SAN MARCOS -- It all started when I prepared to attend Texas State University for the fall semester.
I glanced at the financial aid award letter for the eighth time. After the tuition bill for my classes had come and gone, I was left with nothing but a few hundred bucks in my bank account. I had no money or aid to pay for the dorm room most students anticipate having for their freshman year.
The day of move-in, I wandered around campus not sure of what to do. Hoards of students posted Facebook updates about how excited they were for their dorm room. Pictures of school supplies like MacBooks, big screen TV's and shiny new Xboxes were all over the Texas State class Facebook page.
While other freshmen were busy moving into their dorms, I sat in my car and duct-taped bed sheets to my car windows. For the rest of the day, I wandered around campus pretending to be excited about move-in day. When night hit, I reluctantly walked to the parking lot where my car was parked. Crawling into my back seat, I pulled up the sheets so no one could see inside the car and fell asleep.
I never thought I would have lived in my car my freshman year of college. I was an honors student in high school, doing duel-credit college classes and racking up 44 college hours by the time I graduated. I felt confident in figuring out a way to pay for college.
Then reality hit.
I didn't get many scholarships after all. The hefty price tag of dorm rooms and meal plans at Texas State frightened me. I was already taking out the max amount of federal loans to pay for tuition. I continued to apply for scholarships left and right but still ended up not having enough to cover the price for a dorm room.
So I made the decision to live out of my car. Throughout the school year, the library became my go to place due to its air conditioning and Internet access. I spend all hours of the night there, studying for classes and even striking up conversation with the custodians sometimes.
Sitting in my humid car at night, I would strictly check how much I was spending on food and other bills. To help pay for things, I took up a job working the graveyard shift of 9pm to 5am at McDonalds. Getting off work at 5am, I would take a small nap before waking up dreary eyed to head to my 8:00 a.m. classes.
Making friends was a challenge. Whenever asked what dorm I stayed in, I would lie and say I commuted from a nearby city.
Although living out of my car definitely had more negatives than positives, I started seeing the benefits of my situation. Instead of spending afternoons taking naps or going on impromptu trips to Wal-Mart, I stayed in the library and studied. Whenever free time came up, I would visit my professor's office hours to talk about the course material.
I started taking a hands-on approach to my education.
I questioned all of the expenses around me. The cheapest meal plan at Texas State equaled out to over $14 per day. Many of Texas State's dorm rooms were $3,000 or more per semester. Students weren't utilizing a lot of the things being charged in tuition and fees. I rarely saw any freshmen use the career services office or join professional career organizations. I went on the off beaten path and filled my freshman year with personal and career goals I wanted to achieve.
When the school year came to a close in May, I couldn't help but think that living out of my car was actually beneficial in some ways. Without a stable living situation, I had started to seize the opportunities around me.
Professors were delighted when I stopped by for their office hours. I was one of the few freshmen to use the career services office and go to job fairs. Due to accumulating many college credits while in high school, I will be able to graduate with my bachelor's degree this December after just two and a half years of college. Instead of the usual four (or five) years it typically takes.
So I have a piece of advice to incoming college freshmen – it's something beyond just the typical "get organized" or "study smart" tips.
Colin Ashby is a senior mass communications major/writing minor at Texas State University. He serves as the financial officer for the Public Relations Student chapter and coordinating relations officer for the Social Media Club at Texas State.