Lessons learned from a ‘nontraditional’ nontraditional student

Jack M., Contributor

Editor’s note: This column was submitted by a member of the UT community whose last name has been withheld to maintain anonymity.  

Growing up in a suburban, middle-class neighborhood, I never imagined I would experience homelessness. 

As a kid, my dream had always been to become a touring musician. I loved music, and my guitar was my best friend for most of my childhood and adolescent years. I dedicatedly took lessons every week and joined bands playing around my area to gain experience and improve my skill set. When I was accepted into a prestigious jazz program, it was a natural next step for me. While there, however, I grew disillusioned with the program and became concerned about what my future would look like. After my first year, I left. 

As a self-assured 19-year-old, I was confident in my abilities and certain I could create opportunities for myself. Rather than returning home to my family, I chose to stay with my uncle, but I soon realized the volatility of our living situation would be a major problem. I found myself, along with my uncle, in a situation of “sheltered homelessness,” living out of seedy motel rooms and working minimum wage jobs to keep ourselves afloat. I was too ashamed to tell any friends or family, and I convinced myself that the situation was temporary.

One reality I’ve come to learn about life, however, is you never realize just how long hardships will last or have the foresight to know how to deal with them. What I was convinced would be a temporary situation lasted nearly 18 months. 

Money saved would soon be money spent when a car would break down or need replacement parts. Weeks or months of work felt squandered and meaningless. Additionally, apartments typically required first and last month’s rent, as well as a security deposit, current residence and proof of income. We both were making $7.25 hourly; just keeping a roof over our heads made it nearly impossible to grow savings on such a low wage. How could we show proof of residence when our living situation was subject to change so frequently? By the end, I had all but abandoned my musical aspirations and focused solely on getting out of this dire position we were in.

But as time passed, our circumstances also changed. Eventually I found myself in jobs that would provide me the ability to start growing a savings and better address the situation. In 2019, I returned to community college and, with the help of federal financial aid, was able to seriously consider transferring into a four-year university. Just three years prior, I felt as though my life was going to be forever stuck in a cycle of low paying jobs with no way out. The feeling of being accepted into a prestigious school like UT is impossible to put into words. 

While I’ve certainly made mistakes along the way, my experiences have taught me — above all else — resilience and gratitude. If you’re 19 or 20 years old and this is your first time living on your own, you may not really understand what the world outside of this University is really like. The reality is that many are just trying to get by. Going through this experience and coming out the other side has shown me how unforgiving “the real world” can be. The appreciation for things that one might take for granted, like owning furniture or having a home address to receive mail, serve as reminders for me of where I am and how far I have come. 

Lastly, my experiences have taught me to cherish the opportunity I’ve had to learn at UT. In my journey, I’ve met so many people who are just as smart as any student here, but coming to UT will likely never be an option for them. This is a world class institution with professors who are leading in their field. Having the opportunity to learn from the people here is one that I’m forever grateful for. Take advantage of your time here. Go to your classes, join organizations and engage in all the experiences that you can. It’s such a cliché, but studying here is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Cherish it while you can!