My father died in a car accident when I was eight years old.
A decade later, when I graduated from high school, I found out he'd set up a trust fund for my education ... about $7,500.
I was really surprised because my family had never talked about paying for college. I'd had no idea the money was there. College was cheaper in 1991, so it should've been enough for two years of in-state tuition, as long as I lived at home.
And that's exactly what my father had intended. I was supposed to use the money to go to school near home at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C.
What I didn't realize is that I wasn't ready for college. I had no idea what I wanted to study when I was 18. I'd never talked to either of my parents about what I wanted to do when I grew up -- that just wasn't how my family was.
I'd also never had a job. Heck, I'd never even had an allowance.
Then, I got the entire $7,500.
Trouble From the Start
I paid for my first two semesters of school and books, got an on-campus job that paid a little more than minimum wage and registered for core classes. Basically, I took the minimum load of classes required.
I didn't read the syllabus for my classes closely enough to understand that attendance was part of my grade, and the classes were boring, so I only showed up for the tests. As a result, I flunked every single class because of my attendance (or lack thereof), even though I got A's and B's on all the tests. I was really disappointed. Second semester wasn't much better: This time, I showed up, but I didn't take the homework very seriously. All I can say in my defense is that I was 18 and didn't understand the importance of a college degree at all.
Meanwhile, I burned through the money I'd been given. After I paid my first tuition bill, I kept spending my inheritance. I put my meager paychecks into my checking account and then spent them immediately. I got a credit card, I shopped, I joined a sorority, and I went on spring break to Mexico. I didn't keep track of how much I was spending or what I was spending it on.
At one point, my uncle, who was the guardian of my trust, told me he'd noticed my spending habits. He cautioned me to be more careful. I was embarrassed because I felt like I'd disappointed him. So I started to be more careful with my money, but by then I had already spent so much that there wasn't enough left to pay for a second year of college.
And it didn't actually matter: My grades were so bad the university kicked me out.
Life as a College Dropout
I found out that I wouldn't be allowed to return for the fall semester or keep my on-campus job in the summer. I don't think I told my family about my bad grades -- I just told them I was out of money. I was upset, but I didn't know how I was going to pay for more classes, so I figured I just wouldn't go back to college. I applied at a temp agency and started doing secretarial work. But I quickly figured out I didn't want to keep doing that, because it didn't pay nearly enough!
After temping for July and August, I enrolled at a community college in Greenville. I still didn't know what I wanted to study, but the classes were much less expensive, and I could pay for them out of my salary. Thankfully, I didn't have to temp anymore. I landed a regular full-time job, as an office manager for a janitorial company. I went to class two to four nights a week, trying to figure out what I wanted to major in.
That wasn't a hard decision: I was too close to finishing college and didn't even want to consider taking only night classes again. I put in my two weeks' notice.
By then, I'd discovered that working with computers came as second nature to me. I enrolled in the computer programming associate degree program and made friends with the department chair. When I told her about quitting my job, she offered me a new one, working in the computer lab. I finished my associate's degree in computer programming in May 1996, but I stayed for another 18 months to complete a microcomputer associate's degree. While I finished my second degree, I worked in the computer lab and taught some classes.
What Working My Way Up Has Taught Me
If there's one thing that I've learned in all these years spent getting degrees, it's that it's not always what you know -- networking is huge. In the end, I've gotten almost every job I've ever had through someone I know. The department chair who gave me my job in the computer lab and my teaching stints later recommended me for a position at a local pharmaceutical company whose manager she knew -- the manager had gone through the same community-college program I had.
I landed that job. My new boss recommended I complete a bachelor's degree in management to help me advance in my career working with computers in the pharmaceutical industry. She told me about a 14-month program at Mount Olive College, which cost about $11,000 at the time. I enrolled and I was spending about $600 a month on tuition out of my paycheck without taking out any student loans. But I wasn't saving anything, and I was putting everything I wanted on my credit card. Only a few months from turning 26 and while working full time, I earned my bachelor's degree in May 1999.
That was the first graduation ceremony where I walked across the stage to get my diploma, and I was proud. My uncle was also there, and I think he was even more excited for me than I was.
In the end, I'd finally committed to college because I'd paid for it. Ironic, isn't it? I found I put so much more effort into the classes that I paid for myself than I ever put into the ones that were paid for. When my tuition was coming out of my pocket, I went to school every day, did my homework and graduated with a 4.0 GPA.
Today, college is a huge expense, and many parents wrestle with how much to give their kids to get there. Is my story a cautionary tale? I'm not sure. But it is amazing to me how much you focus when you pay for something yourself. Maybe that's not true for everyone, but for me, it was a big motivator.