Growing up poor taught me invaluable lessons - The Buffalo News
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Growing up poor taught me invaluable lessons

I have six siblings. If in a room with each of us, you would undoubtedly spot the resemblance: freckled face, thin lips to varying degrees. Where our likeness completely diverges is the perception of our respective childhoods. Unexpected perhaps, considering we did all live under the same roof. Yet how each sibling views the years spent in that four-bedroom, dirty-carpeted, loud and hilarious home is astronomically different.

My father left us when I was 2. Having fathered more than seven children, I imagine the home life was chaotic. Whatever it was, although I suspect a genetic flaw for disregarding physical and moral responsibility played a role, my siblings and I grew up nearly fatherless.

Nonetheless, herein lies the disparities between the view of our childhoods and what everyone forgets to tell you when you grow up poor.

The eldest siblings, without a doubt, took the brunt of the burden and they will tell you so. As the youngest, I never had to miss school or social events to baby sit my sick brother. I certainly never had to witness the dating escapades of a woman desperate to re-establish self-worth and security, although I have ridden my mother’s emotional roller coaster repeatedly. In the eyes of my eldest sister, the stigma of being poor was a minor piece of a much larger a puzzle; a puzzle that had been ripped from its completeness, with its pieces haphazardly put back together with tape and Band-Aids.

By the time I entered elementary school, the dust had settled and my mother found a way to survive that included city visits for food stamps and church donations at major holidays. As a child, no one explains any of these things to you and I was often asking questions that were left unanswered. To each and every question, there was one simple answer – because you’re poor.

“Why is my lunch free?”

“Why are all my friends in dance and I’m not?”

“Why can everyone else pick the background color for school pictures and then get to hand them out to friends?”

“Why am I the only one without (insert pretty much any popular toy in the ’90s, bagged lunch or nifty school supply)?”

What even got me thinking about my poor status as child? Medical school applications.

Yes, despite one rocky, unsupervised, sexually exploratory youth, I have managed to self-motivate my way into AMCAS hell. For those unfamiliar with that acronym, AMCAS stands for American Medical College Application Service. It dictates a yearlong process – a large majority of which is spent in anxious anticipation – that scrutinizes every aspect of your academic career before deeming you fit to begin training as a physician.

In consideration of potential for success, schools have now begun to consider socioeconomic status between the ages of 0-18. As I filled out the questionnaire, which requested my parental income, when I started working, how I paid for college, etc., I was forced to look my “disadvantaged socioeconomic status” in the face. It certainly was not the first time.

As a student at Syracuse University, driving a ’94 rusted-out Geo Prism, I think my less-than-affluent status looked everyone in the face. Yet here it was different. Here it was going to be a factor in the comparison among my peers; it could influence my future. If this was going to have any impact on my acceptance, I wanted to know more about it and thus I did some digging.

According to a 2010 survey, almost 60 percent of students who gained admission to medical school have parents earning $100,000 or more. Yet another thing society fails to divulge when you’re poor: You are going to compete for a chance to pursue your dream job with people who have had every advantage you can imagine.

Again, this is not a completely new idea to me. As a server throughout college, I watched students drop $300 on a meal before returning to their sorority house, of which they had to pay nearly $10,000 to be a member. I, on the other hand, had become accustomed to the figure “$23,000” after repeatedly copying it off my mother’s W2 form when filling out FAFSA forms.

So where does this leave the average, yet motivated student who chose to pick up an extra shift instead of attending study group? I am not sure yet. In mid-application season, I am awaiting my fate as admission committees decide whether my well-written personal statement on the unrelenting determination of a financially independent, fatherless girl from Buffalo can overshadow the C- in organic chemistry. What I do know is that I don’t have the type of helicopter parent who will be calling to check the status of my application, or anyone flaunting the possibility of a large donation upon my acceptance.

Although I lacked the cash to pay for MCAT prep courses or private tutors and worked nearly 40 hours a week in various jobs, I still managed to complete my bachelor’s degree with a respectable grade point average. Maybe the other aspects of my application will be enough to let admission committees know I am passionate about medicine and I am unwilling to accept rejection.

There are many things you do not learn when you grow up poor, but what you do learn can be far more useful. I have inherited self-reliance, resilience and strength that I hope will continue to propel me forward – right into one of the few, highly coveted seats of a medical school classroom.

Brienne Hoak, who grew up in Hamburg, is a graduate of Syracuse University. She is currently working on her master’s degree in biomedical sciences at Roswell Park Cancer Institute and applying to medical schools in hopes of becoming a geriatrician.

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