I always knew I would go to college and that there was no other option for my future after high school. Funny thing was, nobody else considered it for me at all.
My father, an immigrant from Sicily who moved here at the age of 21, and my mother, who was raised by Sicilian immigrants, had an arranged marriage. After moving to and from Sicily for several years, she and my father settled in the U.S. Together they have owned a pizza shop for four decades in the Grand Rapids area. Their heritage and culture is heavily intertwined in their daily lives.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that I was different from the kids around me. In elementary schools, girls would share fun stories about shopping with Mom and seeing movies with Dad, while I was trying to come up with ways to make hanging out at a pizza place six days a week sound cool. That was my life for as long as I could remember: a couch and television in the back of the restaurant and unlimited amounts of pizza. I knew it was different, but at that time I didn’t think it was bad. I had a wild imagination, I was very outgoing and I used the seating area of the pizza shop as my stage; our customers were my audience.
It was clear that my after-school regimen was much different than my friends. My little brother and I got picked up from school and would spend the next six to seven hours waiting for the evening pizza rush to be over. Together, Mom and Papa worked with very little additional help to put a roof over our heads and food on the table. Oftentimes, that food on the table was pulled from the fridge myself. My friends would talk about “family dinner” like it was annoying. But with the exception of Sundays, I would have had to wait until midnight, when Papa got home, to actually know what it was like to eat dinner together during the week. I dreamed of the perfect night when me, Mom, Papa and my three brothers would sit together and enjoy a casserole. I had no idea what a casserole was, but that’s what my friends were having at their family dinners, and I wanted one too.
Kids at school would say to me, “Your parents own a pizza place? They must be rich!” I played it off at times. I never said we were rich, but I never said we weren’t. In fact, my mom dreamed out loud so much, she may have made me believe that we were! On weekends she would drag me to open houses through Chateau Estates, an upscale part of Wyoming. She would drive through and pick out homes she loved, and I always thought we were moving because she would get so excited. We never moved, though.
I don’t think I understood it then, but we were living paycheck to paycheck. I didn’t know it because it seemed like we had everything we needed, but there was never really any money for extras. My mom would explain that we couldn’t get certain things because she and Papa were still paying hospital bills. This continued for many years. I understood it more and more when we went to doctor visits and my mom would pay cash, or we would go to the dentist and be on a payment plan. We didn’t have insurance. I was a child, worrying that if an accident happened that cost a lot of money, we would struggle. My parents would have never admitted it; their pride would have never allowed it.
|This column is a companion story to the latest addition to our poverty series:
First Generation College Student Struggles to Fit In
Jordan Lovett feels a little like a puzzle piece that doesn’t quite fit lately. She sits in the Moose Cafe at Aquinas College holding a cup of hot cocoa and reflects on the last semester.
“It was really stressful,” she said, frustration showing in her blue eyes. Her best final grade was a B. She said that as a low-income student with no car, everything is a struggle. She has a single-room dorm and is somewhat timid about making friends.
A runner with big goals and dreams, who spent parts of her childhood homeless, she found ample support at Lee High School in Godfrey-Lee Public Schools. “I went from Lee, a small, poor school but it was very diverse. Everyone could relate to each other in some way… Here, I feel it’s not diverse and it’s more of the upper class. It’s a little harder to relate to lots of people around here. Read the full article
I got my first job at 14 years old as a bagger at D&W. I could have worked for my parents, but I knew the money they paid me came right out of their own paychecks. Instead I made my own money and stopped asking them for it. I started experiencing life a little bit more with my friends and their parents. I went to the movies, concerts, water parks, restaurants and I was able to pay for everything myself. My mom, very sheltered as a girl, always worried about me going places, but I could also tell she was thankful I got to experience new things that she couldn’t do with me. I could tell she was excited for me, because she would ask me all about what I did. She would smile and laugh and join in the moment. It was almost as if she was living through me. I felt disappointed that for as hard as they worked, they couldn’t find the time to get away and have fun.
My mom asked about school and how it was going, but we didn’t do homework together and there was no mention of reading. I watched my older brothers skip class, fake sick, and type fake notes to get out of school. Eventually one brother dropped out of alternative school and the other disclosed that he would not be graduating just weeks before my parents expected him to walk. They were mad, of course, but I didn’t see any major repercussions come from it.
My parents did everything they knew how to do and parented to the best of their knowledge. All they understood was work. My papa worked harder than anyone I ever met and he never stopped. My mom supported his every move and took care of her husband and children. Life after high school, to them, meant getting a job, getting married and having kids. Papa expected my future husband to be the breadwinner and take care of his family at any cost, like he did for his family. My mom expected me to be a submissive wife who cleaned, cooked and took care of her husband and children. They knew nothing more and they lived their lives exemplifying this standard and teaching it through their every move.
But I didn’t want any of it. I didn’t envision myself being a wife out of high school, and I didn’t understand why my parents couldn’t envision more for me. So I envisioned more for myself. I decided I wanted more, and I wanted to be more. I decided that my future was going to be bright. I was young and I was driven. As I observed my parents, my drive grew stronger.
I was in 10th grade at Wyoming Rogers High School. It was about 11 p.m. and I was having dinner with my parents. I had been thinking about life after high school for a while, and I wanted to talk to them about it and get ideas from them. So the conversation went something like this:
Mom: Yeah Norina?
Me: I decided that I want to go to college.
Parents are stunned.
Papa: (drops his fork and turns his head to Mom) That’s your daughter. (He says that when he doesn’t want to take credit for me.)
Mom: Norina, don’t be ridiculous (pushing her lips together and talking in a growly voice) Are you crazy?
Me: (puzzled) Are you guys serious right now?
Mom: You are just trying to find a reason to leave!
Me: You have got to be kidding me right now. Are you upset? Do you know how many parents wish their kids would want to go to college?
Papa is silent, staring me down and shaking his head up and down, nostrils flaring
Mom: I just don’t understand you, why would you want to do this? I just thought you would want to get married after high school and start a family!
I got up and walked away. I was shocked. What on earth was wrong with my parents? Did they not see what I saw for the last 16 years?
I watched my parents struggle. I watched them work hard without the ‘play hard.’ Every experience that made me feel alive had been without them. They didn’t go on vacation. They spent every waking minute in the business. I worried that if something happened to my mom, she would have no money to take care of the family. I worried that if something happened to Papa, he would move us all back to Sicily because he wouldn’t be able to take care of us alone. I was annoyed that my mom never moved into her dream home.
I wanted to show them what life could be like with an education, and I didn’t care what I needed to do to get there. I wanted to be financially stable. I wanted to live life to the fullest. I wanted health insurance every waking minute of my life. I wanted more.
My parents were actually mad at me. I had to convince them to let me go to college. At one point I sat down with my mom and said, “Look, there are just some things I’m going to do. I want to have the kind of relationship with you that I can share what I’m doing. If that’s the relationship you want with me, then I will tell you everything. If you try to stop me, I’m going to do it anyway, only I’m going to do it all behind your back. Which would you prefer?”
It felt very forward and strange that a 16-year-old girl was speaking like an adult to her mother. But she chose to have a relationship, a close and open relationship. And I held my end of the bargain; I told her everything I was doing. She would ask questions along the way and I would answer them. Papa stayed out of everything. He let my mom deal with me most often. I worked hard to get good grades. I continued to be involved. I started reading more.
Just Doing It
College was expensive, but it didn’t stop me. I didn’t ask my parents for help; I saved money, I applied for loans, grants and every scholarship I came across. I knew I may not be able to afford every college, but it didn’t matter where I went as long as I kept my education moving forward.
While I worked and studied, my parents continued their life at the pizza shop, and for as much as I didn’t want to be like them, they served as a source for inspiration as well. Papa had a work ethic and my mom had people skills that were unmatched. I pushed myself hard like Papa did every single day when he woke up and went to work. I built relationships with people around me, like I had watched my mom do with the customers in the pizza place. I made them believe me when I told them that doing this was going to make my life better.
I got my acceptance letter from Western Michigan University and fell to the floor and cried. It was the perfect college for me. It was close enough to visit my family anytime I wanted, but just far enough away for me to experience life and freedom for the first time.
I had spent my childhood facing barriers and having to overcome them. I heard the word “no” more than anyone should hear. I had to convince my parents of something that I was ultimately unsure of, but I wasn’t looking back, and my independence was far exceeding any expectation anyone had of me.
It was parent orientation day at Western, and my parents came with me to visit the campus. They slowly walked together, arm-in-arm. It was the first time my parents ever set foot on a college campus. My mom was in awe of how big it was, and all the different buildings.
I caught a glimpse of my papa, and will never forget the look on his face. His smile swooped from one ear to the other and I had never seen or felt him light up the way he did. My parents were proud. I think they were relieved, too; my future was going to look much different than their struggles. While they still didn’t know exactly what could possibly come of a college education, I was the first one in our family among siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents to go to college. They were beaming.
College was a new journey for me. I realized how sheltered I had been growing up as I started learning about different cultures, religions and the way people lived. I felt like a child when I asked a question that everyone around me knew, but I was learning for the first time. I tried food I had never heard of and took classes that would allow me to explore some of the things I understood very little about. I put every bit of myself out there for everyone to see; I wasn’t going to take a single moment of my independence for granted.
The Payoffs Begin
Being surrounded with positive and influential people was important to me. I was determined to put myself out there and build a team of support that would encourage me during challenging times. I still wonder how I got so incredibly lucky to meet the girls who would end up being my lifelong friends. They still make fun of me about the day I bopped around the dorms introducing myself to everyone with such determination to make friends. We encouraged each other, we went everywhere together, we laughed and we picked one another up when things were difficult. To that point in my life, I had been driven with very little support. Can you imagine what happened when I had a circle of cheerleaders? They gave me wings.
I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do with regard to my career, but I knew it would involve connecting with people. In my sophomore year of college, I took a job at a full-service, luxury hotel in downtown Kalamazoo, and the rest is pretty much history. This was a job that was supposed to help me make money through college, and it ended up being a moment of truth for me. I realized that I loved hospitality and would do it for the rest of my life.
I was studying hard, working 40-50 hours a week while taking classes full-time to ensure my bills were paid, and I had extra money to explore. There were moments when work and school and keeping my balance in line were challenging. I remember crying some nights because my feet would hurt so bad after working 16 straight hours, knowing I had to be up in three hours to get to class. But I wasn’t going to stop; I had come way too far.
I met the love of my life, and by my senior year was engaged and planning a wedding. When he went to get permission from Papa; my father only asked one thing: that he not marry me until I finished college. It was unbelievable how far my parents had come.
“I wanted to show them what life could be like with an education, and I didn’t care what I needed to do to get there. I wanted to be financially stable. I wanted to live life to the fullest. I wanted health insurance every waking minute of my life. I wanted more.”
I spent my final year commuting back and forth from Grand Rapids to Kalamazoo to finish up final credits and save for my wedding. At that time, the JW Marriott, a luxury hotel in downtown Grand Rapids, was being built. I drove by every single day, and whether I was with someone or alone in the car I would point to it and say out loud, “I will work there one day.”
Yes, It Was Worth It
I began my journey at the JW Marriott in May of 2008 as a front desk agent. I continued to create new goals and visions for myself and have celebrated many successes along the way. In my current role as rooms division manager, I am thankful for my mentors who have helped me achieve my dreams and have taught me something new about myself, both personally and professionally, every day.
I live passionately and positively through my career, and the people I work with inspire and motivate me to give everything I have to help them grow in their careers. I can’t think of anything else I would rather do than what I get to do every single day. I have a beautiful family, amazing friends and my dream career.
Through all of this, I can’t help but think of my drive through all the obstacles that were placed in front of me.
Here’s the thing about drive: money can’t interfere with your drive. The color of your skin and your gender, the size of your house and the standards of your culture can’t stop your drive. People around you, parents, friends, bullies, strangers and family: they can’t stop your drive. When you dream and set visions for yourself, some of those things may become obstacles and challenge you on the way to your dreams. They will make it difficult for you to achieve the things you want. But the only thing and the only person who can really stop your drive or hinder it is you.
You get to decide what you get out of life. Set goals and work hard to achieve them. I did, and I continue to, every day.