Seeking financial aid: When students must support their parents

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Students often ask parents for help. But sometimes they ask us. A Ryerson student writes of OSAP cuts, debt and being forced to buy a house for his parents

In the summer, I begged my parents to go to Wonderland. I counted down the days until the end of school every June. But the inevitable moment always arrived: my mom and dad would have a hushed conversation late at night, poring over bills and notices. I sounded out the occasional mumbling of rent and how the family business was struggling. Those nights were often followed by a speech to my brother and me the next day about why we’d miss out on everyone’s favourite theme park for another year. “Money’s tight right now, but we promise we’ll take you there next year.” 

By high school, my dad landed a full-time job and I was working at a grocery store. For a while, with no close calls, money didn’t seem short. But over time, my dad developed a disability which kept him from working—money was uncertain once again. I could no longer be an ignorant kid. The difference was that this time, my family turned to me to keep us afloat.

For years, my parents have been adamant about moving out of our apartment and into a house of our own. Back in December, they found an idyllic house on a quiet street and decided to go for it—financially, it was now or never. Because my parents wouldn’t be first-time buyers, they’d be hit with a “land transfer tax.” But I’d never owned a house, so I was the key to avoiding it. I had to be the one to sign on the mortgage. In a few short months, I went from being a student just trying to graduate to suddenly inheriting a $700,000 debt, and the burden of being the financial lifeline for my family. 

On Jan. 17, the Ontario government announced it will scrap free tuition for students with a household income under $50,000. Instead, tuition fees are set to be cut 10 per cent with a six-month grace period to pay back Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) loans, during which the government will charge interest. This means more debt for students already in precarious financial situations. 

For the last year, I’ve been making those sacrifices. I can no longer think of staying in school to pursue more studies

Typically, one hears about students asking for financial help. But when the roles are reversed and the student is the one helping others, things like mental health issues and strains on familial relationships can arise. Vivian Zhang, registered social worker and therapist who specializes in life transitions, says my situation—financially supporting family members—isn’t an uncommon one. Half her clients are students and about 60 per cent of them have reported financial responsibilities, including supporting parents, a spouse or other family members. Zhang adds the stress of having to financially support your family can lead to anxiety and depression. 

Oftentimes, says Zhang, the financial burden on students can mean letting go of goals for their futures to focus on providing for the family in the present, leading to a “moment to moment” way of living life. 

For the last year, I’ve been making those sacrifices. I can no longer think of exchange programs I’ve previously fantasized about, or prioritize staying in school to pursue more studies. 

The debt hanging over my future keeps its tight grasp on me. It was one of the reasons I chose not to put my name on this piece. I, and presumably many of the students Zhang sees, don’t want to advertise precarious finances. With the stigma of poverty still present, students are left to deal with their own difficult financial responsibilities in the dark.

Before December, when we were still searching for a house, our dining table was a mess. It was covered with listings and real estate agent business cards. My mother was sifting through the loose papers when she called me over. “Why are you moping around all day? You should be happy, we’re finally getting a house and we’ll finally have our own place.” I guess she noticed my mood change since I found out about putting my name on the mortgage. 

She seemed to be genuinely concerned and asked me to sit and talk. Anxiously, I did—I hadn’t told them the full extent of my stress. I opened up hoping she would be somewhat sympathetic. Instead she called me selfish. 

I raised my voice to defend myself. It wasn’t long until we were both shouting at each other, tears streaming down my mother’s face. “You do this all the time. Every time I dream of something you just have to crush it,” she yelled. I walked away, letting her words hang in the air and locked myself in my room. Every time my mother asks if I’m okay, it’s been easier to just lie. 

My parents are insistent that I find a job immediately out of school. There’s suddenly a pressure on me to graduate rather than pursue further studies, and find a high-paying job. But in the last 15 years, newspaper employment has shrunk by more than half in the U.S. with numerous Canadian publications also closing their doors. I don’t know how to tell them about this fear of not landing a full-time job out of school. And this fear shared by many students isn’t an irrational one—it’s based in reality, according to Zhang.

She says oftentimes, being optimistic about landing a job out of school worsens mental health issues if things don’t pan out. “They actually come back with further depression and anxiety.” But the toll of financial pressures on students goes beyond the mental impacts—there are also physical symptoms. Zhang sees a lot of student clients come in with reports of insomnia, panic attacks, lack of focus, procrastination or a lack of motivation. 

The problem itself has been getting worse over the years. A 2015 study by TD Ameritrade found that nearly 20 per cent of millennials are working to support their older parents, nearly the same amount as the generation before them. Despite this, the report found out that millennials were spending on average about $18,000 annually on their parents, $6,000 more compared to Gen X. 

From the looks of it now, things are only getting worse for students like me. 

During the house hunt, we met a mortgage broker at a coffee shop to talk about our options in the fall. At the meeting, I brought up that I wanted to go on exchange and voiced my concerns near the end of the meeting about signing onto the mortgage. My dad said I could do both. 

“How much will it be?” he responded. “It can’t be that bad.” When I told him it could be as high as $20,000, he lost it. He said he might as well disown me for being ungrateful, in front of a stranger. Luckily we weren’t speaking English but the words buried deep inside of me. To this day, we don’t talk about that night. 

Owning a home has been my parents’ obsession for a long time. According to Ranajit Guha’s book, A Rule of Property for Bengal: An Essay on the Idea of Permanent Settlement, it’s an idea that’s long been rooted in ideas of honour and pride, and is still regarded as the highest status symbol. To never have owned land in Canada while the rest of my extended family has ostracized my parents, according to them.

The same culture that compelled my parents to buy a house is the one that keeps me locked into this promise. I’m afraid to seem selfish and unwilling to be there for my family, so I oblige. They had threatened to disavow me, as a result weaponizing the culture I grew up with. 

Trying to address the harm that these pressures bring can be hard. “A part of it is sort of grief work because you’re losing yourself in providing for your family, so you don’t have opportunities in your own mind to explore,” Zhang says. “A lot of it is coming to terms with what you’ve lost.” Part of that exploration, Zhang says, is to pull the focus away from your responsibility to address your own needs. 

On the financial side of things, understanding your limits is critical to staying afloat, according to Richard Deklerk, a professor at Ryerson’s Ted Rogers School of Management and an expert in financial and cost accounting. Deklerk estimates about 75 per cent of students work part-time and 10 to 15 per cent work full-time while also going to school. “If I were you,” he says, “you might just want to just stay in university on a part-time basis because honestly, you’re going to burn yourself out if you try to do five courses and work full-time.”

While the advice I got can be true for many, it’s not across the board. The things I want clash directly with my responsibilities. I haven’t accepted what I’ve lost yet. I’m not sure how to come to terms with the fact that I may lose all that I’ve earned and all I’ve been striving to accomplish. 

Now, somehow, I feel like I’m a kid again, as if my parents keep promising to take me to the theme park but I know it’s not going to happen. Many of my long-term goals don’t look like they’ll happen in the foreseeable future. Maybe not even at all.

The stigma around poverty and mental health in my situation makes it hard to make a conversation happen, but it needs to. I must not be the only one going through something like this, but the solutions aren’t going to present themselves so long as people aren’t talking about them.  

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