60 years ago, my grandmother had to drop out of school in fourth grade to work the field and take care of the family while her sister, my buni, walked dozens of kilometers every Monday through Friday by herself just to get to class. Then, when my mom decided there was life after sun burning on the field, in the midst of communism, she fled the countryside to attend one of the greatest high schools in the nearest city — Galati. 10 years later, I was born. And add almost another 10 years, I am currently writing this from the barely lit dorms of the greatest women’s college in the world. This is not an article of pity.
I have a strong Moldavian accent which sometimes creeps in when I tell stories about my life back home to all of the American folks surrounding me. They sometimes gasp in awe or utter surprise when I speak of all the freedom we had as teenagers, the misdeeds we purposefully carried with us, the continuous struggles of this underdeveloped city which had nothing to offer us but a push. A push to get out.
So I did. I had to commute to the capital every week for two months to prepare for the SATs, as there was not a single instructor in my town. Nobody knew what American universities demanded or how you were supposed to fulfill their requirements. Granted, my sister was already in her sophomore year at Macalester College trying to sync her time zone with mine when I was showing her different versions of my college essay. “Scratch that, they won’t understand what we’ve been through,” she said, or “It will sound like a lie.” I kept sending my essays to anyone willing to lend their eyes for fifteen minutes and tell me what is wrong, while learning SAT vocabulary until midnight. I had to skip my first month of senior year to make sure at least one university accepted me. Both of my parents were breathing down my neck, saying that I needed to secure my future. “What are you going to do here, Julia, hm? Romania is a black hole. It is done. You need to leave.”
After three months of unbearable pressure from everyone around me to make it, Wellesley e-mailed me with my acceptance letter and a 96 percent scholarship. At that time, I believed it was only natural to be offered such an immense sum of money as my parents could barely even cover the transportation. Every so often, I could hear my father chuckle to himself in his office: “We don’t even make that much in years. Oh my God, she made it.”
When I finally got to Wellesley, my place here started taking shape. I was told by some professors that I am somehow taking up a domestic student’s place with this scholarship, as Wellesley has not given such a sum to an international student in years. I understand there is only one Romanian accounting for the diversity statistics every academic year. There are no particular organizations holding their arms wide open for me, a south-eastern European immigrant who just wanted to get out. Again, I am not demanding pity.
I cried myself to sleep for countless nights during my first semester, hiding from my family back home the struggles I had as a first-generation, low-income student who was facing serious depression. I sunk into deeper hole when my fellow students ignorantly reacted to my country of origin on a daily basis, by constantly inquiring if I speak Russian, or know many gypsies back home, or even if I am from “Romania-Romania.”
Then I realized my purpose.
Pity was for the silly girl who boarded a plane to Boston thinking “this is it.” I was never groomed to understand the struggles of American college and how to deal with them, but then again, I was never taught how to get into one either.
The women behind me did not break their backs to prove themselves just so I could weep in my dorm, in a far-reaching corner of the world. The women behind me did not raise me on pity, but a strong value: that you can make it through the worst of times, because you are Romanian. Because it is in my blood to keep pushing.
This is not an article demanding pity.