The Weekly Ringer

The University of Mary Washington Student Newspaper

Personal essay: An orphan’s way through college

5 min read

Davy Washington shares their experience as an orphan in college. | Davy Washington, The Weekly Ringer


Senior Writer

On a moderately hot summer day in 2018, I was getting ready for a date when I saw my mom for the last time. I had told her that I would be back later that evening, and she had given me her credit card to use for buying lunch and whatever else I might end up getting. The date went pretty well, all things considered, and I even met her parents later on in the evening when they invited me back for dinner. 

When the date ended and she and her father were driving me home, we pulled up to the side street of the townhouse I lived in, and I saw flashing red lights coming from two ambulances surrounding the street. All I can remember thinking was, “I hope that’s not me.” Getting out of the car, I saw EMTs hovering over my mom’s body, trying to resuscitate her. Seeing that and my home in ruins left an imprint on my brain that I can never erase. 

Growing up, college was always a bit of a tough topic, but it became even more so after my mom passed away a year before I graduated high school. (I don’t have a father figure, either, as I don’t have any real attachment to my biological father.) Where was I going to find the guidance that college demands you have? How was I to know the difference between a subsidized and unsubsidized loan? Who was going to get me and all of my belongings from Alexandria to Fredericksburg? Will I be able to keep myself financially stable in my first semester? 

Looking back, certain struggles weren’t that complicated, but they were still taxing to figure out. Luckily, the parent of one of my coworkers at the time was a college counselor and was willing to help me figure out how I would pursue higher education considering my circumstances. 

One of the most challenging parts of the college process was filling out all of the FAFSA forms that require so much parent-oriented information. For many students, financial aid is everything, and it can make the difference between going to college or not going to college; I was very close to being in that position. I didn’t have a family income to put in or know how much she made in yearly income, along with a slew of other bits of information they had asked me for. 

Apart from that, filing as an independent was probably the scariest thing because it established the reality that I would be paying for all of my college education. This made me think of all the kids that didn’t have to worry about doing this themselves—the stress that they wouldn’t have to deal with to make sure each box was filled out correctly so that I could get the most financial aid I could receive. Suffice it to say, it was a painful cycle of reliving the grieving process. I didn’t have a plan, let alone a ton of money saved up that I could use to put towards attending a university. Thankfully, though, with the help of Suzanne Carter, my college counselor, I was able to get all of the tricky details worked out and join Mary Washington. 

But what’s it like living at college as an orphan? 

In one simple word: hard. Providing for yourself, needing to work a job to afford basic necessities and being even more in charge of your own life than most of your classmates have been some of the most difficult elements to adjust to. 

Being on campus in the fall and spring, constantly surrounded by people who can go home at a moment’s notice or have FaceTime calls with their parents every night is really difficult. It’s difficult to not have something equivalent to that. And don’t even get me started on family weekend. That’s the time, above all others, that I try my best to stay inside to avoid any awkward questions about why mine aren’t here. It’s become a somewhat normal conversation when people ask about my parents or when I receive an offhanded “Your mom” joke and I have to explain that I don’t have one. I’m not sure there’s ever been one socially acceptable way to respond to that.

As sadistic as it might sound, though, I don’t have anyone telling me what to do, I get to be my own person, and I have all the independence in the world as a 20-year-old, which is nice. But with that comes a strange feeling of alienness when friends tell me about arguments they have with their parents or when there’s petty drama amongst friend groups. I never had time for that once my mom passed—I had to grow up a lot quicker than my peers, and it shows. Being extremely mature is a compliment that I get a lot, but it’s also a comment that carries a lot of weight that most people wouldn’t know about without asking. 

While almost four years have passed and I’ve learned to cope with the loss, it’s still difficult to navigate through the tough things that don’t get taught in school. Like, what’s a mortgage? How do credit cards work? From applying to college to answering these questions, I had people that supported me all the way through, and I can never express how grateful I am for them.

Even though it’s hard to not have someone to write home to, being an orphan in college is an interesting experience that I’m proud to say I have. I’ve been told that most people in my position would have given up and gone down a much darker path. Though the grieving process took its toll on me, I eventually sought out some much-needed therapy. And while I did have moments when it seemed a lot easier to turn to unhealthy coping skills, I had a strong enough support system behind me that kept me afloat. 

Every once in a while, I think about how far I’ve come, and I’m pleasantly surprised with how well I’ve been doing. I never imagined that I would become who I am today, especially without parental guidance. While I would like to have parents—or at least just one that did care for me—I would never say that I became a worse person because of that loss. My only regret is that my mom isn’t able to see me today and how wonderfully I’m doing, all of the amazing people I’ve met and all of my accomplishments from just two years here.