First of all, let me posit, that our society gives those with wealth a definite advantage over those without. This isn’t news to anyone, but let me give an example that you may not have thought of. To break free of a background in poverty, one path is that of achieving a higher education. Getting a degree is an expensive proposition in time, labor, and effort. Yet, many, like myself willingly choose this path out of the cycle of poverty. And now, I move into my example of how the wealthy are favored: those who have their education paid for by parents or others, do not have to deal with the complexities of financial aid. It is only those of us who are poor that are forced to deal with the entrenched bureaucracy, paperwork, and jumping through hoops that is required in order to get loans, scholarships, and grants.
I have been poor for all of my life. As a child in Oregon, I was a recipient of free lunches and a staple of my family’s diet at home was the government subsidized cheese, powdered milk, and peanut butter. As an adult, I have worked in minimum wage service industry jobs that allow me to pay the rent and make just enough income to live at or slightly above the national poverty line. I escaped from the backwater town my parents lived in by joining the Marine Corps right out of high school. In 1996-1998, I used my G.I. Bill to get an Associates Degree. A few years later, I realized that a two year degree gave me scant advantage over a high school diploma. I was still working in service industry jobs. At this point, I decided that the best course to follow was to embark upon achieving a Bachelors Degree and so I gave up my full time job in order to become a full time student at the University of Hawaii.
In order to pay for school, focus on my studies, and manage to pay living expenses, I needed financial aid. In order to get financial aid, I had to provide a slew of tax forms, documentation, proof of residency, and more. Applying for school was easy, getting accepted was easy, getting financial aid was time consuming and difficult. When I provided all of the documentation, I was told that it was a random process and it was unlikely that I would need to provide so much information again. Apparently, the odds have been against me as I have had to provide the same information every semester without fail. Tax returns, documentation of veteran’s benefits, and further proof that I am who I say I am.
This process has been, without question, the most stressful part of achieving my dream of a higher education. It has taken more coordination, more running in circles, and more angst than writing my B.A. Honors Thesis. It’s the money, you see. Without the money, I remain an uneducated guy suited to work in the service industry, regardless of what I have learned or what I know.
With this, hopefully my final semester, I knew there would be challenges and trials, but I thought that I had figured out how to give financial aid everything they needed. Imagine my surprise when the semester began and I was told by Financial Aid that my aid money had been reduced by nearly $5000 because they had determined I was receiving benefits from the G.I. Bill. Especially, considering that not only was I not receiving benefits, but that my benefits had already expired and couldn’t be used!
This was especially traumatic as I had counted on the aid money to pay rent. Without it, I would be homeless. So, I jumped through the hoops they required by going to the V.A., a bureaucracy that is noted for it’s glacial pace, and managing to get them to certify that I was not receiving the G.I. Bill. When I returned to the aid office, the surly counselor looked at my paperwork and told me that even though I had rushed to solve the problem, it would still be a month before they could process it and correct the error. So, I sold my tools, I sold my books, I sold my movie camera, and I did yard work for my neighbors so that I could pay that months rent. All of this while I was still taking three writing intensive courses and two more upper division classes. Oh, and I was working as a tour guide whenever I wasn’t mowing, selling, or writing.
Thankfully though, I didn’t have to move out of my apartment, and after a month, Financial Aid resolved the issue. The surly counselor didn’t apologize, instead he said “It’s not our fault.” Of course, they might have seen that I had never received the GI Bill at UH and confirmed with the VA, but why would they do that, after all, I need them, they don’t need me.
I thought that was it until I got a letter on Halloween that said an audit of my account had shown I had been overpaid and that if I wanted to graduate I needed to pay $1500. This was $1500 that had already been allotted to rent for November and December. The alternative to paying it back was to not be allowed to graduate.
I called the Financial Aid office to determine what had happened and the girl on the other end who I later found out was on her last day there, was hostile and uncooperative as I tried to explain that they had misplaced the paperwork when she told me I was receiving VA benefits. She put me on hold for fifteen minutes, told me the corrected form I had turned in was not there, and told me that I would need to go back to the VA to get another copy of the form, or pay $1500, or not graduate. I lost my temper but managed not to cuss at her.
Come Monday morning, I decided to go to the Financial Aid office to resolve the issue and make sure that getting the VA form would solve the issue. The student worker was friendly but solving the problem was beyond her authority level. She asked me to sit, she explained that the problem was the Scholarship I had been awarded that they hadn’t known about (when I knew that they had), and finally told me to sit and wait for a Counselor. At this point, I had had enough. I refused. I told her and the people who had formed in a line behind me that I refused to leave until the problem was resolved to my satisfaction. She asked me to sit and wait and again I refused. I apologized to the people behind me, but the time had come for action. The time had come for non-violent civil disobedience and I had decided that the only way I would leave was if the problem was resolved or if the police came to take me out of the building. I called my friend Taylor, the Editor in Chief at Ka Leo, and told him I was staging a one man protest at financial aid and that he should send a reporter. I refused to move. I stood there, wearing my Ralph Nader t-shirt and told the student worker that I was sorry, but that I would not budge.
At this point she went in the back and interrupted the meeting of Counselors. The first truly competent person I had been allowed to speak with, Ku’u, came out and pulled up my file. She immediately found the updated VA benefits form, saw clearly what the problem was, told me that the girl I had spoken with on Friday no longer worked there, and amazingly, she fixed the problem. It took her only a few minutes.
And that brings me to how I started this story. The amount of stress that this situation caused me from Friday to Monday was incredible. I saw ahead of me a future where I had earned a degree and didn’t get it or where I screwed up my final semester because I was homeless. I saw three years of work going down the drain and I saw that all of it was a result of me needing to get financial aid rather than having my education paid for by someone else. It’s something I hadn’t really considered before. Maybe as you read this, you think it is trivial, but I can tell you that it’s not. The extra hurdles that the poor have to face in our society to achieve an education, to break free of the cycles of poverty, or to do any of countless other necessities are not easily leapt. Our society is designed, however subtly, to keep the poor in poverty. Whether it is through the people they know, the education they get, or the work they are able to find.
Take a moment with me and consider what the results would have been if I had not stood up this morning, if I had listened to the petty bureaucrats telling me what I needed to do, or if I had simply given up. Is it any wonder that sometimes people simply split at the seams, explode, commit suicide, or worse? I don’t have the answers to our societies problems, but I do know this, if we don’t take a stand, nothing will change. A simple stand, like refusing to leave or sit down, not moving to the back of the bus, or refusing to fight in an unjust war makes the difference. I know that my stand is of seemingly marginal importance to the world, but imagine if everyone took the same respectful, non-violent, and non-compromising position when faced with even the most trivial of unjust situations. Please, think about it and the next time you are in one of those situations, refuse to bend. Thank you.