I applied to colleges in the Northeast and ended up at RPI because, growing up, Getting Out of Here and Doing Something That Matters were my primary goals. I watched the world around me and was deadset on finding something different, something better.
When I was 14, I moved with my mother into a small, rusty trailer in the rural Virginia town of Moneta. Financially, things were tough; my mother worked a minimum-wage job sanding wood at a nearby factory, and they regularly laid workers off during slow times. All my mom brought with her from Texas was what she could carry onto a Greyhound bus, so we populated the trailer with stuff from yard sales, dumpster diving, and cast-offs from a nearby relative. We threw an old mattress on the floor, used a TracFone that was often out of minutes, and literally scraped change together at the end of the week for gas to put in the run-down old car that friendly church members gave us. Our food supply would dwindle as we waited for an upcoming paycheck, with ramen noodles and stale cake provided by the welfare office becoming important sources of nourishment.
After a while, the financial burden of living in that trailer became too much, and my mother was forced to choose between paying the rent or the electric bill. When she chose the former one too many times, we spent a January week wrapped in blankets, reading by flashlight, and eating whatever we had that didn’t need cooking or refrigeration. We eventually piled our belongings into the car and drove two-and-a-half hours northeast to a family friend’s house. I began to look forward, then, to “when [I got] rich”—as family members seemed to think was inevitable if I made A’s in school and spent my free time reading books—and would make enough money to live comfortably and help my mother do so as well.
The financial stress wasn’t all I wanted to get away from. Shortly after our move, my mother’s boyfriend, who happened to have a bit more melanin than she did, came to visit. They walked hand-in-hand through a hilly trail near the house. Some Klan-affiliated neighbor glimpsed them and called up the friends we were staying with, threatening to burn down the house if my mom’s romantic situation wasn’t rectified.
This came after watching Thomas, the gay tuba player in my school’s band, be mercilessly teased by peers, something he shrugged off fairly easily. But he whispered increasingly despairing comments to me in Latin class about how his fundamentalist Christian parents were trying desperately to fix his sexual orientation. The North, I thought, was a magical place where these things did not happen. In the North, everything was better.
Turns out I was oversimplifying things. Yes, people here are more liberal, more tolerant. But things seemed more diverse, more integrated, and more colorful when I spent Thanksgiving with my mom’s boyfriend’s family in their generations-old house, where they enlightened me to the existence of chitlins. Or when I walked down the streets and school hallways in Texas and heard Spanish as frequently as English. Here, I feel surrounded by people from middle-class suburbia; it feels overwhelmingly bland. RPI, like any university, likes to laud its diversity, but only 11 percent of my class is composed of underrepresented minorities. That may be a lot for an upstate New York engineering school, but to me it seems like a tiny, sad number.
It’s also been difficult to adjust to the attitude people here have toward money. My friends don’t seem to understand why I worry about unnecessary spending, or why I nearly have a panic attack when dealing with large expenses (even for important things, such as rent or textbooks). And I don’t understand how they throw their money around so unthinkingly, or how their RAD gets refilled continuously by affluent parents. It still feels like culture shock when I see people using their iPhones or Blackberries, or when I sit in meetings with administrators that drive Audis and Bentleys and talk about their vacation homes.
I’m slowly adjusting to this new culture, but I’m often surprised by the feeling that I’m losing more than I’m gaining. I think about the time I spent in Moneta, and I think about sitting in the backyard at sunrise with a book of e. e. cummings poetry and some blueberries. I think about going to the school library during lunch because I couldn’t afford a meal, and using the time to immerse myself in otherworldly concepts like Buddhism. I think about lying on our wooden porch at 3 am, staring up at the Milky Way and writing poetry about it later in a notebook rescued from someone’s garbage. I think of moving overnight with my mother, keeping awake with burnt gas station coffee, listening to badly tuned radio stations while getting lost and laughing at our misadventures.
And I miss the time when blueberries were considered an exquisite delicacy; I miss having time to read; I miss the sense of simplicity and wonder that accompanied everything. And I miss the sense of adventure that was inherent in trying to live with limited resources.
I came to RPI because I wanted an education, and because I wanted to do something that mattered to myself and my community. These days, I know a hell of a lot more about biochemical pathways. I love The Poly, and I think what we do matters to the RPI community. But my most important education took place before I came here, and it’s a perspective I’ve come to value immensely.
I’ve found that, far from being a luxury, fresh fruit is now something Michael Chu nabs from the dining hall and passes to me at 7 am, after closing The Poly. As I prepare for a busy day and peel the orange with inky fingers, I try to remember something I learned from Buddha* in the library in 10th grade: “As you walk and eat and travel, be where you are. Otherwise you will miss most of your life.”
*I have since discovered that this quote is not actually from Buddha, but it still sums up what I took from my high school library's Eastern Religion section
This article appeared as an Editor’s Corner in the May 12, 2010 issue of The Polytechnic.