Let me recall...
Before being misjudged, I must say that know in Venezuela I'm classified as part of the "A" social class, in terms of social policy at least. I know that I'm privileged, way to privileged compared to most Venezuelans. But for my expectations, I'm not enough. And I haven't noticed the lack of greater financial means until I started applying to grad school.
I have a friend. Lets call him... Pedro. We went to the same university, although we choose different careers. But we share the same dream: we want to go to grad school abroad; preferably to a country were we can study in English, let it be US, UK, Canada or Australia. Programs taught in English in Germany, even France among other countries are also being considered. This is due to our desire to increase our English knowledge – specially the technical one - plus share with a different country. Or maybe the idea of studying in English just calls our attention about anything else.
However, our English skills differ. I studied a bad quality English in high school. At 17 I did not know how to say nothing beyond 1) "Hello, How are you? - Fine, thank you, and you? - Fine, thank you", 2) "My name is Julia, what is your name?" and 3) How to name school items in English: pencil, paper, blackboard, eraser and notebook. Somewhere before graduating from high school, I was able to attend a twice a week - one hour English course for three months. There I learned, thanks to a Canadian fellow, more than what I had learned in 5 years of High School. But I couldn't continue. Once at the university, out of fun but with no explicit intention of learning, I started translating songs, watching loads of TV and movies in English (with subtitles), chatting in English online, and reading from magazines to news, and books. And then, out of the sudden, I realize I was capable of writing a whole paragraph. That's how this blog started.
But this almost self- taught English has its disadvantages. First, it has many occasional grammar mistakes that I have carried with me unknowingly. Second, it is an English somehow strong in writing, reading and listening but very poor when it comes to speaking. I can count with my fingers the times I have actually spoke to someone in English. And without any practice beyond me reading out loud, locked in my room; my pronunciation is a total disaster. All this, obviously makes me less competitive for graduate school abroad. My TOEFL scores are high, but the individual speaking score is low. My verbal GRE is above the 65th percentile but the writing score is low; I guess due to my many unconscious grammar mistakes.
Pedro, on the other hand, doesn't has this disadvantage. English is probably his strongest side. We were both privileged enough to attend to private schools. But he attended a bilingual one, and bilingual schools are far more expensive than other private schools. Also, since he was 8 years old; he was sent every year; to monthly intensive summer camps in the US which my family was never able to afford. Plus, he spend several Christmas, skiing in Colorado with his family, among other trips; giving him plain of time and opportunities to practice. When he was off high school, he didn't entered the university right away as I did. Instead, his dad paid for a 10 month English course in the US. As a result of all this intensive - and expensive - study, Pedro was as proficient in English as a US native; perhaps even better than many US natives. He didn't even study much for TOEFL, only enough to familiarize himself with the types of questions. For GRE, he studied half as a I did. His GRE essays got the highest score possible and his verbal GRE was way better than mine.
GRE costs $190 dollars and TOEFL test, if I'm not mistaken, costs pretty much the same. Applications fees costs everywhere between $50 and $100, although luckily, some applications are free. Venezuelans, due to a Exchange control, are only allowed to spend 400 dollars a year on Internet expenses- only way to pay for both tests and fees is by using a credit card online. If you make the calculus, you know that it hard for us to cover all application expenses with only $400. First, I couldn't take both GRE and TOEFL on the same year. I took the TOEFL on 2009 and GRE on 2010. Fees took enough share of my $400 quota to not be able to re-take the GRE as some suggested me to do due my low scores. I had to take the risk of applying with poor GRE scores. I know it was a bad decision, since I have no hear back from the universities yet and I hold now little hopes of being accepted.
To my concerns of how I was going to able to distribute the $400 internet quota between application fees and tests; Pedro suggested me to use the money from my "US bank account". When I replied that I do not have a US bank account – and I had only made one trip to the US when I was 10- Pedro was rather confused. Until that day he believed that as we shared the same plans for the future, we also shared the same lifestyle. But it is obvious we don't.
As soon as 2011 came, bad news concerning my plans started to flow. First it was the devaluation which doubled the cost of the student - controlled - dollar. Pedro was worried but not in the same way. He is still able to cover tuition and basic living expenses "but maybe it would be better not to rent the place I was thinking of". In my case, even before the student dollar doubled, I was not able to pay for tuition but barely cover the plane tickets and some living expenses. With the news, I'm afraid I will not be able to cover anything beyond plane tickets and the clothes needed for the first winter of my life, once I go over there.
Those were not the only bad news. Afraid that I might not be accepted this year, due to my low GRE scores, I was hoping to re-take the test and increase my score with the help of some more intensive studying and my mom' Internet dollar quota. But yesterday we were informed - without further explanation- that GRE' test centers are not available in Venezuela anymore. So from now on, if you want to take the test, you must travel somewhere else; Colombia for example. Is not that I can't travel to Colombia, but a trip to Colombia is an unexpected - and by no means small- , extra expense that I might have to face.
Pedro, even with a GRE score greater than mine, still doesn't know if he will enter the institutions of his choice. Of course, he has applied to top institutions including Harvard, Chicago and Stanford. I decided to apply to less prestigious (but from where I see it, equally good) institutions; for they are cheaper and perhaps easier to get in. In any case, if Pedro decides to increase his GRE' scores, it will be no trouble for him to travel to Colombia. Maybe he won't even need to travel to Colombia since he travels frequently to the US. There will be plenty of chances for him to take the test abroad.
From there, the list of disparities on our application process, and our real possibilities are countless. His greater GRE scores will probably give him more chances to get a scholarship, even considering he does not need one. The years of intensive English studying and interesting trips around the world will be seen as an asset. If interviewed, he will impress the graduate committee with an English so well spoken that it is hard to detect a foreign accent. And for "diversity" or all those things that attract a foreign institution to admit a Venezuelan, he stands pretty much the same I am. Thankfully we are not applying to the same programs, but if we were, the universities will probably discard my application and take his; considering that we are both Venezuelan and we both come from the same undergraduate institution.
Our disparities might be unnoticed by most. Most people are concerned only about the greater breach between the "real poor" and the "real rich". Those breaches are more dramatic, that's for sure. But we don't realize than inside those breaches, inside those groups we take as homogeneous, even the smallest differences play a whole deal in the way we can conduct their lives; in the opportunities we can access, in the greater or lower stress level we can bring to our routine and our expectations.
If you look at Pedro and me you will find us very similar. His girlfriend dresses almost the same way I do. In Caracas we frequent the same friends and the same places. We are invited to the same weddings. If interviewed, we have the same opinions on most topics. We share a common story from our Alma Mater and the private schools we previously attended. On etiquette, we follow the same rules; we were educated under astonishingly similar parameters. But from there, we are as different as if we have come from different worlds. To a great extent, even if it passes unnoticed, we have.
Of course, Pedro is a very talented fellow who has really make the most of every opportunity and privilege that was offered to him (Unlike many others who having the same opportunities he had, simply wasted all away). For that I give him credit and he gets all my esteem and my respect. I don't know how our talents compare, maybe he is indeed smarter than me, and thus deserve better opportunities. But I cannot help but wonder, what would it had been of me; if I had the same opportunities he had?
I'm certain that later this year or the next, Pedro will start his academic year at Harvard and will show me pictures of the place he is sharing with his newly wife at Boston. I will feel both relieved of being able to progress in his career and going away, at least for a while, maybe forever - off all this mess.
Perhaps I can do the same, perhaps I can reply with pictures of another institution, one that has giving me not only admission but also a scholarship. Perhaps from there those disparities we have will finally lose its effects.
But today I feel – doesn’t everyone like this feels at some point of their lives? – like the cheese of a social sandwich, pressed by both breads of lives having too much of something of lacking of everything that could dignified them. I’m more privileged than many. I have a life style that only a few in this country can afford. I have a least of achievements, talents and a degree that someone as talented as me, but being born in a lower social class could not reach. I’m perfectly aware of this and I try as much as possible to take all the privileges life has giving me with responsibility. But in a world greater than our understanding, there are others, many others, who can have a life I could never dream off. Even small, I feel a certain injustice in this matter.
And the injustice is this: being disheartened by all the news which plays a role in my graduate school plans, I feel that while Pedro' journey is for certain; might is almost impossible. Only thing that doesn't make my journey impossible is my desire of pursuing it. I have allowed my environment and my own character to build a dream life which belongs to another social class. To another life. To other kinds of people. It is time for me to realize of this, and without entirely giving up my dreams, at least I'm ought to adjust the size of my expectations.
PS: The image was taken from here. No copyright infringement intended