By Ambar Espinoza, 22, American University
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When I was attending University High in L.A., I pictured myself going to college in a different state. I’d see myself in Chicago walking through Northwestern University‘s campus on a snowy day or in a cool café in New York in the spring. I wanted to be on my own, going out without having to ask my family for permission. I wanted to meet new people, play in the snow, and visit other cool cities with a completely different social and cultural atmosphere than California. I looked forward to sharing really cool stories and photos when I came home for holidays and vacations.

To my disappointment, because of some problems, I ended up at L.A. Valley community college in Van Nuys. I was really unhappy there. With kids ditching classes and no campus life, it didn’t feel like college. I wasn’t on my own. And I wasn’t sure if I’d ever transfer. But I buried my nose in my books, tried to surround myself with others who were also taking their studies seriously, and hoped for the best.

The big transition

After a year and a half of community college, I transferred to American University

I had been to D.C. as a senior in high school for four days, and the previous summer for an internship at National Public Radio. I already knew I loved the city so I was really looking forward to going to school there. That made my arrival alone at the airport a little easier to deal with. Unfortunately, my mom couldn’t come to help me settle in (many parents fly or drive to school to help their children move in or out). But I knew my way around the city and I had learned how to juggle three suitcases and a carry-on by myself without stressing. I rode a cab on a very cold and snowy day in January to AU. It felt surreal.

Even though I had worked so hard to go to an out-of-state school, I never thought it would actually happen. All I could do was smile, but I was pretty nervous, too. My internship had supplied housing, a salary and other young people to hang out with. Now I was on my own. Would I get along with my roommate? Would it be difficult to make friends since I was transferring second-semester sophomore year? Everyone would already have formed circles of friends. At least I knew I wouldn’t get lost, like I had in the summer, trying to find a Rite Aid to buy things like shampoo and conditioner.

But before I knew it, I was making friends, having fun exploring D.C., and managing life on my own. I was lucky that my roommate Lia welcomed me generously within her circle of friends. But the first semester, I got the feeling it might have been hard for her that I was always around and didn’t know anyone outside of her friends. I tried to give her space by not tagging along sometimes so she could get away from me. The more we got to know each other, the easier it was to live together. We brushed our teeth together and did crunches at night. When our friend David and I dropped her off at the airport at the end of the semester, we all cried.

I’m not too crazy about some of the snobby kids at my school—the ones who only care about what you wear and what you drive. But I have found that a handful of good friends is all you need. Each time I’ve had to move out of the dorms at the end of the school year, my friends David, Amanda and Trung never fail to help me carry all my boxes full of books, clothes, shoes and assorted knickknacks. The girls and I always go to Dave’s dorm room to watch marathons of the TV show Friends and eat Wheat Thins and cheddar cheese.

One of our favorite things to do together is eat. We love to go to restaurants or cook. Amanda, who transferred out of AU, but still lives in D.C., often invites us to her apartment for either brunch or dinner. Then, there’s dancing. On weekends, when we aren’t busy with a lot of schoolwork, we can count on D.C.’s nightlife with countless clubs (many of which are 18 and over to enter, 21 to drink) and bars. Lately, we’ve been making an effort to go to small shows and concerts at the 9:30 Club, which is famous for its shows. Another club called the Black Cat, aside from having concerts, has special themed nights, like 60s, 70s or 80s nights.

D.C. is a great city

So why do I love D.C. so much? My top reason is that D.C. is easy to get around (unlike L.A., where you need a car) because of its subway system, which takes me anywhere I need to go, including some parts of neighboring Virginia and Maryland. The city also has so much to do and see, like the monuments, memorials and many free museums. Certain parts of D.C. are really rich in Turkish, Ethiopian, African and Salvadorian cultures. I’ve also had the opportunity to travel outside of D.C. to North Carolina, New Jersey, New York and Massachusetts, just as I have always wanted. I’m planning to visit a friend in Ohio some time this school year.

I love the way people live and breathe politics here. If you listen closely while walking through the city or any college campus, people are talking about politics: tax cuts, gay rights, Middle Eastern issues or voting. During my summer internship, one intern always pleaded, "Please, can we not talk about politics today?" The rest of us would ask, "Why not?"

Do I miss home? Terribly! Each time I’ve gone home for holidays, it feels as if I never left. My best friends, who are attending college in California, are really great. I can always count on picking up right where we left off and having a blast! But when I went home last year, I felt how much time I had missed with my family and friends. My sister and little cousins are growing up so fast and my best friends reminisced about new experiences that I had not shared with them. I’ve always said I wanted to stay in D.C. after graduation, but now I’m reconsidering that. I still don’t know where I will be when I graduate in June—it depends on where I can get a job.

Of course, going to a school on the East Coast has been more expensive than if I had stayed in California. I had to invest in coats, jackets and waterproof boots (though I admit, I didn’t mind having a good reason to go shopping). I have a few tricks for saving money. I only go home in December and May because airfares are really high during Thanksgiving and spring break. I kept a cell phone with my L.A. area code so when I talk to my family and friends, we pay local rates. I also have a nationwide plan so I don’t get charged for calling D.C., or other friends who have out-of-state area codes.

The total cost of my school and housing is almost $33,000 a year (not including books or meals). Most of the cost is covered by financial aid grants, but I still have to pay about the remaining $2,000 of my tuition. A scholarship helps me pay for it as well as my books each semester.

I also work 15 to 18 hours a week to cover expenses that financial aid doesn’t, like food, personal necessities and bills. I’ve gotten really good at juggling school and my job as an editorial assistant for a non-profit. It helps that my boss is understanding and flexible. She knows that my hours will change each semester, depending on when my classes are, and lets me rearrange my schedule around exams and finals. The academic workload is far more challenging than it was at community college. If I feel like work is affecting my grades, I let my boss know ahead of time which day I may come in late so that I can go to office hours to meet with my professors.

Juggling finances

Because I am on my own, I have had to learn how to manage my money wisely. One summer, I really wanted to stay in D.C. because I got a great internship with a news service called Talk Radio News Service. But I faced an extra challenge: coming up with $1,500 ($500 a month) in rent and other living expenses. I knew my mom doesn’t have that kind of money so all semester long, I was thrifty. Little things add up and make a huge difference. Last semester, my roommate and I split groceries and each saved over $100 by not eating out as much or ordering take-out.

When I was offered a temporary weekend job, I took it, even though it meant working two part-time jobs along with my full-time college schedule. It was rough, but I needed the extra money for my summer expenses.

I’m really happy with the decision I made to go to an out-of-state school. It’s as financially challenging and as fun as I expected it to be. I have my mom to thank for teaching me how to be independent and responsible from a very young age. I don’t think I’d be surviving if I didn’t know how to be responsible. I’m excited to graduate this school year. I feel well prepared to deal with post-graduation and I attribute it to living in D.C., away from my home, where I can only rely on myself.

Ambar Espinoza wrote for L.A. Youth when she was attending University High.
(AU) in Washington, D.C. Now this was more like it! Finally I would get to live in a dorm, meet all kinds of new people and travel around the East Coast on the weekends. Plus, Washington, D.C., where the White House and Congress are located, is alive with politics.