Sacramento, CA — When I entered my senior year of high school, I was set on becoming financially independent by the time I started college. Growing up, I watched my father get up to work before sunrise and my mother come home from work late into the night. Even though our family went through immense financial strain during our move from Vietnam to America, my parents ensured that I never noticed a lack of anything. As I approached the age 18, I wanted to take on more responsibilities and provide for myself so my parents would not have to. Going to college would give me the perfect opportunity to make this transition.
After months of writing college and scholarship essays, picking up jobs anywhere I could, and saving on a tight budget, I achieved my goal. I was able to pay the entire cost of attending the University of Notre Dame on my own. Here’s how I did it:
Getting into College
The first step was getting into a college. Without financial aid, there would have been no way I could even dream of being financially independent. Based on my family’s income, I knew the most strategic way of approaching college applications would be to apply to private schools that are able to offer more aid. I only considered schools that guaranteed they would meet 100% of financial needs. While in high school, I focused on my grades and extracurriculars instead of on working part time jobs because I knew building a strong college application would benefit me more in the long run.
Applying to Scholarships
After getting into Notre Dame with a big financial aid offer, I still feverishly applied to every scholarship I qualified for. You will never again have as many scholarship opportunities open to you as you do your senior year of high school, so I wanted to capitalize on this time. After getting what seemed like an endless stream of rejection emails my first semester of senior year, I realized the most strategic approach would be to apply to smaller scholarships — such as ones sponsored by my neighborhood association or local teacher’s union — that offered less money. There was less competition and after winning a couple, they started adding up.
The total cost of Notre Dame including my tuition, a meal plan, and room and board is a staggering $75,147. However, because Notre Dame gave me $72,596 in aid and my scholarships totaled $2500, my cost going into my freshman year is $51.
Building a Resume While Working
Once I ensured my cost of college was covered, I set my focus on making extra money to spend while in college and to put away into savings. While my primary goal was to find work to make money immediately, I also considered how to set myself up in the long term. I wanted to build my resume, gain experience, and make connections. Before I took a job at a local restaurant or retail store — the typical occupations for high schoolers — I looked into positions in careers I was interested in. That is how I got my first job at Access Local TV in Sacramento as a news correspondent in their youth media program and I could not believe my luck. I was still getting paid minimum wage — can’t expect much better as a seventeen year old — but I was exploring one of my passions.
Of course, finding work that you enjoy is very common advice; however, many high school students believe that getting paid for exploring passions is something they are only allowed to do later in life. Everyone has to start somewhere; why not now? The benefits are unbelievable. Not only was I breaking into the field and getting familiar with news and video production, I was networking. The connections I made landed me a second job as a production assistant on a documentary and I even got paid above minimum wage.
Finding Work Where You Can
However, I cannot deny that finding these jobs required some luck. There just might not be any positions available and if that is the case, restaurants and retail are great options. Since I had much more time in the summer, I started working at a local ice cream shop as well. I also started tutoring on the side and writing freelance — hence this article. Having multiple sources of income fought off the boredom that often comes with working too many hours.
Once I got a flow of money coming in, I had to make sure I would not spend it all. I put away 80% of my income into savings and used the rest on personal expenses. I was vigilant about overspending. I found that once I started buying with my own money instead of my parent’s, I became much more thoughtful about my purchases. I was able to truly appreciate the value of items because I knew exactly how much work went into making the money to buy them.
As I start college this week, I am reflecting on how privileged I am to be in this position. I am so grateful to be getting a good education without taking out loans or stressing about paying the costs. While getting here required a lot of work on my part, it would not have been possible if I did not have the support of my family. I am now just excited to give back to them.