A BA That Spans Four Years, Three Colleges, And Two Countries

by Kimberly Lew

For a few months my sophomore year of college, I was convinced I was being stalked by psychics. At the grocery store, a psychic tapped me on the shoulder in the checkout line and asked if I would be interested in a reading, since my aura told her I had “very exciting things” in my future. I politely declined, but the psychics kept coming, stopping me in public places with such frequency that I would joke that they had my picture up in their clubhouse with the promise that whoever got me to submit to a reading would win a pizza party.

I was stopped so often that I once got stopped twice in a row during the 2 minute walk from my car to my part-time retail job in the mall. “No thanks,” I said when I was asked the second time. “I just turned down your associate who also said there were a lot of exciting things in store for me a second ago.”

Though the whole thing was very unusual, a part of me hoped they were on to something. Maybe this sudden influx of psychic energy was leading towards an acceptance to transfer to NYU.

At the time, I was living in San Jose, attending San Jose State as a part of the National Student Exchange (NSE), a program that allows college students to attend another US university for a year. I was technically enrolled at the University of Georgia, one of two schools where the majority of my Georgia high school classmates ended up after graduation. I was a recipient of the HOPE scholarship, a program that rewards Georgia high school students with full tuition to any public Georgia university, so long as you have a B average or higher throughout your high school career.

Having moved to North Atlanta from my hometown in Hawaii, I wasn’t particularly looking to stay in Georgia for college, but to be honest, I was overwhelmed by the idea of college in general. All I knew my senior year was that I hated writing college essays and filling out paperwork and that I probably wouldn’t be able to afford the private, brand-name schools that rejected me anyway. Knowing that I could be getting free tuition at a good school where I already had a lot of friends, UGA seemed like the place to go while I figured the bigger questions out.

College life was fun but oftentimes stifling. Without a car, I was confined to the school’s Athens campus. I longed for a job or an internship, but it was hard to find anything outside of the university culture. I even took a Career Planning class, hoping to get a dose of real world experience, but the most I got out of that class were the philosophical questions my friend Liz and I asked ourselves when we hung out afterwards, while we also contemplated why our instructor seemed to hate our whole class so much.

I don’t know where I heard about the NSE, but the minute I did, I knew it represented an escape without the loss of my scholarship. I originally wanted to use it as an opportunity to return home to Hawaii, but (shockingly!) no one from Hawaii wanted to come to Georgia to study in my stead. I made a bid for a New York school, but I got the same response. Instead, I was offered my third choice of San Jose State, a school I had listed because my cousin went there, and found myself in California a few months later.

California offered a lot of the things I had been hoping for in my college experience. It had a diverse student body, a big city ripe for exploring, and the opportunity for me to gain work experience outside of my academic pursuits. I learned how to navigate my own way on unfamiliar streets. I learned how to plan my meals without a cafeteria. I learned the delicate dance of coworker relations, family complications, and forging new friendships in a new place. It was only a year, but I grew up a lot.

Not wanting to break up the momentum of my newfound independence, I decided I would attempt to do what I had wanted to do for the past couple of years: move to New York. As a writer who was also interested in working in publishing, New York seemed like the best fit, and the school that I was hoping would help best position me for my post-graduation career was NYU. I realized that going from having a full-tuition scholarship to paying over $40,000 a year would be a huge financial undertaking, but I was also emboldened by my California experience and promised myself if I was accepted, I would do anything in my power to go there.

But even the psychics’ insisting didn’t prepare me for the day I got my application response: an acceptance letter with a caveat — I was accepted as an NYU student only if I spent my first semester abroad.

This curve ball made an already-difficult decision all the more nerve-wracking. Not only did I have to worry about the expense of moving to New York and student loan debt of attending NYU, but I also had to deal with a semester of skyrocketing exchange rates, a summer of bureaucratic hell (I didn’t even have a passport at the time), and the notion that any college fund I had saved up would be depleted by the end of my junior year.

My parents didn’t think it was worth it. They insisted that the money I could save if I returned to Georgia for the next two years would be better spent moving up to New York after graduation. Neither of my parents took out loans to go to school, so the idea of being in debt scared them. My mother repeatedly pointed out the difficult road I was paving for myself by considering the transfer.

Going back and forth about whether or not to commit to NYU, my mind was actually made up one night at my uncle’s house. We were all sitting in front of the TV watching “Grey’s Anatomy,” specifically the episode where (spoiler alert!) Denny dies. As Izzie descended the elevator dressed in a poofy prom dress, not knowing that her beloved was already deceased downstairs, my uncle turned to me and said, “See, you can learn from this.”

“What?” I joked. “That you shouldn’t spend too much time getting ready for the hospital prom or your finace might die?”

“No,” he said simply. “That you have to seize opportunities, because you never know how long they will last.”

Four months later, I found myself in London without so much as a guidebook on my person. By the time I left, I had a network of friends and lots of memories to call my own. A month after that, I found myself in New York. A few days after that, I found myself a job at Barnes and Noble. A few months later, I found myself two internships at publishers in the city. A year after that, I found myself a full-time job, just in time for graduation. Since then, I’ve also found myself in debt, unemployed, and, at one particularly unflattering low point, scarfing a McRib on my half-hour break in a 15 hour work day, between my day job and part-time job.

I’ve also found myself.

My mom has asked me, on a few occasions, whether or not I felt my atypical college experience was worth it, and it’s hard to say. I’ve struggled a lot since graduation, and I don’t know if the road could have been easier had I taken a different path. There have been many instances where interviewers for jobs have bonded with me over NYU experiences, but there have also been many times I have clocked in 7-day work weeks and wondered why I was still living paycheck-to-paycheck. What I do know is that, as complicated as this story is to tell when casually asked what college I went to, I learned just as much outside of the classroom as I did inside. I learned how to think on my feet, how to rely on myself when I had no one, and how to live with the consequences of the life I’ve chosen.

More than anything, I’ve learned that in times of uncertainty, I have the strength to pack my bags and move on to the next adventure. I took advantage of the opportunities that were given to me, and I also took risks to try to create new ones. In that sense, the psychics will always be right. There are exciting things in my future, so long as that’s what I choose to make of it.

This story is part of our College Month series.

Kimberly Lew is the proud writer of plays, blogs, and the monthly check when the rent is due. Check her out at www.kimberlylew.com.

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