Fires make me nervous. Blame it on growing up in Malibu, where the entirety of fire season was generally spent with our most prized possessions packed up next to the door in case of an emergency evacuation.
That said, I managed to mostly ignore the Zaca Fire when it first started up. That is until the Friday of Fiesta, when the surreal combination of confetti and ash falling from the smoke-darkened sky brought the reality of the fire’s proximity to my place of work – as well as my entire adopted city of Santa Barbara – home. Suddenly, the fire was a frightening reality, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve been obsessively checking the Indy website on a regular basis for fire updates.
Of course, every cloud has a silver lining, even those incredibly eerie smoke clouds darkening the sky over the fire. Fire is nature’s way of maintaining the integrity of land and soil, and making sure that both stay fertile and functioning over the years. And, the Zaca fire is forcing us to appreciate all sorts of things we’re not normally as acutely aware of; the vast wildernesses in the mountains that comprise our own backyard, the skill and selflessness of so many of Santa Barbara’s first responders and emergency personnel, the fact that the most seemingly insignificant of human actions can have a incredibly devastating and destructive impact on the natural world and the power of proverbial Mother Earth to shift weather patterns and fire-fighting conditions as easily as a breeze shifts direction.
I was thinking about that the other day, as I was struggling to fill out yet another financial aid form. As I prostrated myself to the gods of triplicate copies and lines so small there’s no way I could hope to fit the requested information on them, I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by the intense desire to just give up. After all, I’d applied for financial aid every year since I first got into college, and was wholly denied every single time. Besides, having to openly ask for money always made me feel guilty, and a little ashamed. I know that’s as ridiculous as my inordinate fear of the coffee-pot accidentally burning down my house, but it is the way it is.
Sure, my financial situation was different this year. And yes, by all rights, the system should be helping me out this time around. But the bureaucracy was just so overwhelming, and after the tenth time (and I’m not even hyperbolizing here) that I sent the office the same repeatedly-requested form, I started to lose hope. It was clear I needed to visit the office itself and figure out what was going on.
The Financial Aid Office, like most of the UCSB bureaucracy, is only open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., with an hour-long closure for lunch in the middle of the day. For students who have to work during the day, these limited hours pose a pretty substantial problem. And, lo and behold, most students who need the services of the office tend to have jobs. After finally finagling a morning off to take care of my money issues, I ended up waiting in line behind the slowest-moving father of a potential freshman I’ve ever seen. The man’s son wasn’t even officially a student yet, and he still insisted on monopolizing the financial aid advisor for over half an hour. Anyway, after finally making it to the front of the line and explaining my situation to the advisor, I did something I almost never do in public – I burst into tears. Not the kind of tears I would use to get out of a speeding ticket, or into a particularly packed discussion section. These were unexpected, uncontrollable tears. I guess they worked though. The advisor immediately sprung into action, promising to personally handle my case and make sure I wouldn’t have to spend the rest of the year taking money from my already cash-strapped parents.
To make an already-long story a little shorter, I finally got the financial aid. Not a ton of aid, but enough to help me through my last year of college without unduly burdening my parents. And it only took a million forms, countless hours spent on hold when I was supposed to be working, and one tear-soaked trip to the Financial Aid Office. I don’t know why they make it so difficult, but they do.
Anyway, the whole time I was ensconced in the process of procuring aid, I kept trying to find a silver lining. My dad kept reminding me that any aid I got was a weight off his mind (and his wallet), and my mom just kept yelling at me, making me certain that if I didn’t get the financial assistance, I would spend the rest of my life hearing about it. So the monetary help was obviously a silver lining to the whole experience.
But, what about the process itself? Where was the silver lining to fighting for financial aid against what felt like the entire University of California system? Well, for one thing, it taught me a lot of lessons about how to beat the innate ennui of any bureaucratic system. Of course they’re not going to notice – or care – that the form they are requesting is already in their files. And of course, they’re not concerned with the fact that every day they waste is another day closer to the date my fees are due.
So I learned to question every assumption they made. I learned to follow up with the kind of tactless tenacity that I normally reserve only for the semi-annual sale at Nordstrom’s, and I learned to really appreciate the full value of that aid. It may be less than $10,000 for the whole year, but for me, every dollar corresponds directly to countless hours of time, effort, anxiety, and frustration for me and my parents. So whereas I may have felt guilty, or ashamed, of having to apply for the aid in the first place, now I feel like I really earned it.
Much like the fire has forced some unexpected appreciation of our local resources, the fight for my financial aid has made me all the more appreciative of every cent the University of California is saving my parents. And that’s a priceless silver lining.