I will never forget our trips to Carl’s Jr. Mom, Dad, my three brothers, and I would cram into our faded red 1980s minivan and drive to the timeless fast-food joint on Avenue J and Sierra Highway in Lancaster, Calif. We rarely used the drive-thru; these trips served as an escape from our mundane life and a reprieve from our un-air-conditioned home. In the summer of 2009, they served as a family getaway from the motel room we lived in.
On my birthdays, I knew exactly what to order: the Double Western Bacon Cheeseburger. Colossal and filling, it never failed to please my skinny body. But on all other visits, the decision of what to order became challenging. There were two $1 items on the menu: the Spicy Chicken Sandwich and the Big Hamburger. My brothers and I almost always ordered the chicken, but one day, I felt adventurous.
“What would you like today?” asked the cashier. “Does the Big Hamburger come with cheese?” I asked. “No, but you can add it for 49 cents,” she responded. I momentarily froze, debating my choice — as if I had one. “Don’t be stupid, kid. You know they can’t afford that,” said my oldest brother, not even batting an eye toward my parents, who could barely understand our English conversations. “No cheese, please,” I said.
A similar narrative transpired when my parents bought our clothes, school supplies, and groceries. By the age of 8, I had learned never to ask for more. The economic scarcity I grew up with — love, I am glad to say, was in abundance — imprinted me in ways I am just now beginning to untangle.
Not asking — for the sake of not imposing a burden on my parents or, later in my life, on anyone else — became a habit of mine. I used to think that by not asking — for help, for the thing I really wanted, for the chance to do something — I was making myself more independent, resilient, and diligent.
I see things differently now.
On a sunny 75-degree day in Los Angeles eight years ago, my parents helped me move into the New North Residential College dorm at the University of Southern California. After lugging items up and down the stairs, I hugged my parents — my mother for what may have been a complete two minutes as she blessed me and cried on my shoulder. Immigrants from war-torn Central American countries, my parents had never completed grade school. I was the first person in my family to attend college.
My excitement over this milestone for my entire family turned into anxiety during the second week of school. I felt lost, uncertain of how to study or choose a major I imagined would determine my future. I could ask my classmates or professors for advice, I told myself, but they must be overwhelmed with their own workload. I could not add to their burden. I told myself that I was not worth their time. Instead, I studied the old-fashioned way, reading textbooks front to back.
This strategy — handling problems on my own to avoid asking for help — only created more anxiety and deprived me of valuable social connections. I felt isolated and doubted whether I even belonged in college. I seriously considered dropping out, though I never told a soul. No one has time for emotional pleas, I reminded myself as I thought back to a childhood of silently accepting eviction and foreclosure notices. It was all about survival. And would my friends even understand what it’s like to debate choosing a major based on post-college earning potential so that I could financially support my family? I could not add to their burden. I was not worth their time.
People like me who grew up poor often learn not to ask for more than they receive. It’s a visceral restraint, and it’s not always easy to explain to someone who grew up never having to ask whether or not their family could afford the cheese on the fast-food burger. If they wanted the cheese, they got it.
My instinctive reluctance to ask changed when I started medical school and the value of asking became more apparent. During my clinical year, another medical student and I did our hospital rounds with the medicine team at 7 o’clock every morning. When we rounded on patients not under our direct care, the junior doctors took the lead. I stood quiet, observing, grateful to be in the same room as these physicians and patients who allowed me to hear their stories, to be part of their lives.
“Can I listen to your heart?” the other medical student asked one morning. “Yes, of course,” the patient responded. Glancing over at me, the patient said, “Do you want to listen, too?” I grabbed the stethoscope off my shoulders and carefully placed the diaphragm over her heart. “Lub-dub, lub-dub,” I heard, before thanking the patient for her time. As the doctors finished her physical exam, I could not fathom how many hearts I had failed to auscultate simply because I did not ask. How many learning opportunities had I missed? Maybe asking did not always impose a burden on people, I thought. Maybe asking was for the better.
I noticed that most of my classmates spoke up to ask for things — an experience, a clarification, even emotional support. Asking began to feel less like a transgression, perhaps because in the privileged environment in which I now operated, it was commonplace.
With a push from my friends over the last year, I’ve discovered the secret power that simply asking bestows. For me, it has meant more financial support from my graduate school — previously, I didn’t think I could speak up and say that I needed more money in order to make ends meet. It has also meant an upgraded apartment — I was living in a room with little common space and no kitchen, but I felt grateful to have a roof over my head. After I spoke with our building’s administrator, she happily offered me an apartment I still wonder if I deserve. My friendships and romantic relationships have gotten stronger, too; I realize that I can’t expect someone close to me to meet me where I am if I don’t ask them to join me there. And last January, in what I considered my boldest ask yet, I emailed a health policy expert about a coveted internship role. About five days after our Zoom call, I was officially a member of her team. Asking, I realized, can be beneficial to both parties.
As students from low-income and relatively unprivileged backgrounds begin a new school year, I hope they discover the power of asking. And I hope the friends, advisers, teachers, and family members in their midst help them to do so. One nudge may change their lives. Go on, I hope you will tell them. Ask for more. Ask your friends for help when you need emotional support. Ask your professor for guidance when you don’t understand the material.
And ask yourself, as I do almost daily, what took you so long.
David Velasquez is a student of medicine, public policy, and business at Harvard University.