Dedication: In Loving Memory of Cocoa
I am sad today. I cannot go to school. I love school, but school does not love me.
In May 2017, I graduated a year early summa cum laude after three years of high school as a homeschooled student. Three months later, I suffered the loss of a loved one, my only true and best friend just weeks before my college placement exam. Thankfully, I passed, and was able to enroll in college courses.
However, grief coupled with guilt, anxiety and depression hindered my studies as my family was making funeral arrangements in the midst of preparing for my first algebra exam. Unfortunately, I couldn’t manage the pressures of college life and heartache which resulted in me failing my entire first semester. After successfully withdrawing from every class, I decided to try again in the spring; now opting for online courses instead of on-campus.
I significantly improved, pulling in passing grades while having the privacy and comfort to grieve and get my work done. By the time summer came around, I felt mentally stable enough to hold a job and take a summer course. Meanwhile, I was finally ready to take the next step in my pre-med journey. The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee wasn’t the school of my choice, but it offered great courses for pre-med students and set you on the right path towards medical school. As soon as I was accepted, I packed my bags and headed for Milwaukee. It was fall 2018.
I never lived on college campus before, so there was an equal amount of excitement, stress and curiosity when it came to moving in and meeting my roommates for the first time. It was a lot, but I thought I could handle it. I was 18 and loved school. How could I ever be lonely? Turns out, I could; the loneliest I could ever be. Although I made an effort to be cordial and socialize with my roommates, we never became friends. This meant that whenever my roommates were gone — which was most of the time — I was left in the dorm alone: cooking, cleaning and doing homework.
That is, until one night — I couldn’t take it anymore! No friends to talk to, no family around, no peace of mind?! I wanted to take my own life. That night I woke up in the emergency room on a hospital bed crying. It had only been a year since I watched my best friend slowly die in my arms. Had I tried to move on too soon? Perhaps I’m not quite ready for college life yet. I needed to take a break — a LONG break. I decided to take some time off from school after a brief evaluation and join my family on a two week vacation out of town.
It was close to Thanksgiving break by the time I returned to campus. I was offered Medical Tuition Credit by the Dean of Students on the condition that I withdraw from all my classes. I politely declined. I had already withdrawn from my classes a year before. Why would I risk having to start all over again when I was so close to finishing this semester? That week, I scheduled a time with every professor to complete my missed mid-terms.
However, during the remainder of the semester, it became harder and harder to concentrate. I was too tired to clean, leaving my room messy for days. I was too tired to cook, often dining at fast-food restaurants on campus. I would arrive to class late, make-up free and hair undone. I rarely bathed and homework was the last thing that came to mind. Basically, if I wasn’t in class, I stayed in my room, in bed, asleep. I no longer cared. At this point, I made a declaration that once I finish this semester, I would leave UWM for good; and that’s exactly what I did.
After finals, I packed my bags and headed for home. It’s over, I thought. I persevered and finished the semester with a 3.3 GPA. Suddenly, they started coming. Bills and letters began piling in the mail, but I never gave them a second glance. I had only begun recuperating from what just happened there. In spite of this, UWM became harder to ignore as I attempted to move on with my life. I returned to my hometown I once tried to leave behind and reluctantly enrolled back at the same community college I attended before I left for Milwaukee.
I felt anxious as I went to class each day. Despite multiple requests, my transcript was never sent to Admissions, causing the Associate Dean to be suspicious of my attendance. Eventually, I had run out of time. One morning, I received an early email as I was rushing out to class. It asserted that I was never officially enrolled at this college and that if I continued to attend classes without a transcript, I would be escorted out by the campus police and fined for trespassing.
What?! Couldn’t they have told me this in a more mild tone? After all, I was mindful enough to keep the Associate Dean posted on the status of my transcript. I even went out of my way to inform them about making a visit to the Dean of Students Office at UWM —which got me nowhere. In other words, I felt like this community college knew me and my situation too well on a personal level to deliberately give me the cold shoulder. Does school really love me as much as I love it? This would be the question deeply ingrained in my mind for the rest of 2019.
From there, it got worse. I was forced to finally read the mail UWM sent me as they became more and more aggressive in their pursuit. They claimed that I owed an outstanding balance of over $15,000 in tuition. Ridiculous! How could a low income undergraduate student owe that much money when they’re dependent on financial aid and Pell Grant? When I did my research and contacted the Financial Aid Advisor, he revealed that they were overcharging me as a non-resident student. Therefore, I had to fill out a residency status appeal and get approved by the Residency Specialist to retroactively update my residency status. Then, I could be retroactively awarded Wisconsin grant funding.
Simple right: Wrong! I was denied based on the lack of information regarding my mother’s residency. Next, a letter was sent to me stating that my account had been turned over to collections through the Wisconsin Department of Revenue. Ultimately, my breaking point came when I received a notice for a bank levy if I did not pay up soon. In an instant, I checked my bank account only to discover that it was too late. They had already swiped the money the day before the letter was mailed; $1,579.47 from my family’s joint bank account. I was livid. This time they had gone too far.
Immediately, I contacted the University Chancellor to explain what had recently happened, in hopes that he could retroactively update my residency status, refund the bank levy and remove my account from collections. He shortly replied, maintaining that residency requirements are strictly regulated by the state and federal government, whose guidelines they have to abide by when determining tuition or else they place all of their students’ financial aid at risk.
He only referred me to the Chief of Enrollment Officer to look closely into the matter. She recommended that I fill out a waiver for a Non-Resident Extenuating Circumstances Request Form [the lengthiest title ever for a form] to grant me in-state tuition. With recurring charges, my account went from $15,451.47 to $8,076.33. Surely, this helped, but not enough. My residency status still could not be updated from a non-resident to resident. Furthermore, how could I afford to pay over $8,000 in tuition when they already took all the money I had?!
According to the Associate Dean of Students, in order to reverse the tuition charges for fall 2018, I must once again drop my courses and withdraw my grades, including 12 credits and a 3.3 GPA. No! I’ve come too far and worked too hard for my grades to give them up so freely this time. Besides, who do they think was responsible for getting me in this mess in the first place: misclassifying me as a non-resident, overcharging me as a non-resident, mishandling my financial aid, withholding my transcript, turning me over to collections and placing a bank levy on family’s entire year savings; certainly not I?
Nevertheless, the more I opposed the stronger they came. Another bank levy came in the mail, though thankfully by that time I had already switched from direct deposit to paper checks. I once considered filing for bankruptcy, but later decided against it. I even tried finding pro bono lawyers who would take on my case, but they curtly replied, “You’ll have to work that out with the school.” Sadly, after weeks of searching for alternatives, I finally swallowed my pride and proceeded with the withdrawal using my Medical Tuition Credit.
I cried that entire week, thinking back to the substantial amount of tribulation I endured during that one semester. How much I sacrificed just to make the grade. All those unsolicited trips to the library, using the little money I had for food and laundry to make copies of 5-page papers for class; Regularly catching colds from long walks to and from each campus building in snowy, below-freezing temperatures; The soles of my shoes coming apart from walking too much; getting lost in Milwaukee around midnight alone in the freezing cold with a dead phone; utilizing the school’s food pantry; and that one time I had to file a police report when my wallet was stolen with all my money, driver’s license and dorm keys. It was never found.
Coincidentally—around December—I came face to face with the University Chancellor through an unexpected encounter with someone in close connection with me. He was told that my bank account had been levied twice; my grades and 3.3 GPA were withdrawn under compulsion since I never received financial aid to cover my tuition and I was still misclassified as a non-resident student resulting in no state or federal grant funding. “That’s bizarre!” he exclaimed, seeming concerned. “As soon as I get back to my office, I will look into it.”
I was relieved when I heard the news. Finally! After over a year of being out of school, going back and forth with UWM regarding my proof of residency and refunding the bank levy, it had finally come to an end; or so I thought. A month had already gone by and still nothing had been done. In the meantime, my classes and all charges associated with tuition for fall 2018 had been successfully removed from my school account; all except housing.
In mid-January 2020, I filed a Financial Appeal Process to remove any remaining charges from my account, only to find out that the process takes 120 days from the date the charges were posted for my appeal to be reviewed. Fortunately, by that time I managed to get in touch with a journalist from a major local newspaper to take my story and expose the truth. As soon as the article was published that same week, I immediately received a letter from the Residential Accounts Manager and Chair of the Appeals Committee to inform me that my University Housing Appeal was approved and the remaining outstanding balance of $1,524.48 was removed based on the “extenuating circumstances” provided.
At last, my account that once held a balance of over $15,000 in tuition was reduced to zero. Praise God! I couldn’t have been happier to know that a HUGE weight I carried for over a year had finally been lifted off my shoulders. I no longer owned UWM a dime. However, UWM still owed me considerably for the money they unrightfully stole from my family. I had to get my money back.
Over the next couple of weeks, I got back in touch with the Associate Dean of Students to request a refund of the money they bank levied for the tuition I once owed them. My request was adamantly denied in an email stating, “You do not owe UWM any monies. However, the committee was unable to justify refunding any amount that you had already paid because you [lived] in University Housing for the entire fall 2018 semester. In other words, you will not be refunded any of the monies that you have already paid…”
After reading the response, I grew hot with anger. I felt that I had totally lost any sort of consideration and attentiveness from UWM since they thought removing the charges would solve everything. I gave up. Here I was, almost two years older than I was when I enrolled at UWM, out of school with no grades. If I can’t get the Chancellor or the Associate Dean to listen to me, then who can I ask? Who can I turn to? Then, out of the blue – a week later, I received another email from the Associate Dean, this time stating that the refund of $1,579.47 I requested would be returned to me in full. Wait a minute, I thought, what made her change her mind so fast and why? Turns out, my mother went behind my back and contacted the university Chancellor for herself. “As a parent, I respectfully ask you to please reconsider my refund request of $1,579.47; my daughter’s name was on the account, but it is my earnings.”
I wasn’t sure whether to be shocked, embarrassed or offended that my mother did this without my knowing and UWM took her word over mine, but I sure was proud of her and appreciative that she stood up for me when I needed it most. Slowly, I was starting to regain all I had lost from one semester. Now, it was my grades.
This is when I need your help, Reader. Think about it. What would you do if an institution misclassified you as a non-resident student in the state where you were born and have been a lifelong resident? How would you like it if you were a low-income student and denied any financial assistance including financial aid, state and federal grant funding or local scholarships because of the mistake they made? Wouldn’t you feel upset if a university went into your bank account and swiped all the money you saved for food and gas? If you were forced to withdraw your grades to remove unnecessary charges from your account, what would you choose? At this moment, I choose my grades. I demand that I be classified correctly as a Wisconsin resident. I want to go back to school. I love school, but school does not love me.