate career. Only now am I truly realizing that help is always available at Queen’s.

I’ve also learned that professors are humans too—if you explain your situation to them, more often than not, they’re willing to help you figure out a game plan. In the beginning of my third year, I was working four shifts a week at Jack Astor’s and two shifts a week at The Brooklyn. I was careful to inform every one of my professors what my situation was, and why I might not always make deadlines.

That semester ended up running much smoother because I’d made a plan on how to obtain my goals. I also obtained academic accommodations so I wouldn’t be penalized for working throughout the school year. I encourage those in similar situations to seek these supports—they’ve helped me immensely.

In previous years, I’ve felt anxious about managing my time properly or working myself too hard. I‘ve known the feeling of burnout many times before, but I’m excited for my fourth year at Queen’s. This year, I’m well aware of the resources available to me and have developed one very necessary trait: self-advocacy.

I’ve grown throughout these past three years, and the thing I’m most proud of is my ability to speak up for myself. I put myself and my mental health first, and my education and work life follow. I’ve gotten to where I am today because of this attitude.

I realize now that my Queen’s story is one of success: it’s about learning to manage my time and my money to obtain an education. That’s something I’m incredibly proud of.

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