By Katherine Rosa
My Surreal Graduation
On the 6 of June, 2020 I graduated high school in person in the midst of a global pandemic. After weeks of debate, my high school decided to host a “drive in” graduation (think drive in movie!) where students and their families could still celebrate in person.
It was the longed-for and feared occasion of “seeing people again” in the early months of COVID-19. Nobody was practiced in the method of pandemic life; in the method of determining what was “safe” and what was “risky”.
I had been studying abroad in Austria during the fall of 2019 and arrived back in America in February, about a month and a half before the pandemic broke in full force. During that month and a half of senior year, I struggled with reverse culture shock, a sense of having changed greatly and returning to a place which I no longer understood and fit. Old friendships seemed strained at the seams and new ones of substance felt difficult to build in these last months of highschool. My peers were reeling with their own feelings of excitement for college and sadness at leaving behind the rosy-tinted memories of friends and family.
Along with the chaos of graduation and my spring of senior year, there was a less tangible disconnect going on between me and the lives of my friends. You’d think that living abroad would have broken me from basing my normality on my peers’ lives, but it seemingly did not. My friends were choosing colleges based on financial reasons. I was not. It felt weird.
I was spared the struggle that nearly every single one of my friends had to deal with: weighing the price of colleges against their merits. As I watched my friends struggling to choose between schools they were excited about and the ‘financially wise’ option of public in-state schools, it hit me, palpably but on a rather subconscious level, how lucky I was.
Me, a Trustafarian?
Let me make one thing clear: my family is not spectacularly wealthy. My parents have chosen professions of service. My Dad is a community college English professor and my mom is a physical therapist working with special needs children in the public schools. They are earning a stable middle class income like that of many of my highschool friends’ parents. We have to think and make choices about what we spend money on, but we are still lucky enough to be able to afford some luxuries.
The reason I can choose college unrestricted by tuition worry is that I am a beneficiary of an educational trust founded by my maternal great grandfather, who everyone calls “Grandad.”
I feel myself in many ways the anti-Trustafarian, perhaps because of the values and modesty of my middle class upbringing. A trustafarian is characterized as someone who coasts off of their generational wealth without taking any initiative or direction of their own. I, on the other hand, feel very cognizant of the gift I have been given and my responsibility thereto.
Paying It Forward
Grandad worked at an engineering consulting firm, then with a school friend on his newly invented Polaroid camera, then in cryogenics, and then eventually founded his own Fortune 500 company based on one of his medical inventions.
Through this professional trajectory, Grandad made “a certain amount of money” (as my great aunt, his daughter, phrased it). Never ostentatious in his lifestyle, and with money to spare, he founded the Family Educational Trust. He was inspired by his aunt, an independent, inspiring, unmarried professor at Columbia University who taught elocution and paid for his MIT education. He could not have otherwise afforded to attend. He experienced first hand the effect of a good education upon his life and was eager to provide young people in his family with the same.
Since its founding in the 1970s, the Family Educational Trust has helped to educate several generations of family members in my large and colorful family.
All Kinds of Education
The Trust document states that it exists to serve all kinds of education “Which in the opinion of the trustees may significantly improve the ability of the recipient to assume a useful role in society”. This it certainly has done, and more, encouraging my relatives to apply their educations to cutting-edge careers in science, to creating medical research breakthroughs and to lives of service to those less fortunate than themselves. The trust serves as a kind of “educational fertilizer,” helping its beneficiaries to build rewarding careers, achieve financial independence and mentor others in their fields.
The trust is simple and well set up, ensuring its effectiveness. It has two family-member trustees and one professional from the finance world. One reason that the trust has worked so well is that the trustees are given discretion over how the funds are allotted. The percentage paid is flexible and depends on the state of the economy and the number of beneficiaries in need of assistance. This allows the trust to be responsive to current conditions.
I believe that the personal relationships between the trustees and beneficiaries help remind both parties of their responsibilities. The trustees feel the intergenerational impact of giving money to junior members of the family, ones they have watched growing up. Beneficiaries feel the value and significance of receiving their gift from senior family members who they have known and admired their whole lives.
Another reason the trust has been effective is that family members don’t try to overuse it. Although you can legitimately apply to the trust for any education-related expense (professional development, supplemental courses etc.), most family members choose not to apply after the trust has paid for college. There is a sense of gratitude for what has been received and a desire to let the resources serve the next person.
“Monster Family” Values
My dad once affectionately referred to the family he married into as “the monster family” for its colossal achievements and seeming tirelessness. If it is a monster, this family is the hydra. It is full of heads- heads of businesses, heads of research teams, heads of university departments all growing from the family body and the trust.
Our Family Educational Trust is a real piece of Grandad’s legacy because it represents and passes on some of his most integral values. The family work ethic is encouraged by the trust’s structured nature. In order to get anything out of the money, one must meet the gift of the trust half way by going to college. I also believe that the gratitude of my family members, who know the value of what they’ve been given, helps inspire them to work hard in school and thereafter to make good on what they’ve been given.
An understated, down to earth quality is very typical of my family. When I was interviewing my great Aunt Harriet about her time as trustee for her father’s educational trust, I asked her to describe him. Her response: “very pragmatic. He was always home for dinner!”
The trust also strengthens what could be called a familial frugality. My relatives are usually slow to embark upon frivolous or extravagant expenses, but prefer to invest their money in worthy, time honored avenues such as education and the arts. These are things that Grandad found meaningful, and they continue to be valued by our family today.
Back To Me! (and Forward to My Future)
I’m very lucky to have so many people in my family who I would genuinely like to emulate. I draw inspiration from my extended family and both of my parents, whom I deeply admire. I don’t yet know what I want to do as a career, but I’m thankful that I don’t feel trapped by any one model of success. I know that if I choose to do something alternative, there will still be ample space for me in my family. My mom’s brother who chose not to attend college, instead marrying at age twenty and working in auto body and farming, is just as much a valued part of the family as the most spectacular achiever.
I am carrying forward what I have learned from my family with a will to create and connect and do good in the world. Even if I choose not to have biological children of my own, I want to continue to lead with the best values I know and pass on what I can to the next generation.
I find it amazing that although I was never alive to meet Grandad, I feel I know him through the family character and the ideals preserved in the trust.
I also feel the personal presence of Grandad and the trust in my personal life. Since it eases the financial burden of college, it has made possible other fun, enriching and formative experiences, for example my exchange semester in Austria, art classes at a local art museum, and years of piano, singing and guitar lessons.
When I do these things I think of him and … Perhaps he too was at my graduation, honking his horn and winking from behind his mask.