This is always a difficult topic to brush over. In my family, it is a topic we are not allowed to discuss; it’s taboo. As I mentioned before, my family moved to Newport Beach when I was in 7th grade to give my sisters and I a greater opportunity, and it was a major sacrifice on my mom’s behalf financially as well as tripling her daily commute. With our mom’s sacrifice, there was an unspoken expectation for us to make a sacrifice as well; commit ourselves to running and earn a full-scholarship. Without a scholarship, my sisters and I were responsible for funding our own education.

This expectation began putting a toll on me going into my freshman year of high school. I worried for my older sister, who was a junior at the time, and living vicariously through her only caused more anxiety for myself. I feared that if she were unable to get a scholarship then I was even more out of luck; she was a legend. During her college search we learned it was extremely difficult to get a full running scholarship at UC’s, and Ivy Leagues didn’t give athletic scholarships at all. With that being said, my mom ruled out the two and limited us to out-of-state private schools. I do not blame her for me initially going out-of-state, at the time I thought it was a great idea and treasure the year I spent in Texas. I always knew I would end up in the West Coast again, and she emphasized the importance of living in a different state while we’re still young, so I tried it.

I looked at three schools: De Paul, SMU, and TCU. Before my junior year I didn’t even know these schools existed. I honestly thought I would end up at UCLA or Columbia before my mom ruled out the two; never in a million years would I have thought of myself as a small school girl- especially in the South. With those three options, I was again caught in a rut, I did not fit in with the TCU team and De Paul was only able to offer me a partial athletic scholarship (a few days before signing day I somehow got an academic scholarship that covered the difference). SMU seemed like the perfect deal, my boyfriend at the time was looking into going there or UT (which by the way was a terrible idea… NEVER choose a school over your significant other) and they offered me a full, which in my eyes at the time, equaled success.

In our society, we are taught to monetize our success. A full-scholarship translates into your self-worth- how smart or athletic you are. When Coach Casey at SMU offered me the full-scholarship I broke down in tears; I felt I finally made my parents proud. The coaches- every coach that offered me a scholarship- told me the same thing, ‘we’re not giving you the scholarship based on your accomplishments, but rather, based on your potential and passion to be great’. They saw what I saw in myself, finally someone believed that I had what it took to be one of the best runners in the nation; I couldn’t let them down. It didn’t help that I am an extremist and tend to withdraw when I am in training. I take the eliminate distractions rule extremely serious.

Our team won Conference and I was named Freshman of the Meet

That summer I trained my butt off, I got in the best shape of my life and it all paid off-they were right. Upon arriving to SMU I realized I was no longer running for myself or for the joy of running, but to prove I was worthy of this full scholarship. To prove my dad I was worthy of his love, and most importantly to make my high school coach-a man I consider a father figure-proud. As time passed I became more unhappy, I was lonely from withdrawing myself during training, which was always (oh and that boyfriend, yeah, last minute he chose to stay in California), and when I would come across schools such as UCLA and UT-Austin at races I’d wish they would noticed me. I was soon covered by a dark cloud.

I spent the majority of winter break laying in bed crying. The moment the plane landed in California I felt a pain in my heart, knowing in just a few short weeks I would again have to get on this plane and fly back to Texas. I wasn’t sure why I was so unhappy, I had everything I wanted back at SMU; I was pretty much track royalty-a large fish in a small pond, plus I was going to leave college debt-free! Lying in bed I was trying to figure out why I was so distraught, it then occurred to me-I wanted to transfer; I wanted to live my dream and attend UCLA. I finally hopped out of bed and texted my friend Paige Tennison, a UCLA commit and dear friend of mine, to see if she wanted to meet me for a run. She was the first person I told. That moment I decided I was going to become a Bruin and would do whatever it took.

After being denied my Permission to Contact (PTC), I decided to make it known to running peers on the UCLA team so my interest would hopefully get to the coach. My biggest concern maintained: if I didn’t get the release before National Signing Day would there be any money left? Though there was uncertainty, I was willing to take the risk. Honestly, I thought I was going to get a full-scholarship anywhere I went. I had the credentials, at one point in the season I was the number one freshman and 22nd runner overall with my 16:48 5k. To me, even though I missed Nationals, I thought that would be a reflection of what I were capable of in the future and show potential coaches that under proper training I could prosper. Apparently that is not how scholarships work. I took the gamble and as soon a summer began I got released from SMU-I was temporarily a college dropout.

Within the next few days, the schools I put on my PTC contacted me but I was fresh out of luck when it came to scholarships; all their funds were out. Oh and I missed the FAFSA deadline since I was scared to fill it out when SMU denied my initial release. At that moment I felt like a complete failure. I swore that if my mom had a heart attack it would be my fault. I committed to UCLA with a 15% scholarship… a “book scholarship”. I worked diligently to appeal my FAFSA and figure out my finances, or worst case scenario take the year off while I work and train. Sometimes I wish I did that instead. God was definitely watching me though. My FAFSA appeal was approved and almost all my school was paid for- aside from the essentials of course: food and housing. While in Mammoth with the UCLA team, God again answered my prayers with an athletic scholarship offer increase to 30%. Unfortunately, I was unable to accept both financial-aid and the athletic scholarships. In other words (or at least how I translate this), NCAA doesn’t care if I’m living in my car and starving. I somehow got through that first year. How? I do not know.

I now question how I have gotten through the last two years. Not so much financially, but more mentally and physically. The summer going into my 3rd year I landed an amazing job as a nanny; it pays well and I am absolutely in love with the little boy. I thought my coach would be supportive of my job considering my situation, but he has been far from that. I’ve actually considered leaving the team and running unattached because of the pressure that has been placed on me. I understand my coach wants me to perform, but I also need to remember the sacrifice I made by leaving my full-scholarship and put my mental as well as my physical well-being first.

A typical day in my life is tough. During the school year, I wake up at 6:30am, get to practice by 7am then straight to class. This last year, on Monday’s and Wednesdays I had class from 9:30am until 2:50 and would leave for work to get there by 4pm. I typically got off work at 7pm or 10pm on Wednesday’s and hit the gym for a bike ride before going to bed. Tuesday’s and Thursdays, instead of going to classes after practice, I would work on my online classes until I left for work round 11am to work from 12pm until 7pm then squeezed in a session at the gym. It was hard. Somehow I got through the school year, I’m convinced I was on survival mode and I definitely suffered from minor mental breakdowns.

Interesting enough, I do not regret my decision. Though I feel as though I barely have time to breathe and can barely get through a few weeks without a visit with my psychologist, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Yes, I do wish UCLA gave me a full-scholarship, but I do not believe it would determine my self-worth or successes. Rather, at this point I would view it as them putting faith in me, allowing me to have the time to train properly and care for myself. I do not think high schoolers should go the route I did coming out of high school, but instead follow your dreams. I am happier than ever. I love putting on my UCLA gear and I wear it with pride. I am a strong believer in following your dreams, no one should put a limit on them. Money is something that tends to consumes us; we forget about the journey of life and only concern ourselves with our status in regards to money. Though I am exhausted and slightly bitter about not having a scholarship, I am much happier at UCLA than I was at SMU. Though at times I question whether I made the right move, I do not regret my decision. I always tell people: when you’re laying on your death bed you don’t get to carry your money with you, but you do carry your memories and accomplishments. That makes me feel like the richest person. Even the other day when I was looking back at my sophomore year goals from high school, seeing Run for UCLA gave me the chills.

I must add, I do not blame my mom nor do I expect her to support me- if anything, I thank her. I view this decision as my own. My mother worked as hard as she could as a single mother supporting 5 people (my step-dad couldn’t find work throughout their marriage), college funds were not in the budget- it was our responsibilities with our God-given talent to earn scholarships. Many people have raised concerns about my position, but they do not see the other side or understand the hardships she went through.This obstacle, or should I say experience, has made me a stronger person, and I look forward to the day when my life is less hectic.  With one year left, I have kept my college debt to a minimal and just took out my second loan in my four years totaling about $12,500. Most people I know are drowning in debt, but just like me, they believe a degree from UCLA is priceless.

My opinion when it comes to making a college decision is to be true to yourself. Making a decision at 17 or 18 years old for your 21 year old self is a huge decision. I wanted completely different things when I first looked at colleges. Heck, my pros and cons list for SMU included the pros of having my own kitchen and bathroom in my dorm room and cons included the chance of tornados! Those are unrealistic decision makers. It is important to be well informed of what you expect out of your college experience as well as education you wish to obtain. Money is a huge factor, but do not let it be the leading factor; you cannot put a price tag on your experiences… I hate to sound cliche, but you only have one life. Live it right!

Just Keep Running XOXO

Ashlee Powers