Your Hard Work Will Pay Off…Except When It Doesn’t


It’s January which means that our social feeds and news stories turn to mentions of New Year, New You and all the associated clichés. Those classic self-help clichés often ignore racial and social disparities – let’s rework them to empower you to approach 2021 so you can move through the year with intentionality. This month, through our blog and on our social media channels, we rewrite some of these clichés to use our own stories in celebrating diversity in the lived experiences of women and people of color. Today’s reflection is from our Financial Coach, Elsa Gebreyohanes , reflecting on Your Hard Work Will Pay Off.

I started my freshmen year in college the summer before fall semester. The major I wanted required skills and classes that were not available to me at my high school. No worries, I aspire to be a hard worker, so using my Pell Grant eligibility I joined a summer program. The program could only get me a part of the way to where I was told I needed to be. I worked hard to do well it in, and when the program ended about 4 weeks before school officially began, I knew more had to be done. I spent the rest of the summer completing different free online courses that I dug up, to get me closer to where I needed to be.

By the time fall semester came I believed I was eligible for most of the classes I needed. My priority is to do well in my classes. Not fully understanding my scholarship, due to some conflicting advice from professors, I overbook my classes. Not an issue hard work will save the day, and I aspire to be a hard worker. I also needed to find a job, my college was in a new city and I had no money other than scholarship money that was almost entirely used for school. My refund check that semester was a helpful total of $56. To make matters more complicated I didn’t factor in course supplies. Everything I heard about college, I thought supplies would be books. I was not prepared for things like website subscriptions (that were not included in the cheap books I found online) and lab equipment. Supplies I didn’t have money for, and while I was actively searching for a job that would fit with work study guidelines; labs, assignments, and expectations were already brewing. I eventually found a job and bought supplies, but in the process, I also piled on late assignments and debt.

Rough Start…but I have a positive mindset…I just need to work harder. My days begin to get longer and longer. I go to work to class to lab to office hours to tutoring to doing homework and projects in my dorm or library. I was having trouble learning new topics, but I figured the harder the work, better I’ll get. As the semester continued, I start to get assignments that are hard to manage time wise. One of them was surprise online assignments that needed to be printed out and returned the following class. At this time, I did not own a printer or a phone and because of my work schedule, I was limited on how often I can bring out my laptop and check the website. In a bind, I asked my classmates for how they dealt with it, but they didn’t work as many hours or have as much classes so they couldn’t offer any tips. I then managed to make the professor’s office hours and was able to ask her for either more structure or more time to the assignments. She basically told me to figure it out, that’s life, life is hard. I work hard so I managed my best, but even I could not always figure it out, missing those assignments in the beginning along with some of the surprise assignments I couldn’t do and print out in time, lowered my grade by 1 level.

That year continued to find more creative ways for me to work harder and I did and then did again and again and again with more flavor and then some more. To be honest I never really got any better at that major. I studied a lot but didn’t absorb what I needed. Performed many labs and wrote great reports only to do poorly in class exams.

Even though I was working harder and harder, I didn’t realize that I wasn’t focusing on what worked best for me. I forgot to value myself and give myself much needed grace. Landing myself under of heavy cloud of endless work and no release, no rain, just weight. In the words of a top tier icon Beyonce, “sometimes you do your best and you still fail.” I was not just working hard, I was rock climbing on sharp, rough systematic barriers with discount equipment. I was playing catch up on classes that cost over $1,000 each with nothing but a work study wage. At the time, I kept beating up on myself; why can’t I get it right, how come I’m not working hard enough? Not breathing and taking time to ask, can I really do my best in these conditions? Am I really working to learn new ideas and build new skills? The answer was I wasn’t, and I honestly didn’t have any passion for this major anymore. Yet I could not leave, I was one of the 2 black people in this major and felt like I was failing everyone if I gave up. In a moment of complete exhaustion of living in a constant state of disappointment, I volunteered with some of my peers at a community garden. Realizing that all I wanted to do was help people and I did not need to sacrifice myself to do that. I moved away from endlessly working hard to working towards learning and building skills.

Don’t feel pressure to work work work yourself, but rather celebrate all the ways you grow and reflect on the journeys you took to be who you are. Here are some resources that helped me manage my college experience, hopefully they’ll help you as well!

College Depot: They provide free financial aid and college preparation support, I went here to fill out my FASFA (which is now FSA ID).

Therapy for Black Girls Podcast: I honestly got lots of help from college’s African American Student Affairs Center, but I know that resource is not available everywhere. This podcast and website covers topics of mental health and wellness and gives a list of Black therapists in your area.

Statements on this blog reflect the author’s personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of YWCA Metropolitan Phoenix or YWCA USA. Blog entries are meant to spark individual reflection and community conversations on issues of racial justice and gender equality.