July 16, 2016

How I Became Independent at 18

The following is a story about my dad’s iron fist and how he guided me to complete independence at a tender age of 18 and what I did about it.

“When you turn 18, you’re on your own.”

“When you turn 18, you’re on your own,” my dad had told me time and time again ever since I was old enough to begin worrying about college.

He told me that he would only cover my school tuition. (I’m plenty privileged to have parents willing to cover my college tuition. I realize that many people do not have this privilege.) I was 14 when he told me that for the first time. And like any other 14-year-old teen, I brushed it aside and comforted myself that I would be fine and worry about it when the time came. When I turned 18 and went to college, he kept his word about only paying for my tuition. From that point onward, I was on my own.

This “on your own” thing meant that I had to find housing, food on my own and finance it on my own. I had nobody else to rely on but my friends at times. Either I would find a mean of making money, or I would starve.

Spring Break

The first challenge for me came during spring break. My school was about to close within a few days for a week-long of spring break and I had no clue on where I would stay and how I would be able to eat. When I had called my dad and asked for advice, he told me that it was my own responsibility, and not his. I was so angry and in despair at the time that I outright hung up on him. I was 18 at the time and that was when I finally realized the reality of having to survive on my own.

“How the hell was I supposed to find housing and food in a few days?”, I thought, trying to stop myself from punching a wall.

My friends all had places to go, with their parents to finance them. Most of the friends I made in college would go home since they were in-state. My international friends would from high school would either travel stayed in the US or also go home. Others stayed in their college dorms, which wasn’t an option for me because UMass Amherst closes down over breaks. The feeling I had when I realized I was all alone in this is something I will never forget.

First, I had to put together a plan. I weighed the options. I looked at Airbnb rentals, I looked at houses and apartments around the area on Facebook and Craigslist, I weighed the option of living at a relative’s or family friend’s place. Each of these options would require me to work to pay off the living expenses and find a way to buy groceries without a car. Living at a friend’s relatives place or family friends for free would be ignoble. I would have to work for them or find work elsewhere and pay them for the rent. But, I had no car so I would have to find other means of transportation to commute to and from work. In the end, an idea struck me and that was to see if any of my friends’ colleges didn’t close over the break and if I could stay with them. Luckily, one of my friends who was attending Berklee College of Music in Boston had space for me in his dorm. I am indebted to him for providing a place for me to stay for the week. Without him, I don’t know what I would have done.

Summer: The Real Struggle

If that experience wasn’t bearing enough, the real challenge was when summertime came around the corner. This time I didn’t need to find a place to live for one week. I had to find somewhere to stay for four months! This meant finding housing, a job, and a method of feeding myself. Those were the only three things on my mind. Being able to see my friends? That thought wasn’t even in my head at the time. With some advice from my parents, I came up with three primary plans.

  1. Get an internship and move to wherever my internship was.
  2. Ask a family friend or relative if I could stay with them and find a job nearby to pay the rent.
  3. Take summer classes and find housing through my university.

These seemed like plausible plans. But when I took a closer look, I discovered many issues. How would I commute to work without a car? Where would I find a job? How would I pay for my university housing in advance? As I worried about these question night after night, one day, something magical happened.

My computer science professor for the spring semester was hiring an intern to help him out with a personal hardware business and he picked me for the job. I replied to his e-mail soon after he sent out his job offer to the class. and I sent him my qualifications. It was only after I met with him that he said that I would also be able to stay in a guest room in his house because I had nowhere else to go. Being independent meant that I wasn’t bounded to any place. I could live wherever I wanted. This gave me an advantage over other candidates who could not live in Amherst or had to commute. The fact that I wasn’t bounded to any single location has become an advantage in my career time and time again.

It turns out that it wasn’t being the top of my class that got me the job. It was the simple fact that my professor recognized me by name because I had attended his office hours more often than other students. I wasn’t the one of the top seven in the class who received an A+ in the class and received citations because of that. I wasn’t even in the top 53 in the class who received As. I was only a student who attended more office hours and made an attempt to talk to my professor after and out of the classroom and answer and ask questions in class. I always sat in the middle of the 2nd row and was always one of the first students there. Though I wasn’t the smartest, I had the diligence and trusted myself that I would always do the right thing. My professor picked me for the sole fact that I was the only name that he recognized out of all the e-mails he received.

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.” – Steve Jobs

In retrospect, if I attempted to get a higher grade by relying only on myself and skipping the office hours, or if I had sat in class and scrolled through Facebook, I wouldn’t be where I am right now. Each choice that I made was a dot and now that I am working with my professor day-after-day, I can say, once again, that my choices have not let me down.

Note

I am in no way promoting trading self-studying for office hours or saying that grades are not important. All I am saying is to make the best of your situation and to trust in your choices. Additionally, office hours and sitting at the front of a class are both easy and great opportunities to get to know your professors.

Final Thoughts

It’s hard to teach one independence and responsibility. Experience is the best teacher. My parents trusted their judgment to let me survive on my own, and for that, I am grateful beyond words.

© Wesley Tian 2019

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