Wednesday, May 11, 2011
A little too close to home
Today I was allowed to sit in on some student financial counseling, with the intention that next week I will myself counsel students whose accounts are in arrears. I was looking forward to getting such direct student contact. The student services administrator I was shadowing went over the three cases we would handle, what kinds of questions she would ask, and what she anticipated would be the outcomes. The first student was well off enough, and was able to pay his fees after all. And the last student was just an issue of timing, but not of need. So those were straightforward cases.
But the woman in the middle was not so simple and clear-cut. She was 15 minutes early for the appointment. Her eyes were so sad. Her husband back in Nigeria had cut off her financial support as their marriage was crumbling. Now, she was here in a foreign country without means. She had scraped up what she could and had received a small amount of hardship aid. She had spoken with family members, and with the community leader who had arranged her marriage. But even if these people came through with the promised help, it would probably not be enough to satisfy her school bill.
She tried so hard to remain composed and with her head held high. But one by one large tears formed and slowly trickled down her cheeks.
I could barely stand it, being on the side of the desk saying 'You must pay this debt' but understanding the position way too well of being the one who is trying to remain strong in the face of rough odds or devastating news. I thought of a family member, who has been in the position of that student. I thought of several friends who have been in that position. They trusted someone to be there for them, and found themselves out in the cold, on their own, left to fend. And I witnessed this woman, at that place in her life, trying desperately to create alternatives out of ashes.
I didn't want to be there. I wished I could have given her a hug, cried alongside her, and offered some kind of assurance that 'it will be alright.' But I needed to be the professional in the situation, and besides, I know better. It might not be alright. She might return to Nigeria without her degree, without a husband, and without options.
So what did I learn today? I learned how incredibly difficult it can be to leave your own junk out of the room; to remain compassionate and empathetic while upholding the realities of rules and regulations; and to look injustice squarely in its tear-filled eyes.