March college admissions bring April deliberations. College decision letters can bring on the roller coaster of emotions from tears to cheers. As I watched my child settle down to weigh her acceptances, I recall my own process (back when electric typewriters were hot) and the brave financial considerations my parents had undertaken to make college possible for me.
“We do not have enough scholarship; we have six more children at home,’’ my father said slowly to the financial aid officer. My youngest brother, not yet 5 and missing a front tooth, sat teetering on Mom’s lap, his shirt tucked in neatly. I was mortified, but made no sound. I just stood stone quiet next to them, facing a university official behind the desk nodding to my father.
That was more than three decades ago, April 1980, to be exact. My father and mother drove me six hours in our gi-normous boat called an Oldsmobile station wagon from Tulsa, Okla., to St. Louis, Mo., to visit the schools that offered me scholarships: St. Louis University and Washington University.
Had my parents told me they were going to bargain (their word) or beg (my word) for more financial aid, I would have pretended serious menstrual cramps or food poisoning that day so I would not have to go. Almost anything parents do seems to embarrass their teenagers. Imagine your parents asking for more money, for your sake, in front of you. Ugh.
My parents are staunch Catholics, so I knew already that the Catholic-affiliated St. Louis University was their first choice. But one look at those non-air-conditioned dorm rooms and my father announced with incredulity, “Khi nong lam sao hoc duoc?’’ (“How can you study when it gets hot?’’)
At home, we eight children did homework in the 10-foot-by-12-foot dining room with a window air-conditioner that kept us from broiling in the Oklahoma heat. We didn’t have spare utility money except for air-conditioning in that one room to study. Study was king in our house. We got away with doing almost no chores, if we studied. Except church, of course. But wait, Washington University had mostly co-ed dorms! Ah, but air-conditioning trumped the danger of the opposite sex in my parents’ calculations.
The image seared in my memory is that of a short meeting at which my parents advocated for me in accented English. Years later, I wondered how they managed to make arrangements to accomplish that. Who took care of the other six at home? We did not stay overnight, so they must have driven 12 hours for that meeting and visiting two schools. My mom must have packed her rice, chicken, and oranges, since we wouldn’t have had money to stop for highway fast food. How did my youngest preschool brother deal with long car rides and meaningless wanderings through two college visits? He did grow up to be a masterful negotiator.
Did my parents make an appointment ahead of time, or did they just show up unannounced at the financial aid office? In Vietnam, my parents rarely traveled together during the war, for fear that both would perish, leaving us orphans. Yet, having been settled in America for fewer than five years with their eight children, they drove together, one with a plan and one with charm, to find affordable higher education.
Tulsa University also gave me a scholarship, but my parents ignored their friends’ advice about not allowing one’s child to wander into that vast Americana of temptations away from our heritage, especially for a girl. How grateful I am that my parents have some egalitarian views on gender. They decided for me that I should go to the highest-ranking school that gave the most financial aid. Their willingness to let their oldest, third in responsibility in the family, study far from home must have taken a major leap of faith.
I would go on to graduate with a bachelor’s in biology from Washington University and work in a molecular biology lab for five years before I discovered the love of teaching, an occupation much more aligned with my firm belief that education is a major force for change. My husband and I moved to Milton before the first of my three children began school so that we could enroll them in the French immersion program.
Like my first child, my second one has just been accepted to Washington University, whose reputation has soared toward the top 10. For me, it is still the Midwest school that had responded to my parents’ plea and offered me, practically, full tuition. I worked in a biology lab and the residential halls for room and board.
I did wander away from my Vietnamese roots, in terms of marriage. At the end of my sophomore year, I met my future husband. We are celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary this spring, as another Washington University class graduates to make room for the likes of my second child. If she decides to attend, maybe I should get my parents to go visit the financial aid office.