I Left College After Fundraising For It

A couple years ago, I felt like I had it made.

I was running a successful blog reviewing popular science books. I had a large following on social media and my articles on Medium were well-read and shared. After gaining experience at a bookstore, I felt like the next natural step was to finish my undergraduate degree in science. So I transferred from community college to university.

Starting university was more challenging than I anticipated. Without parents to support me or guide me through the process, it was difficult to navigate academia. I applied for financial aid without my parent’s information and had to “prove” I did not depend on them, despite the fact I had been living in a different state than them with my fiancé for over a year. We had moved to put distance between me and my family.

My school and FAFSA required letters of support proving I had reason to be independent from my parents. I provided one from my childhood horseback riding instructor who had regularly witnessed and counseled me through dysfunction and psychological abuse. My community college’s honors program provided the other, stating that the only reason I left the program was due to family circumstances forcing me to move away.

It was traumatic writing statements on my experiences and acquiring these letters to show I was deserving of aid. Many times I stood in the financial aid office and administration on the verge of tears as I sought help through their complex paperwork. It was so stressful that I began suffering physical symptoms, such as a severe lack of appetite and panic attacks. These followed me into my classes where I felt lost and alone, struggling to belong at the university I’d dreamed of attending.

I should have known then that college was going to be a bad experience for me. I thought I just needed to work harder. Yet the harder I worked, the more my mental health — and my grades — suffered.

My financial aid package was inadequate, and yet required me to study full time, limiting my working hours. My partner and I were living as frugally as we could. I decided to share my situation with my following on social media. It resulted in a successful GoFundMe, raising $10,000 to support my studies.

I was in awe of people’s generosity. I thought this would be enough to keep me committed to finishing my degree despite the adversity I faced and my rapidly deteriorating mental health. Unfortunately, It wasn’t.

A visit with my family during the school year derailed my mental health.

My writing career had taken off, and I was invited to speak at a small science journalism conference nearby my home town. I used the opportunity to go see my family to try to reconnect and heal after a year away from home.

The short story is, it did not go well. It turned into some of the most stressful days of my life (my parents even divorced soon after). Inconveniently, it happened right around midterms, distracting me from studying — I finished the term on academic probation.

I was distraught. People had donated to me because they believed in me, and I had failed them. I was so depressed by this point that I could barely get out of bed and make it to the bus for class. I hated being at school. Sometimes I even missed my weekly session with a counselor so I could avoid facing how poorly I was coping. The next term, I had to take a bus thirty minutes out to another school every day to re-take a class I’d failed. I considered this “penance” for the mistake of taking that trip last term. I thought I deserved to be punished for not coping better.

External circumstances made things harder — our old car died and we had to dip deep into the GoFundMe to replace it with another used car. My partner couldn’t pay our bills without transportation to his job. He was working hard so that I could have the opportunity to go to school. I felt guilty for being miserable. How could I tell him how much I was struggling when he was doing more than his share for me?

As if I wasn’t already coping with enough, it was then that COVID-19 swept the country with shutdowns. I was at the end of my rope. I couldn’t see myself resuming school in the fall — I barely scraped through the last term of the year. My partner and I cancelled the small wedding we had been planning, too.

As summer approached, I realized I needed something in my life that brought me joy and purpose. I’ve always found refuge in horses. I mentioned my riding instructor supported me with a letter for financial aid — taking lessons once a week on and off with her as a teen got me through the most difficult points in my childhood. I knew I needed horses back in my life to recover my mental health.

I also knew we wouldn’t be able to afford doing that if I were still in school. My GoFundMe was virtually gone by this point after using it to pay for school expenses and the car. So I made the decision not to return in the fall, found a job, and acquired a horse.

It felt like my life changed for the better overnight. I got a rescued mare who needed to be rehabilitated and trained, and I poured my whole heart into working with her. Waking up to feed her gave me the sense of purpose and fulfillment I hadn’t found at school. Witnessing the progress she made was better than any A+ grade I’ve ever received.

The problem was, I didn’t know how I could continue my original path in science and writing. I felt like I was fighting so hard to be in the sciences and be a student and I was constantly beaten down. The only place I felt accepted, even celebrated, was on Science Twitter.

But then, all that changed.

Amidst what was already a tumultuous year, I was “cancelled.”

I say that somewhat jokingly — I am liberal and I support accountability culture — but I lost opportunities and income and followers because of what happened to me. More importantly, it severed relationships I valued.

I stood my ground when I disagreed with some people, and those people used the opportunity to drag me down. Differences of opinion are one thing — but there was also false gossip spread by people I knew in real life. I was heartbroken when people I’d met at conferences or interacted with off Twitter, who I thought would at least make an effort to hear my perspective out, vanished without a word. People I had blocked ages ago suddenly reappeared to tell everyone why they didn’t like me to further validate the cancel campaign.

They even mocked my horse. They told me I was a bad and irresponsible owner, that I was too poor to care for my pets. I wasn’t even in school — I was working to support my passion for horses.

I had been fighting so hard for so long to be in science, and then the community that was my only place of encouragement and support turned against me. It was hard to take a step back and realize everything I built was gone. Since I was stepping out of school and had no credentials, it was pointless to continue producing the content I had been for the past few years. I closed down my blog, set my social media to private for a while.

Instead I focused on my horse, finding fulfillment in her journey and trying to distract myself from everything that went wrong.

Then, more bad luck struck.

My horse accidentally injured herself as horses sometimes do, and had to be euthanized just eight months after I got her. I can’t even describe the devastation I felt. I dreamed of owning my first horse for years, and then she was just gone. It was like everything I had been building and investing in — my professional reputation, my college career, even my beloved rescued pet — was lost. I had failed.

Sometimes I would get anonymous emails telling me to just give up, to leave the internet forever, to go “fuck off with your stupid old glue factory horse” and “no one wants you here anymore.” They would appear in my inbox while I was at work, and I’d choke back tears while I tried to push through the loss. I apologized to my boss for being emotionally distracted.

I had been through a lot by this point between my family trauma and depression, leaving school, surviving the pandemic, being cancelled, and losing my horse. What I discovered was a newfound resilience and strength. I wasn’t going to collapse and give up. I was going to follow my passion and focus on healing instead of resenting anything that happened.

I am responsible for my own life and my own decisions. I am responsible for how I respond to others who disagree with me on a public social media platform. I am responsible for how I cope with the trauma I experience from my family circumstances. And I am responsible for my happiness.

I decided to step back from trying to build a career and focus on living each day at a time. These days I am working a hard job in manual labor, earning money to support my husband and my passion for horses. My husband is planning to go back to school, and I intend to support him just as he supported me — I hope to finish my degree in the future, too. But right now I am content just working.

A few months after losing my horse, I decided to rescue another one. This girl is a baby who has never been handled by humans. I intend to turn her into a lovely little riding horse someday. Working with her brings me purpose, joy, and a sense of fulfillment.

I am grateful for the people who encourage and support my shift in focus, even though it doesn’t really align with the original purpose for my social media accounts and career intentions. It allows me to just be a lost 23-year-old who wants to figure out her next steps. Everything I’ve gone through has given me opportunities to learn, to grow, and become more resilient. My depression and anxiety has improved as a result.

Who knows what will happen next? I don’t, but I know it will be okay.

Nonfiction writer wrangling words and horses in the Pacific Northwest | she/they

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