In grade ten, I was friends with two boys who, for the purposes of this essay, I will call Roy and Kamran. Every so often, they would make an offensive comment about our teacher or our classmates that would give me pause. They particularly liked racial stereotypes. I tried to ignore their little comments and crass sense of humour. I had a small crush on Kamran, so this was easy to do.
Roy once complained about not being able to understand a math concept.
“I can help,” I offered, eager to please. I understood the material pretty well by that point.
“You?” Kamran asked. He looked at Roy and laughed. I stared back blankly; I didn’t get the joke.
“Black people don’t know anything about math,” Roy explained. “If I wanted help, I’d ask an Asian.”
My world crumpled like newspaper. I asked the teacher to go to the washroom, where I eyed myself in the mirror. I was humiliated. They had stripped away everything that made me special, reducing me to just some black girl.
My face hardened. I never wanted my intelligence questioned again. From that moment on, I decided I would work so hard that my capabilities would be unmistakable.
I had always worked hard, driven by a love of learning. Now, I had something to prove.
When I was sixteen, my family took a road trip to Boston, Massachusetts. It rained for the entire week, which seemed to wash out all the colour of the city, reducing it to grey monochrome. Somehow, my parents were still full of energy—they loved exploring new places and impromptu road trips.
We toured an old naval ship, the USS Constitution. I was bored all throughout and dragged my feet, tightening the strings of my hood to protect my hair from the rain and damp.
Later we toured the Harvard University campus. This part of the trip piqued my interest immediately. The best students in the world went there, I had heard. These students probably never had their intelligence called into question, like I had in math class. Why would they?
We toured the red-brick grounds and green, pristine lawns: Cambridge Common, Harvard Yard, and Harvard Square.
I caught a glimpse of myself in one of the windows of the buildings and did a double-take. My pink hood was tightened around my head, making me look bald, and the face that looked back at me was pimply and acne-scarred. My skin seemed pale from the overcast clouds. I took stock: flat chest, clunky running shoes, jeans. Like most teenagers, I didn’t find myself beautiful. In fact, I thought myself grotesque in the window’s reflection, the lovely Harvard grounds splayed out behind me like a joke.
But you didn’t need to be beautiful to go to Harvard. You needed to be smart.
“I’m going to go here,” I told my parents. I bought a Harvard shirt and decided I would wear it once admitted.
“We’ll be proud of you wherever you go,” they said. I am blessed with parents whose only requirement was that I try my best. The rest was up to me.
But I wouldn’t be proud of me, I thought. I had begun to set the bar high, and when I reached the bar, I would simply nudge it higher; a cruel game I played only with myself.
When at last it came time to apply to university in December of my grade twelve year, I broached the subject of Ivy league schools to my parents. They dodged the topic, until finally they recommended that I apply local.
I lashed out. “Why? You don’t think I can get in?”
“We think you can get in,” they assured me. “We just can’t afford to send you.”
Again, I was holding myself, and now everyone around me, to an impossibly high standard. I balled up the Harvard T-shirt and shoved it to the bottom of my drawer, ashamed.
I raised my concerns to a family friend, Mr. Hall, a former university professor. “Marisa,” he said in his booming baritone. “Everyone needs a bachelor’s degree, so go somewhere you can afford. For your master’s you can go anywhere.”
I liked the idea and decided to hold him to it.
I attended Western University in London, ON, and spent my third year abroad in France. While there, I visited a friend in Paris. She was wrapping up a master’s degree at Sciences Po, a school in France renowned for its instruction in political science and the humanities.
I was happy to visit. Her residence—the Cité Universitaire de Paris—was beautiful, with sprawling, manicured gardens and stately limestone buildings, or “houses.” The Canadian house, the Italian house, the Belgian house, and so on.
I, myself, lived in a similar Cité Universitaire in France, but in the south, in a little city called Aix-en-Provence, just outside of Marseille. I was studying French with the intention of mastering it, although at the time I had no idea what I would do with the language. I figured I would carry it around in my pockets like loose change and dispense it at my leisure.
We entered the Canada house, and my friend introduced me to a rag-tag group of international students, a Belgian, a girl from Lebanon, a guy from Canada, all of whom were enrolled at Sciences Po. We sat in the residence lounge around a bottle of red wine, which we drank serenely from plastic cups. I was impressed by these students, whose drive and talent had taken them all the way to Sciences Po.
I was speaking with the Belgian, apologizing periodically from my French.
He waved away my anxieties and took a sip of his wine. He eyed me curiously. “What are you planning to do?”
“I’m not sure. Graduate school, maybe.”
“But which one? Where?”
I smiled. “I don’t know.”
He leaned back in his seat. “London School of Economics? Sciences Po Paris? NYU? Columbia?”
The fact that he assumed I’d be going to one of those schools—the best schools in the world— flattered me. Made me giddy. I hadn’t given much thought to graduate school in recent years. He had planted a seed. I considered the options he had laid out.
Columbia, I considered, turning the word over in my mind. Columbia.
In August 2018, I was back in Canada from my exchange. I knew it was time to think about graduate school. The question was: what to go to school for?
It might seem backwards that I had decided to go to graduate school without knowing what for. But I always knew I needed more school. My undergraduate degree in international relations left me aching for something creative, a way to incorporate what I had learned in a format that was better suited to my skills. Writing.
I settled on the Creative Writing MSt at the University of Oxford, the MA in Prose Fiction from the University of East Anglia (UEA), which had produced two of my favourite fiction writers, the University of British Columbia MFA, and two Columbia programs requiring three separate applications – the School of the Arts, and the dual Master’s in Journalism and International Public Affairs. Deep down, I knew I wanted to go to Columbia. It was so close to home I could drive there, and was in the art and writing capital of the world. Truthfully, I had chosen three programs there because I didn’t think I would get into any. And if I didn’t get into any, I would be crushed.
Journalism and Creative Writing battled for prominence in my mind. I weighed their pros and cons all day. As I woke up, ate my breakfast, sat in my lectures. Should I apply to both? One or the other? Neither? Which was more lucrative? Which was more me? Was this whole thing a mistake?
There was, as always, the question of paying for a journalism degree in a world where the media landscape was unpredictable, changing rapidly day to day. I tried to spin this on its head. Should journalism be spontaneously extinguished, maybe I would be one of the last journalists to ever exist, my writing career brief and intense, like a firework.
Columbia’s International Affairs program required the GRE, or Graduate Record Examination, a four-and-a-half-hour nightmare with a math section—which I hadn’t done since high school.
For a while, I lived at the library, running 3-hour GRE self-practice tests and squinting at the screen because I didn’t yet know that I needed glasses. With my eyes (as with my graduation school applications) I had overestimated my capabilities, figuring that anything was possible, and that all limitations were self-imposed.
I would soon learn that women are not machines.
Writing the GRE took it out of me. The math was impossible to master, and the cost of the test, books, and online prep course actually bankrupted me. I had never seen my bank account so low.
But I was doing it for a higher purpose, I told myelf. I hoped it would be worth it.
“Would you call yourself an optimist or a pessimist?” my roommate Maggie once asked the house.
“Realist,” I said, of myself.
“I’d say you’re an optimist.”
“If you weren’t an optimist, you wouldn’t have applied for these schools. You wouldn’t have applied to Columbia.”
I liked this idea. That deep down, amid all the self-criticism, I was actually a closeted optimist.
University application deadlines always fall in late December to January, coinciding with biannual family trips to Jamaica for Christmas. As it so happened, I filled out my undergraduate applications in Jamaica, and completed my graduate school applications there, too.
I wrote my essays at my grandmother’s dining room table and filmed a video essay in my mother’s old bedroom. Croaking lizards crooned in the background. Sunshine streamed through the curtains. I warred with the internet, which had random dead-zones throughout the bungalow.
“What are you doing?” my young cousin asked.
“I’m writing a reading response,” I said, barely looking up from the screen. The Columbia MFA application was hefty – a 1000-word reading response on a piece written within the last 10 years. There was also a personal essay and a 25-page sample of fiction.
“You swore,” he said, pointing at my laptop screen. I had written the word ‘fuck.’
“Yes. Sometimes it’s okay to swear if you’re quoting a piece that swears.” My response was focused on the use of vulgar language in André Alexis’ Fifteen Dogs, winner of the 2015 Scotiabank Giller prize.
I returned to the Western campus for my final semester. I paid the graduate school application fees out-of-pocket and, soon after, phoned my father, desperate for money. I didn’t have anything left for groceries. Sometimes my ambition scared me: I was willing to starve to achieve.
I was hungry, for sure. Just not for food.
Over Christmas and the month of January, I read over my applications until I had practically memorized them. I hit the ‘submit’ button and withdrew into myself.
People say that you are your harshest critic. If this is so, then my personal critic does not only criticize; she curses. She hurls biting insults. She minimizes her accomplishments, grinding them into insignificance like chalk into powder.
My critic lived on my shoulder throughout the month of February. I was perpetually on edge, jumping at every ping of my email, which would carry with it either an acceptance or rejection, a success or a heartbreak. Confirming my worth or negating it.
Eventually I turned off my email notifications, checking only once a day. But I remained in a state of perpetual crisis.
“I can’t live like this,” I cried, flinging myself onto the couch. I flipped on my then-series of choice, New York Times Retro Reports, a series of depressing but informative clips about the top news stories of the 20th century.
“You’re always in crisis,” Maggie teased. She was standing by the kitchen island, chopping oversize blocks of cheese onto crackers. “This is like, your third crisis today.”
I held a cushion over my face and pretended to smother myself.
Dramatics aside, I knew couldn’t continue. I was a ball of nerves. Somewhere along the line, I had bound my worth firmly to university acceptances.
What I needed was an unshakeable confidence that could withstand any rejection, residing deep within me, like the dense inner core of a planet. An understanding that I was worthy and capable and beautiful, regardless of what people might say. I told myself that, regardless of whether or not I got into my preferred programs, my capabilities would not change.
And if in the end I was accepted but unable to pay, I would not fight it, but take it as a sign it was not yet my time. This would be a limitation that, for once, I would simply have to accept.
I received a decision email from Columbia in mid-March. I left it unopened for the entire morning as I got ready for class. I decided not to touch it until I had reached the bus stop down the street—I didn’t want the contents of the letter to send me into a spiral, derailing the day and making me late for class.
Accepted to the School of International Public Affairs.
Tinny music auto-played as I opened the letter—“New York, New York,” by Frank Sinatra. I sat on a bench and cried quietly, relieved. I didn’t realize how desperate I was for the acceptance until I received it. I cried on the bus, and cried on my way to class. It wasn’t even my first-choice program, and there was no funding involved. But I was overjoyed by the confirmation that I was capable.
A few days later, I found out I was wait-listed for the School of the Arts. I didn’t know what to make of it. I wore a look of general puzzlement on my face for three days.
“It’s not a rejection,” said my roommate Cassandra, when I told her.
Finally, I received an acceptance from the School of Journalism. Three for three! I thought. I skimmed the letter for any mention of funding and saw none.
So that was it, then. No funding meant I couldn’t go.
Cassandra and I sat down for dinner. Her heavy red hair was spooled in a donut on her head, fastened into place by a comically tiny clip. “I knew you could do it,” she said.
We had an hour-long conversation about the nature of attending school in the U.S. without funding. The pay-back period would be ten years, at least. She mentioned the wait-listed program and how it might result in funding.
“Wait-listed applicants are bottom of the list for scholarships,” I pointed out. She looked at me sadly.
“Maybe I can defer the Journalism School offer and work for a year,” I said. Maybe this, maybe that. I paced around the kitchen. Without funding, my family would be engulfed by school fees like wildfire, and I would be the one to strike the match. I had always said that attendance was contingent on funding, but now, with the offer in my hand, my perspective became warped like cheap plastic. I wanted to go.
If elation were a cliff one could climb, I had reached the top. But now, I stared down its face into reality. I had applied for a prohibitively expensive school and I had to face the consequences.
I called my sister Katya and told her the news over FaceTime.
“I knew you could do it,” she said.
“No funding though.” My email pinged, as if on cue. “Wait. Another email.”
“Columbia Journalism. They say they’ve calculated my funding.” A full hour after the initial acceptance!
I struggled to log into the webpage provided and was locked out for a half hour. I gritted my teeth in anticipation. “I hope it’s enough,” I said, as I waited for the link to reset, clicking repeatedly.
I opened the link and reviewed my funding—my sister and I screamed. It was enough.
I accepted my offer to the Columbia Journalism School in May. Cassandra and I flew to New York City a few weeks later and stayed in a hostel near the campus.
We toured Columbia. The buildings bore elements of Greco-Roman architecture—domed rooves and imposing columns. Red-paved pathways led to parks, hidden alcoves, and finally, out into the roar of New York City.
I looked around, saying little. I had the old, familiar urge to set the bar ever higher, to minimize the accomplishment. My acceptance was just a fluke, I thought. Maybe there weren’t as many applicants as previous years. Maybe they needed people.
“This is incredible,” Cassandra breathed.
The critical voice in my head quieted. I considered how almost everyone had known this was possible, except me. I considered how warped my perspective had become over the years. How hard I was on myself on a daily basis.
“It is, isn’t it?” I said, welling with pride. I decided I would allow myself this one thing. Look at what you’ve done.
Later on in the trip, Cassandra slept in at the hostel and I toured a bit on my own. I tracked down the residence where I would be staying – The International House of New York, for international graduate students. Without even realizing it, I had applied to a residence within the same network as the Cité Universitaire of Paris, which I had visited years earlier. It’s funny how things come full circle like that.
I explored the residence dining room and lounge areas, which I felt matched, if not surpassed the grandeur of the Columbia campus. I was overwhelmed. It was too much. I jumped on a subway train heading back to the hostel.
So, I would be attending Columbia and residing at The International House. Things had gone well. But, I reminded myself, even if it had gone the other way, and I had been rejected from all the programs I had applied to, this same reality would still have been possible. I would have always been capable, whether admissions saw it or not.
I thought of all it had taken to get here, all the people who had contributed. I was grateful to the people who hadn’t believed in me as the people who had, because they made me work harder. I became so overwhelmed with gratitude there on the train—to myself, to everyone—that my eyes welled with tears. I blinked the tears out of my eyes and looked around. It was okay. No one had noticed.