- Today's Paper
- Most Popular
- N.Y. / Region
- Business Business
- Sports Sports
- Opinion Opinion
- Style Style
- Real Estate
- Personal Tech
- Small Business
Published: May 17, 2013
Visions of college, colored by money.
Shanti Kumar Bronx Essay Written for Princeton University
I wonder if Princeton should be poorer.
A New York Times article geared towards helping Americans slice their end-of-year charitable pie quoted Peter Singer, a Princeton Professor of Bioethics, saying that, “The marginal difference my dollar can make to an organization that already has a large endowment is not as great as one given to an organization that helps people who have almost nothing.” The article went on to explain how Singer donates absolutely nothing to Princeton and has talked other alumni into giving less. In fact, he questioned the morality of donating to any institution, church, or cultural activity that did not directly serve the desperately poor, particularly those in “faraway places.” Singer is calling for the newly added words of “Princeton in the service of all nations” to be put into action -- and I would like to help.
I sat at the breakfast table in my pajamas wondering how many of Princeton’s donors read that article. If these alumni take this professor’s words to heart, Princeton may see a decline in their annual donations’ yield -- unless Princeton decides to channel its money towards the causes that the school’s leadership implied when they expanded Princeton’s service to all nations. Prof. Singer condones and even promotes this shift in assets, making him a unique and different voice in a multibillion-dollar institution.
‘Different’ is what I have searched for my whole life. In particular, a different way of thinking. I never understood why I was the only one whose hand shot up in history class when the teacher asked a broad question about Africa, but when she asked us to name the 15th century Queen of Spain, hands waved around me like tree branches twisting furiously in the wind. This blindness to everything non-Western continued outside of the classroom. No one ever talked about the things outside of their occidental bubble – the bubble of the comfortable, warm, well-fed Occident. It wasn’t even a bubble; it was an opaque, porcelain snow globe. On the bus ride to school my friends lamented that the city might take away our free student Metrocards, blind to the fact that other kids didn’t have schools to walk to. Were we selfish to demand our Metrocards? No. Were we unaware of our relative global status? Incomprehensibly yes.
It is my belief that a different way of thinking is budding at Princeton. I want to breathe it, taste it, engulf it, make it my own, and use it for the purpose of spreading it. How can we privileged people hope to aid the formation of global solutions if our thinking is limited to the 1136-by-640-pixel screens of our smart phones? If our thinking is not global in scope, our dreams and solutions will remain capped.
I have a cousin and a dream.
In this dream, my cousin and I are sisters across the sea, she in the waves of heat over northern India and I on the banks of the Hudson River. She is sharp, cheeky, and much better at cooking than I am. When we were young, she found great joy in getting her slender brown fingers caught in the knots of my chestnut curls, never knowing how much I envied the glossy black shawl that cascaded from her scalp to her shoulders.
In this dream, she has a life and a name.
In reality, she died when she was six months old, a half a world away, about a year before I was born.
To this day, no one has told me her name.
My cousin died of a digestive tract abnormality, a birth defect that would have been easily diagnosed and treated with surgery had she been born in midtown Manhattan like I was. In the throes of dusty hospitals equipped with obsolete instruments, however, her defect was overlooked and she died a slow death of starvation. If I had known her, I would have promised her one thing: to do everything in my power to bring health, justice, and empowerment to the marginalized people of the developing world.
I believe that global inequality is rooted in the ideas that are taught in schools and portrayed by the media in everything from talk shows to textbooks. Most people are afraid to peek through the cracks in their snow globe and see what exists beyond their merry blizzard. I will not be the doctor who saves the next dying child, nor will I be the engineer who maximizes solar energy harvesting with cheap materials, but I can be the writer who makes the voices of the underrepresented heard. I want to unfurl the idea that change emerges from empowered people who can demand their rights, and that it is augmented by people who believe that accidents of geography should not impede these rights. I dream that my life’s work and writing may stimulate and chronicle the development of a more just and equal world.
In terms of this cause, one of the best uses of Princeton’s money is the international Bridge Year Program. According to Singer, “The only way to justify giving something to educational institutions that are relatively well off is if they produce people and knowledge that will help solve the world’s problems.” This is one manifestation of Princeton’s role in the service of all nations that is worth every cent. These cents won’t be going towards towering turrets and terrific tennis players, but rather towards increments of global consciousness.
Value lies in how money is used, not the power that it fosters while lying in accounts. Could more of this money be used to expand the global consciousness of Princeton’s student body, which in effect will change the mindset of some of the world’s most powerful future leaders? If you agree that the use of Princeton’s endowment could change to unlock the potential of its service to the world, please take a fiscal chance and accept me to Princeton University.
(Ms. Kumar will be attending Cornell.)
Ana M. Castro Albany, N.Y. Essay Written for Hamilton College
I hate clowns. I hate vines. I hate fuzzy caterpillars.
But I most vehemently abhor leeches. They are full harbors of evil on Earth. Their zombie-like way of crawling, as if their life is turned on for one second to create that signature hump of a worm, and then quickly turned off, instantly flattening out, dead, brings me to tears. Before long they are up again, repeating this pattern; their black covering sparkling, creating the most shocking juxtaposition of attempted beauty on a creature so wicked. They are shown falling from leaves, free as children on monkey bars, their intentions seemingly unknown to the deranged cameraman filming them. When they find that next prey they are spellbound, burrowing their fang-rimmed faces into the leg of an unsuspecting hiker… Despite my aversion to the leech, I am still planning on joining the Peace Corps.
Growing up, my family and I did not have much. We moved all the time, to apartments of family members, a mattress on the floor of a store, and public housing. Although my mother struggled, every year she still put money aside to take a trip back to the Dominican Republic. Back home, we would visit my father, who still had not received his “papers” to come the U.S. with us. One year, my mother did not have enough money to come along on the trip, so my brother and I went alone. While there, I distinctly remember a young boy that lived right next to my father in a small shack. He was my age, 9, but looked nothing like me. We were poor, but his family was worse. His eyes reminded me of what I imagined my mother and her siblings were like as children; starving and dirty, but lively. One day this boy asked me to play with him. I happily agreed, overjoyed to find someone my age. Suddenly, my father called me over with his booming voice. He whispered in my ear, “I don’t want to see you playing with that boy. His family does not have water so they can’t shower. You could get sick.” My heart broke, not because I was now stuck eating plantains by myself in the stinging sun, but because that boy experienced a level of poor I never knew.
Even when squeezing three people on a dirty mattress on the floor of a corner store, my brother and I had our basic needs fulfilled. This boy did not.
People often ask why I want to join the Peace Corps. Why help out another set of people without helping your own in America? I was at first confused by this question. I have never seen the United States as my country. I was born here, and I grew here. However, my country was always the Dominican Republic. Even so, I do not know the Dominican Republic as my family does. I am still the first individual in my family born in America, and some of my relatives are convinced I only speak English. I have never felt total patriotism to any country. I do not instantly think of staying here to help “my home,” because I do not consider the United States my home. The Earth is “my home.” Every country, state, city and province on this Earth is a potential home to me. I want to grow, explore, learn and make an impact. For me, the Peace Corps will provide that opportunity. I just have to get over my fear of leeches.
(Ms. Castro will be attending Hamilton.)
Julian Cranberg Brookline, Mass. Essay Written for Antioch College
Ever since I took my first PSAT as a first-semester junior, I have received a constant flow of magazines, brochures, booklets, postcards, etc. touting the virtues of various colleges. Simultaneously, my email account has been force-fed a five-per-week diet of newsletters, college “quizzes,” virtual campus tour links, application calendars, and invitations to “exclusive” over-the-phone question-and-answer sessions. I am a one-year veteran of college advertising.
They started out by sending me friendly yet impersonal compliments, such as “We’re impressed by your academic record,” or “You’ve impressed us, Julian.” One of the funniest yet most disturbing letters I received was printed on a single sheet of paper inside a priority DHL envelope, telling me I received it in this fashion because I was a “priority” to that college. Now, as application time is rolling around, they’ve become a bit more aggressive, hence “REMINDER – University of X Application Due” or “Important Deadline Notice”..
How is it that while I can only send one application to any school to which I am applying, it is okay for any school to send unbridled truckloads of mail my way, applying for my attention? If I have not already made it clear, it’s an annoyance, and, in fact, turns me and undoubtedly others off to applying to these certain schools. However, this annoyance is easy to ignore, and, if I wanted to, I could easily forget all about these mailings after recycling them or deleting them from my email. But beneath the simple annoyance of these mailings lies a pressing and unchallenged issue..
What do these colleges want to get out of these advertisements? For one reason or another, they want my application. This doesn’t mean that their only objective is to craft a better and more diverse incoming class. The more applications a college receives, the more selective they are considered, and the higher they are ranked. This outcome is no doubt figured into their calculations, if it is not, in some cases, the primary driving force behind their mailings..
And these mailings are expensive. Imagine what it would cost to mail a school magazine, with $2.39 postage, to thousands of students across the country every week. The combined postage charge of everything I have received from various colleges must be above $200. Small postcards and envelopes add up fast, especially considering the colossal pool of potential applicants to which they are being sent. Although vastly aiding the United States Postal Service in its time of need, it is nauseating to imagine the volume of money spent on this endeavor. Why, in an era of record-high student loan debt and unemployment, are colleges not reallocating these ludicrous funds to aid their own students instead of extending their arms far and wide to students they have never met? I understand where the colleges are coming from. The precedent that schools should send mailings to students to “inform” them of what they have to offer has been set, and in this competitive world of colleges vying for the most applications, I only see more mailings to come in the future. It’s strange that the college process is always presented as a competition between students to get into the same colleges. It seems that another battle is also happening, where colleges are competing for the applications of the students..
High school seniors aren’t stupid. Neither are admissions offices. Don’t seniors want to go to school somewhere where they will fit and thrive and not just somewhere that is selective and will look good? Don’t applications offices want a pool of people who truly believe they would thrive in that college’s environment, and not have to deal with the many who thought those guys tossing the frisbee in the picture on the postcard they sent them looked pretty cool? I think it’s time to rethink what applying to college really means, for the folks on both sides, before we hit the impending boom in competition that I see coming. And let’s start by eliminating these silly mailings. Maybe we as seniors would then follow suit and choose intelligently where to apply.
(Mr. Cranberg will be attending Oberlin.)
Lyle Li Brooklyn Essay Written for New York University
While resting comfortably in my air-conditioned bedroom one hot summer night, I received a phone call from my mom. She asked me softly, "Lyle, can you come down and clean up the restaurant?"
Slightly annoyed, I put on my sandals and proceeded downstairs. Mixing the hot water with cleaning detergents, I was ready to clean up the restaurant floor. Usually the process was painstakingly slow: I had to first empty a bucket full of dirty water, only to fill it up again with boiling water. But that night I made quick work and finished in five minutes. My mom, unsatisfied, snatched the mop from me and began to demonstrate the “proper way” to clean the floor. She demanded a redo. I complied, but she showed no signs of approval. As much as I wanted to erupt that night, I had good reasons to stay calm.
Growing up in rural China, my mom concerned herself not with what she would wear to school every day, but rather how she could provide for her family. While many of her classmates immediately joined the work force upon completing high school, my mom had other aspirations. She wanted to be a doctor. But when her college rejections arrived, my mother, despite being one of the strongest individuals I know, broke down. My grandparents urged her to pursue another year of education. She refused. Instead, she took up a modestly paying job as a teacher in order to lessen the financial burden on the family. Today, more than twenty years have passed, yet the walls of my parents’ bedroom still do not bear a framed college degree with the name "Tang Xiao Geng" on it.
In contrast, when I visit my friends, I see the names of elite institutions adorning the living room walls. I am conscious that these framed diplomas are testaments to the hard work and accomplishments of my friends’ parents and siblings. Nevertheless, the sight of them was an irritating reminder of the disparity between our households. I was not the upper middle class kid on Park Avenue. Truth be told, I am just some kid from Brooklyn.
Instead of diplomas and accolades, my parents’ room emits a smell from the restaurant uniforms they wear seven days a week, all year round. It’s funny how I never see my mom in makeup, expensive jeans, lavish dresses, or even just casual, everyday clothing that I often see other moms wearing. Yet, one must possess something extraordinary to be able to stand in front of a cash register for 19 years and do so with pride and determination.
On certain nights, I would come home sweaty, dressed in a gold button blazer and colored pants, unmistakable evidence of socializing. In contrast, my mom appears physically and emotionally worn-out from work. But, she still asks me about my day. Consumed by guilt, I find it hard to answer her.
Moments such as those challenge my criteria of what constitutes true success. My mother, despite never going to college, still managed to make a difference in my life. Tomorrow, she will put on her uniform with just as much dignity as a businesswoman would her power suit. What is her secret? She wholeheartedly believes that her son’s future is worth the investment. The outcome of my education will be vindication of that belief.
In hindsight, I’m astounded at the ease with which I can compose all my views of this amazing woman on a piece of paper, but lack the nerve to express my gratitude in conversations. Perhaps, actions will indeed speak louder than words. When I graduate on June 1st, I know she will buy a dress to honor the special occasion. When I toil through my college thesis, I know she will still be mopping the restaurant floor at 11:00 PM. When I finally hang up my diploma in my bedroom, I know she will be smiling.
(Mr. Li will be attending N.Y.U.)
College Essays About Money Highlighted in The New York Times
Similarly, when you write your college essay, writing your authentic personal story in your own voice makes all the difference. Even though money and status can seem intimidating or even off-limits as topics, they are also worth exploring if they have truly shaped your life experience. A thoughtful exploration of a complex topic makes for a much more interesting read than a topic that plays it safe.
In what has become a yearly tradition, the New York Times recently selected seven stellar examples of college essays about money and work that tackle these complex subjects with honesty and perspective. We’ve selected two of our favorite excerpts to point out the importance of writing in your own unique voice.
1. Rob Henderson’s story speaks for itself and thus his simple telling is hugely effective, showcasing his experiences in all their complexity. The drama of his experience trying understand his mother’s divorce situation unfolds naturally and requires no embellishment. Let’s take a look:
She was a coworker of my mother’s named Shelly. She related that when adults are hurt, they can behave irresponsibly. I was grateful for her honesty and we became close. My mother soon entered a relationship with her. As a young boy, I was puzzled that my mother could now be in a relationship with Shelly. My mother explained that in our society young gay people are often socialized into believing they’re heterosexual and then, as adults, embrace their attraction to the same sex. This blew my 9-year-old mind and intensified my interest in the complexities of human behavior. My mother and her partner Shelly raised me into adolescence. Shelly was shot when I was 14. I was terrified that she wouldn’t survive; I felt great affection for her. I was rejected by other parental figures, yet Shelly chose to help care for me. She survived after extensive surgery and received an insurance settlement which she and my mother used to buy a home. One year later, our home was foreclosed. I’d developed enough resilience to overcome the ordeal and I decided to take initiative.
You couldn’t possibly pack more feeling into this essay. Sometimes a good story just needs to be told and adding extra bells and whistles can lead to overwriting that distracts the reader. Writing in your own natural voice demonstrates both authenticity and self control.
2. Adriane Tharpe begins her essay about working at Domino’s with a description of her fluid identity: “Whenever I donned my black visor and navy blue polo, customers didn’t see an art school feminist who loved banned books, French films and protest songs. I was a face, a face who took orders and tossed pizzas.” From there, her essay continues in its earnest yet quirky exploration of the ways in which pizza can unite people and reveals her to be a keen observer of the world around her.
Domino’s was like an Island of Misfit Toys floating in the middle of Alabama. My coworkers all joked about each other for what made us different: Richard was a walking Star Wars database, Mike was O.C.D. when it came to stacking pizza boxes, I was a vegetarian who often had to package the meat. Kristen, now 40, had worked at pizzerias since she was 14 and was currently filing applications to enroll in college. Terry preached to a small congregation when he wasn’t delivering. Ever since I moved here, I’ve felt like an outsider in my community. I live for the arts while my town prioritizes football and fishing. The general population is Caucasian, Christian, Republican, anti-gay, and pro-guns — or so I thought. At Domino’s, three of my coworkers fasted for Ramadan, one of the drivers read novels while waiting for deliveries and both of my bosses were women. The people who came in were far from homogenous, as diverse as the pizzas they ordered: Caucasian, Asian, African-American, and Mexican lawyers, firemen, construction workers, stay-at-home mothers, house painters. Many were married, some were divorced and some were single. Many had kids. Many were still kids. I couldn’t help but admire them.
Adriane’s most effective strategy is pointing out a host of details, which reveal not only a keen eye but a genuine compassion for those around her. This ultimately builds to a much larger observation about community and identity.
These are but two small excerpts from a series of stellar highlighted essays. As you can imagine, all are worth a full read.
Read the rest via The New York Times .
Want essay help on demand? Watch our video series !
Read our guide to the 2015-16 common app essay., read more about the college essay advisors process ..
About Thea Hogarth
View all posts by Thea Hogarth »
Written by Thea Hogarth
Category: College Admissions , Essay Tips
Want free stuff?
We thought so. Sign up for free instructional videos, guides, worksheets and more!
Common App Essay Prompt Guide
Supplemental Essay Prompt Guide
- YouTube Tutorials
- Our Approach & Team
- Undergraduate Testimonials
- Postgraduate Testimonials
- Where Our Students Get In
- CEA Gives Back
- Undergraduate Admissions
- Graduate Admissions
- Private School Admissions
- International Student Admissions
- Academy and Worksheets
- Common App Essay Guide
- Supplemental Essay Guide
- Coalition App Guide
- The CEA Podcast
- Admissions Statistics
- Notification Trackers
- Deadline Databases
- College Essay Examples
I help students and their families achieve balance and confidence throughout the college admission process as they discover and apply to colleges that best reflect their personal, academic and financial needs and goals.
Jun 18 2021 College Essays on Money (New York Times)
These are beautiful examples of the power of the college essay to give a glimpse into a student's life experiences beyond anything a transcript or test score could demonstrate.
If you have a rising senior in your life , summer is the time to dive into college essays. Ready to get started when you are!
2021 NY Times College Essays on Money
Jul 13 BCC at Cal Poly Pomona
May 24 bcc reads: what colleges don't tell you (and other parents don't want you to know).
My Davidson | A Student Blog Student-to-Student: Advice from Davidson College Students on the College Essay
Current Davidson College students share their tips and tricks for navigating and writing the college essay.
About the Authors
This piece was written by Senior Fellows in Davidson College's Office of Admission & Financial Aid; Zaynab Abuhakema ’24, Nathanael Bagonza ’24, Chloe Boissy Stauffer ’24, Kelsey Chase ’24, Amanda Fuenzalida ’24, Olivia Howard ’24 (she/her), Ann Nishida ’24, Lilly Sirover ’24, Samuel Waithira ’24 and Ruby Zhou ’24.
Learn more about them below.
Zaynab Abuhakema ’24 (she/her) is a physics major and theatre minor from Summerville, South Carolina.
“Just be honest! We want to know more about YOU and why you can see yourself at Davidson. Tell us about your passions in the way that makes the most sense to you. Have someone read over it if you want, but don’t worry too much about the technical part. Just show us who you are the best way you can on a page.”
Nathanael Bagonza ’24 (he/him) is an English major from Haverhill, Massachusetts.
“Don’t worry about if your writing is ‘great’ or not; rather, be intentional in ensuring that your essays demonstrate who you are and what you are passionate about! I ended up becoming an English major writing a collection of essays for my senior honors thesis, but what made my application essays work from day one was telling stories that really spoke to my true, authentic self.”
Chloe Boissy Stauffer ’24 (she/her) is an environmental studies and political science double major from Lake Atitlan, Guatemala.
“A couple pages of writing will never capture your whole story- admissions counselors understand this. In order to communicate an accurate snapshot of who you are, try thinking of one hobby, one accomplishment, or one interaction that you think best reflects your overall skill set and worldview. By using one or two examples to ‘anchor’ your story, you can frame your personality, backstory and values. Whatever you write, make sure it’s authentic to who you are because that’s who we want to get to know.”
Kelsey Chase ’24 (she/her) is a political science major from Concord, New Hampshire.
“I read a lot of Common App essays during my college process, not because I wanted to study them or compare them to my own, but because I genuinely thought they were fascinating to read. This helped me realize that it’s helpful to think about writing the essays for a peer rather than an admissions officer. Don’t worry about what you think the admissions officers want to hear; rather, write an essay that you think would help potential friends understand you at your core. I would also advise against your parents or adults taking too much editorial control over your essay — you want your essay to sound like you, which is someone who’s 17 or 18 years old, not a professional. It can definitely be helpful to have someone read over it just to catch grammar mistakes or awkward phrasing, but what matters most is that you feel like it really conveys something important about who you are.”
Amanda Fuenzalida ’24 (she/her) is a biology major from Naples, Florida and Santiago, Chile.
“When I think about the personal essay, I always think about growth, because that is what life is, a continuous growing process. And at 17–18 years, you do not have to have everything figured out or have decided what you want to for the rest of your life. But what you can do well is reflect on the experiences that have made you the person you are at this very moment. And thinking about this personal statement, I would think maybe what are key major parts of my life that have shaped me to be who I am, that make you proud of yourself. Reading back your essay, you should feel that sense of pride, that this essay reflects the person you (not anyone else) are proud you have become.”
Olivia Howard ’24 (she/her) is a biology and German Studies double major from Dacula, Georgia.
“I do not consider writing to be my strong suit, and I remember the dread and fear I had when I was writing my college essays. Essays are intimidating, and you might feel lost trying to fit your story into the limits that are set. My advice to you is to be patient with yourself and allow who you are to come through on the page. Do not over stress about having the most complex grammar and sentence structure, but rather focus on writing what matters to you. It is okay to not be an award-winning writer who uses metaphors and various literary devices. A lot of times it is better to tell your story in a simple way rather than using flowery language and fluff that does not get your point across.”
Ann Nishida ’24 (she/her) is a biology major and music minor from Ridgewood, New Jersey.
“The focus is on you . The essay portion is a chance for the admission counselors to see a side of you that a transcript or test score won’t fully represent. A good starting point in discovering your unique qualities may be to ask yourself Why ? Why am I passionate about certain activities, why do I interact with my environment in a certain way, why do I want to go to Davidson, etc. Good luck!”
Lilly Sirover ’24 (she/her) is a biology major and public health minor on the premedicine track from Haddonfield, New Jersey.
“As someone who prefers speaking over writing, I highly recommend using a voice recording app to talk through your essay ideas as you begin the writing process. Talking through your unique strengths, challenges you have navigated, a personal experience that changed your perspective, a topic that you are endlessly curious about, or something else personal to you allows your story to develop naturally.”
Samuel Waithira ’24 (he/him) is an economics major and applied mathematics minor from Nairobi, Kenya.
“Be genuine with every aspect of your application. Do not try to mold your application into what you believe the college wants. When you present your true self, you build trust with the admissions team, showing that you have confidence in who you are. Remember that each applicant is unique, and colleges are often looking for a diverse student body. By being genuine, you can showcase your individuality and the qualities that set you apart from other applicants.”
Ruby Zhou ’24 (she/her) is an English major on the predental track from Houston, Texas.
“Start writing. I have a tendency to procrastinate whenever I have a daunting task looming over me, and I just need to start writing or I’ll never get it done. The writing might sound horrible and you might feel embarrassed, but if you think about it, the earlier you start, the more time you have to change “bad” writing to something beautiful.”
Looking for More Student Stories?
Check out more student-written blog posts like this one at My Davidson, Davidson College's blog for students, by students.
- My Davidson
Considering Applying to Davidson College?
Learn more about dates and deadlines, ways to apply, the holistic admission review and more.
Applying to Davidson
- November 2, 2023
Aquinas American School
College counseling department, the new york times: from the heart to higher education: the 2021 college essays on money.
When the most selective — or, even better, rejective — schools in the United States are accepting under 10 percent of the people pleading for a spot in the next freshman class, it eventually becomes impossible to know why any one person receives an offer, or why a student chooses a particular school.
So in this particularly unpredictable season — as we publish a selection of application essays about money, work or social class for the ninth time — we’ve made one small but permanent change: We (and they) are going to tell you where the writers come from, but not where they are headed.
Our overarching point in publishing their essays isn’t to crack the code on writing one’s way into Yale or Michigan, as if that were even possible. Instead, it’s to celebrate how meaningful it can be to talk openly about money and write about it in a way that makes a reader stop and wonder about someone else’s life and, just maybe, offers a momentary bit of enlightenment and delight.
One writer this year helps her mother find a new way of bringing joy into the world, while another discovers the cost of merely showing up if you’re a female employee. A young man reflects on his own thrift, while a young woman accepts a gift of ice cream and pays a price for it. Finally, caregiving becomes a source of pride for someone young enough to need supervision herself.
Each of the writers will make you smile, eventually. And this year in particular, we — and they — deserve to.
“She began to cry and told me it was too late for her. I could not bear to watch her struggle between ambition and doubt.”
New York — Bronx High School of Science
My mom finds a baffling delight from drinking from glass, hotel-grade water dispensers. Even when three-day-old lemon rinds float in stale water, drinking from the dispenser remains luxurious. Last year for her birthday, I saved enough to buy a water dispenser for our kitchen counter. However, instead of water, I filled it with handwritten notes encouraging her to chase her dreams of a career.
As I grew older, I noticed that my mom yearned to pursue her passions and to make her own money. She spent years as a stay-at-home mom and limited our household chores as much as she could, taking the burden upon herself so that my brothers and I could focus on our education. However, I could tell from her curiosity of and attitudes toward working women that she envied their financial freedom and the self-esteem that must come with it. When I asked her about working again, she would tell me to focus on achieving the American dream that I knew she had once dreamed for herself.
For years, I watched her effortlessly light up conversations with both strangers and family. Her empathy and ability to understand the needs, wants and struggles of a diverse group of people empowered her to reach the hearts of every person at a dinner table, even when the story itself did not apply to them at all. She could make anyone laugh, and I wanted her to be paid for it. “Mom, have you ever thought about being a stand-up comedian?”
She laughed at the idea, but then she started wondering aloud about what she would joke about and how comedy shows were booked. As she began dreaming of a comedy career, the reality of her current life as a stay-at-home mom sank in. She began to cry and told me it was too late for her. I could not bear to watch her struggle between ambition and doubt.
Her birthday was coming up. Although I had already bought her a present, I realized what I actually wanted to give her was the strength to finally put herself first and to take a chance. I placed little notes of encouragement inside the water dispenser. I asked my family and her closest friends to do the same. These friends told her other friends, and eventually I had grown a network of supporters who emailed me their admiration for my mom. From these emails, I hand wrote 146 notes, crediting all of these supporters that also believed in my mom. Some provided me with sentences, others with five-paragraph-long essays. Yet, each note was an iteration of the same sentiment: “You are hilarious, full of life, and ready to take on the stage.”
On the day of her birthday, my mom unwrapped my oddly shaped present and saw the water dispenser I bought her. She was not surprised, as she had hinted at it for many years. But then as she kept unwrapping, she saw that inside the dispenser there were these little notes that filled the whole thing. As she kept picking out and reading the notes, I could tell she was starting to believe what they said. She started to weep with her hands full of notes. She could not believe the support was real, that everyone knew she had a special gift and believed in her.
Within two months, my mom performed her first set in a New York comedy club. Within a year, my mom booked a monthly headlining show at the nation’s premier comedy club.
I am not sure what happened to the water dispenser. But I have read the notes with my mom countless times. They are framed and line the walls of her new office space that she rented with the profits she made from working as a professional comedian . For many parents, their children’s careers are their greatest accomplishment, but for me my mom’s is mine.
It’s Not Too Late for a Fourth of July Travel Deal Peering Under Vermeers Without Peeling Off the Paint ‘I’m Easily Bored by Books,’ Says Writer of 22 Novels
“The intense Saturday night crucible of the restaurant, with all the unwanted phone numbers, catcalls and wandering hands, jolted me into an unavoidable reckoning with feminism in a professional world.”
Locust Valley, N.Y. — Friends Academy
“Pull down your mask, sweetheart, so I can see that pretty smile.”
I returned a well-practiced smile with just my eyes, as the eight guys started their sixth bottle of Brunello di Montalcino. Their carefree banter bordered on heckling. Ignoring their comments, I stacked dishes heavy with half-eaten rib-eye steaks and truffle risotto. As I brought their plates to the dish pit, I warned my female co-workers about the increasingly drunken rowdiness at Table 44.
This was not the first time I’d felt uncomfortable at work. When I initially presented my résumé to the restaurant manager, he scanned me up and down, barely glancing at the piece of paper. “Well, you’ve got no restaurant experience, but you know, you package well. When can you start?” I felt his eyes burn through me. That’s it? No pretense of a proper interview? “Great,” I said, thrilled at the prospect of earning good money. At the same time, reduced to the way I “package,” I felt degraded.
I thought back to my impassioned feminist speech that won the eighth-grade speech contest. I lingered on the moments that, as the leader of my high school’s F-Word Club, I had redefined feminism for my friends who initially rejected the word as radical. But in these instances, I realized how my notions of equality had been somewhat theoretical — a passion inspired by the words of Malala and R.B.G. — but not yet lived or compromised.
The restaurant has become my real-world classroom, the pecking order transparent and immutable. All the managers, the decision makers, are men. They set the schedules, determine the tip pool, hire pretty young women to serve and hostess, and brazenly berate those below them. The V.I.P. customers are overwhelmingly men, the high rollers who drop thousands of dollars on drinks, and feel entitled to palm me, a 17-year-old, their phone numbers rolled inside a wad of cash.
Angry customers, furious they had mistakenly received penne instead of pane, initially rattled me. I have since learned to assuage and soothe. I’ve developed the confidence to be firm with those who won’t wear a mask or are breathtakingly rude. I take pride in controlling my tables, working 13-hour shifts and earning my own money. At the same time, I’ve struggled to navigate the boundaries of what to accept and where to draw the line. When a staff member continued to inappropriately touch me, I had to summon the courage to address the issue with my male supervisor. Then, it took weeks for the harasser to get fired, only to return to his job a few days later.
When I received my first paycheck, accompanied by a stack of cash tips, I questioned the compromises I was making. In this physical and mental space, I searched for my identity. It was simple to explore gender roles in a classroom or through complex characters in a Kate Chopin novel. My heroes, trailblazing women such as Simone de Beauvoir and Gloria Steinem, had paved the road for me. In my textbooks, their crusading is history. But the intense Saturday night crucible of the restaurant, with all the unwanted phone numbers, catcalls and wandering hands, jolted me into an unavoidable reckoning with feminism in a professional world.
Often, I’ve felt shame; shame that I wasn’t as vocal as my heroes; shame that I feigned smiles and silently pocketed the cash handed to me. Yet, these experiences have been a catalyst for personal and intellectual growth. I am learning how to set boundaries and to use my professional skills as a means of empowerment.
Constantly re-evaluating my definition of feminism, I am inspired to dive deeply into gender studies and philosophy to better pursue social justice. I want to use politics as a forum for activism. Like my female icons, I want to stop the burden of sexism from falling on young women. In this way, I will smile fully — for myself.
“I feel haunted, cursed by the compulsion to diligently subtract pennies from purchases hoping it will eventually pile up into a mere dollar.”
Hanoi, Vietnam — British Vietnamese International School
Despite the loud busking music, arcade lights and swarms of people, it was hard to be distracted from the corner street stall serving steaming cupfuls of tteokbokki — a medley of rice cake and fish cake covered in a concoction of hot sweet sauce. I gulped when I felt my friend tugging on the sleeve of my jacket, anticipating that he wanted to try it. After all, I promised to treat him out if he visited me in Korea over winter break.
The cups of tteokbokki, garnished with sesame leaves and tempura, was a high-end variant of the street food, nothing like the kind from my childhood. Its price of 3,500 Korean won was also nothing like I recalled, either, simply charged more for being sold on a busy street. If I denied the purchase, I could console my friend and brother by purchasing more substantial meals elsewhere. Or we could spend on overpriced food now to indulge in the immediate gratification of a convenient but ephemeral snack.
At every seemingly inconsequential expenditure, I weigh the pros and cons of possible purchases as if I held my entire fate in my hands. To be generously hospitable, but recklessly drain the travel allowance we needed to stretch across two weeks? Or to be budgetarily shrewd, but possibly risk being classified as stingy? That is the question, and a calculus I so dearly detest.
Unable to secure subsequent employment and saddled by alimony complications, there was no room in my dad’s household to be embarrassed by austerity or scraping for crumbs. Ever since I was taught to dilute shampoo with water, I’ve revised my formula to reduce irritation to the eye. Every visit to a fast-food chain included asking for a sheet of discount coupons — the parameters of all future menu choice — and a past receipt containing the code of a completed survey to redeem for a free cheeseburger. Exploiting combinations of multiple promotions to maximize savings at such establishments felt as thrilling as cracking war cryptography, critical for minimizing cash casualties.
However, while disciplined restriction of expenses may be virtuous in private, at outings, even those amongst friends, spending less — when it comes to status — paradoxically costs more. In Asian family-style eating customs, a dish ordered is typically available to everyone, and the total bill, regardless of what you did or did not consume, is divided evenly. Too ashamed to ask for myself to be excluded from paying for dishes I did not order or partake in, I’ve opted out of invitations to meals altogether. I am wary even of meals where the inviting host has offered to treat everyone, fearful that if I only attended “free meals” I would be pinned as a parasite.
Although I can now conduct t-tests to extract correlations between multiple variables, calculate marginal propensities to import and assess whether a developing country elsewhere in the world is at risk of becoming stuck in the middle-income trap, my day-to-day decisions still revolve around elementary arithmetic. I feel haunted, cursed by the compulsion to diligently subtract pennies from purchases hoping it will eventually pile up into a mere dollar, as if the slightest misjudgment in a single buy would tip my family’s balance sheet into irrecoverable poverty.
Will I ever stop stressing over overspending?
I’m not sure I ever will.
But I do know this. As I handed over 7,000 won in exchange for two cups of tteokbokki to share amongst the three of us — my friend, my brother and myself — I am reminded that even if we are not swimming in splendor, we can still uphold our dignity through the generosity of sharing. Restricting one’s conscience only around ruminating which roads will lead to riches risks blindness toward rarer wealth: friends and family who do not measure one’s worth based on their net worth. Maybe one day, such rigorous monitoring of financial activity won’t be necessary, but even if not, this is still enough.
“In America, we possess all the tangible resources. Why is it, then, that we fruitlessly struggle to connect with one another?”
New York — Brooklyn Friends School
Sitting on monobloc chairs of various colors, the Tea Ladies offer healing. Henna-garnished hands deliver four cups of tea, each selling for no more than 10 cents. You may see them as refugees who fled the conflict in western Sudan, passionately working to make ends meet by selling tea. I see them as messengers bearing the secret ingredients necessary to truly welcome others.
On virtually every corner in Sudan, you can find these Tea Ladies. They greet you with open hearts and colorful traditional Sudanese robes while incense fills the air, singing songs of ancient ritual. Their dexterous ability to touch people’s lives starts with the ingredients behind the tea stand: homegrown cardamom, mint and cloves. As they skillfully prepare the best handmade tea in the world, I look around me. Melodies of spirited laughter embrace me, smiles as bright as the afternoon sun. They have a superpower. They create a naturally inviting space where boundless hospitality thrives.
These humble spaces are created by people who do not have much. Meanwhile, in America, we possess all the tangible resources. Why is it, then, that we fruitlessly struggle to connect with one another? On some corners of Mill Basin, Brooklyn, I discovered that some people don’t lead their lives as selflessly.
I never imagined that the monobloc chair in my very own neighborhood would be pulled out from under me. Behind this stand, the ingredients necessary to touch my life were none but one: a friendly encounter gone wrong. While waiting for ice cream, a neighbor offered to pay for me. This deeply offended the shop owner glaring behind the glass; he resented my neighbor’s compassion because his kindness is reserved for those who do not look like me. The encounter was potent enough to extract the resentment brewing within him and compelled him to project that onto me.
“I guess Black lives do matter then,” he snarked.
His unmistakably self-righteous smirk was enough to deny my place in my community. It was enough to turn a beautiful sentiment of kindness into a painfully retentive memory; a constant reminder of what is to come.
Six thousand three hundred and fifty-eight miles away, Sudan suddenly felt closer to me than the ice cream shop around the corner. As I walked home, completely shaken and wondering what I did to provoke him, I struggled to conceptualize the seemingly irrelevant comment. When I walk into spaces, be it my school, the bodega or an ice cream shop, I am conscious of the cardamom mint, and cloves that reside within me; the ingredients, traits and culmination of thoughts that make up who I am, not what I was reduced to by that man. I learned, however, that sometimes the color of my skin speaks before I can.
I realized that the connotations of ignorance in his words weren’t what solely bothered me. My confusion stemmed more from the complete lack of care toward others in his community, a notion completely detached from everything I believe in. For the Tea Ladies and the Sudanese people, it isn’t about whether or not people know their story. It isn’t about solidarity in uniformity, but rather seeing others for who they truly are.
Back in Khartoum, Sudan, I looked at the talents of the Tea Ladies in awe. They didn’t necessarily transform people with their tea, they did something better. Every cup was a silent nod to each person’s dignity.
To the left of me sat a husband and father, complaining about the ridiculous bread prices. To the right of me sat a younger worker who spent his days sweeping the quarters of the water company next door. Independent of who you were or what you knew before you got there, their tea was bridging the gap between lives and empowering true companionship, all within the setting of four chairs and a small plastic table.
Sometimes, that is all it takes.
“I was the memory keeper, privy to the smallest snippets that go forgotten in a lifetime.”
Lafayette, Calif. — Miramonte High School
I was the ultimate day care kid — I never left.
From before I could walk to the start of middle school, Kimmy’s day care was my second home. While my classmates at school went home with stay-at-home moms to swim team and Girl Scouts, I traveled to the town next door where the houses are smaller, the parched lawns crunchy under my feet from the drought.
At school, I stuck out. I was one of the few brown kids on campus. Both of my parents worked full time. We didn’t spend money on tutors when I got a poor test score. I’d never owned a pair of Lululemon leggings, and my mom was not versed in the art of Zumba, Jazzercise or goat yoga. At school, I was a blade of green grass in a California lawn, but at day care, I blended in.
The kids ranged from infants to toddlers. I was the oldest by a long shot, but I liked it that way. As an only child, this was my window into a sibling relationship — well, seven sibling relationships. I played with them till we dropped, held them when they cried, got annoyed when they took my things. And the kids did the same for me. They helped as I sat at the counter drawing, and starred in every play I put on. They watched enviously as I climbed to the top of the plum tree in the backyard.
Kimmy called herself “the substitute mother,” but she never gave herself enough credit. She listened while I gushed about my day, held me when I had a fever and came running when I fell out of the tree. From her, I learned to feed a baby a bottle, and recognize when a child was about to walk. I saw dozens of first steps, heard hundreds of first words, celebrated countless birthdays. Most importantly, I learned to let the bottle go when the baby could feed herself.
And I collected all the firsts, all the memories and stories of each kid, spinning elaborate tales to the parents who walked through the door at the end of the day. I was the memory keeper, privy to the smallest snippets that go forgotten in a lifetime.
I remember when Alyssa asked me to put plum tree flowers in her pigtails, and the time Arlo fell into the toilet. I remember the babies we bathed in the kitchen sink, and how Kimmy saved Gussie’s life with the Heimlich maneuver. I remember the tears at “graduation,” when children left for preschool, and each time our broken family mended itself when new kids arrived.
When I got home, I wrote everything down in my pink notebook. Jackson’s first words, the time Lolly fell off the couch belting “Let It Go.” Each page titled with a child’s name and the moments I was afraid they wouldn’t remember.
I don’t go to day care anymore. Children don’t hide under the table, keeping me company while I do homework. Nursing a baby to sleep is no longer part of my everyday routine, and running feet don’t greet me when I return from school. But day care is infused in me. I can clean a room in five minutes, and whip up lunch for seven. I remain calm in the midst of chaos. After taming countless temper tantrums, I can work with anyone. I continue to be a storyteller.
When I look back, I remember peering down from the top of the plum tree. I see a tiny backyard with patches of dead grass. But I also see Kimmy and my seven “siblings.” I see the beginnings of lives, and a place that quietly shapes the children who run across the lawn below. The baby stares curiously up at me from the patio, bouncing in her seat. She will be walking soon, Kimmy says. As will I.
Ron Lieber has been the Your Money columnist since 2008 and has written five books, most recently “The Price You Pay for College.” @ronlieber • Facebook
Leave a reply cancel reply.
This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed .
- Already have a WordPress.com account? Log in now.
- Follow Following
- Copy shortlink
- Report this content
- View post in Reader
- Manage subscriptions
- Collapse this bar