I’m Emptying My Bank Account to Go to Columbia

Growing up in northern Uganda, I managed to piece together an education by winning one scholarship after another. But I will somehow have to come up with tens of thousands of dollars on my own to attend one of America’s most elite institutions.

Tracy Lee

The good news came first: I had been admitted to Columbia University’s MFA writing program. I danced in celebration.

The bad news came later: The school would provide no financial aid—at least this was the news at first. I was devastated, but told myself, Anena, this is Columbia, you can’t let it go. I put up a GoFundMe where I am presently begging the world to contribute to my approximately $100,000 costs of attendance for just the first year of a two-year program ($62,912 of that is tuition, the rest is “living expenses” and other fees). By mid July, I had slightly more than $1,500 in donations.

In the months since I was admitted in March, I have continued singing into Columbia’s ears, telling her how much I need her, asking her to give me some funding. She said, I don’t have funding now; when I get it, I’ll let you know. In early June, I received an email saying I had received a scholarship after all. My heart leapt into my hands. I clicked the link to my student profile to see how much I had actually been given. $10,000. I quickly told myself, Relax, Anena. This is a more-than-good start. It means Columbia wants you for real real. So I wrote again and asked Columbia for more. On July 9, Columbia gave me another $10,000.

I danced again, but cautiously, careful not to jinx further good fortune. The cost of attendance for just one year is tens of thousands more, and I simply do not have it. I am praying, hoping. Every little bit helps, and I’m determined to come up with the rest. The mystery was—and still is—how.

I have spent 18 years in school, 16 of which were on some form of scholarship. From when I began primary school, in 1993 in northern Uganda, I knew that my parents didn’t have the means to sufficiently take care of the eight children they had brought into the world. But I understood that if I excelled in class, I would always get a bursary for school, as was common at the time: Because of the Lord’s Resistance Army insurgency led by Joseph Kony, northern Uganda had become a hub for humanitarian agencies and nongovernmental organizations, many of which sought to help poor children—especially bright girls—attend school.

I began secondary school in 2000 at one of the best schools in the region, Sacred Heart Girls Secondary School, which had given me a partial scholarship. My father rode his bicycle to school every fortnight to bring me roasted groundnuts and peanut butter, and to remind me not to lose sight of the twin goals of keeping my grades high (so that I could keep my scholarship) and graduating. I was happy.

During the long vacation before I started high school, I sat under the mango tree at home with my mum one day. We were listening to Radio Mega, the government-owned community radio station we always used to listen to, when an announcement aired about a writing competition. I quickly left the shade of the mango tree for the hut I shared with my two big sisters. I plucked out a sheet from my exercise book and wrote a poem. I won the contest and secured a bursary for a year of high school. The poem had saved my future.

I grew up in a culture of storytelling. By the fireplace, my paternal grandmother would tell us endless stories that made us laugh, awed and scared in equal measure, until she became born-again and said the folktales were ungodly. Luckily for me, the stories had found a home in my head. They were not going to leave.

During secondary school, I fell in love with literature. I read Soyinka, Achebe, Ngugi, and p’Bitek. Mills and Boon novels were the it then too. I buried my face in between pages as others screamed their voices hoarse at athletics. I went on to study literature—literature, always literature, as writing was never on offer—in high school as well. I emerged at the top of my class.

University beckoned. When results for the national exams were released, I was among the top five students from the district and was offered a scholarship to Makerere University. I wanted to be a poet but, because no university in Uganda offers creative writing, I settled for journalism. I loved literature, but what I wanted to do was write. With a journalism course, I would write my fingers numb.

For three years, I studied journalism, contributing articles to different newspapers. I continued writing poems in a big book specially dedicated to them. I graduated and worked as a writer and an editor in a newsroom for four years. During this time, I wrote more poetry and ventured into the short-story form as well.

I eventually decided to leave the newsroom to write more. The following year, 2015, I published my first collection of poems, A Nation in Labour. Three years after publication, the collection won the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa. My short stories also started getting recognition, becoming finalists for various prizes.

I wanted formal education in creative writing, the education I’d never had. I applied to universities around the world. For five years now I have been applying to schools, gaining admission but not financial aid. I have declined admissions offers and deferred many more, failing, always, to raise the necessary funds.

But Columbia is different to me. This was the program, the education I have dreamed of all my life. I put my all into my application for admission (granted) and my application for financial aid (denied). Only my appeals for further aid—what’s known as “institutional aid”—have been met with success so far, but I still have a long way to go.

Sometimes I get tempted to ask Columbia with a tone of entitlement—Columbia, you say you want me, then show me you want me—but I don’t, because she was clear from the start that all applicants had to be sure of their funding source. I had none. I just applied because she was the one I wanted.

I have taken the risk to pursue the course anyway. I have emptied my bank account to pay the tuition and housing deposits. I have put aside my shame to beg strangers to contribute to my GoFundMe. A poetry performance in June at the National Theater in Kampala managed to bring in $4,603. I plan to do another. My hope has never been this fat, this wild. But my anxiety has never been this intense. I try to breathe. I smile when it gets unbearable.

I’m trusting the road will smoothen out eventually—this road to bettering my craft; this road to writing and not just reading like school here taught me to; this road to a dream that has refused to go, like a scar on a forehead.