Thursday, February 16, 2006

Settling In - Part VII

I’m on My Way to Being a Grad Student

As you can see, we decided to stick with the plan for me to go back to school. I was hoping to ace the tests, apply for teaching assistantship, and so make some money for the family. Tuition fees did not bother me – you wouldn’t believe how many grants you qualify for when your family’s income is zero.

In case you wonder how we supported ourselves, we were, technically, living off a loan we got from HIAS, but, in reality, were spending whatever cash we had brought from Russia. My parents took out the loan before we arrived; we paid it back as soon as we came into the country, to avoid paying interest; and HIAS was now giving the money back to us in small portions. They paid our rent and sent us a check for about $400 each month to buy food and other basic supplies. We also got foodstamps and Medicaid. The Medicaid came in very handy, because we had to have some major dental work done. LilProgrammer had to get crowns on his five teeth (an impressive achievement for a four-year-old), and I had all my wisdom teeth pulled under local anesthesia (general anesthesia is for wussies). The doctor screwed up when pulling my teeth and I could not eat anything for a couple of weeks. That helped me lose the weight I’d gained in the first few weeks in America, when we went on an eating spree.

The HIAS loan was only good for four months. We had been in the country for two months so far, and had no idea what to do when the HIAS money would stop. Nor did we have any plans in place for Mr. Goldie. He couldn’t speak any English when he came into the country, so he was in ESL classes 40 hours a week, trying to get a jump start on his English.

I applied to Cleveland State, scheduled my GRE and TOEFL, and started cramming for the GRE. I didn’t feel the need to study separately for the TOEFL. My parents watched the kids while I studied for six to eight hours every day. That was the first time I learned about the method of elimination. In Russia, most of our exams were oral, and we never had multiple-choice tests. Instead of choosing an answer from a list, you had to memorize the material and then recite it back to the professor.

Because of this experience, many Russian and East European immigrants do not trust multiple choice tests. They argue that for these tests, you do not have to study and you don’t have to know the material. You can just guess everything. In defense of multiple choice tests, I can tell you that, for the majority of my oral tests, I didn’t study, either. You copy your answer to a sheet of paper, and then read it back to whoever’s examining you. The trick is to sound like you know what you’re talking about.

I took the GRE, and actually found it kind of fun. Compared to watching small children, a lot of things can be entertaining, such as having your wisdom teeth pulled, or taking tests. The results came in soon, and I was quite impressed. I got a 2120 out of 2400 – not bad for someone who had just moved here. I waited for Cleveland State to call me and offer me all sorts of perks, because of my huge score – an accelerated program, a part-time job, tuition-free study. That was what had happened to Accounting Dude when he scored high on his GMAT. But no calls came.


Instead, we got a letter from the Welfare office, telling us to arrive immediately. Mr. Goldie was in an ESL class, so my Dad and I drove downtown together. After waiting some time, we were greeted by a buxom Welfare Lady.

“In another month”, Welfare Lady informed us, “you will be eligible for cash benefits. In exchange for that, you will have to do fifty hours a week of community service. Any questions?”

“I have small children”, I said. “I won’t be able to work.”

“Not a problem, we have free daycare for the time you’re working,” WL offered helpfully.

“Also, I’m going back to school”, I added.

WL stared at me like I had just said that I could not do community service because I had to stay home and watch soaps all day.

Today, when I hear of families being on Welfare all their lives, where both parents haven’t worked for years, the first thing that pops into my mind is not “Poor souls”, or “How despicable”. The first thing that comes into my mind is “how the heck are they able to pull it off for years, when we couldn’t do it for more than three months?” Really. Why aren’t these families doing community service? Also, the kids. I hear it all the time that people have more kids in order to remain on Welfare longer. Why doesn’t anyone tell them: “we have free daycare”?

I must be missing something. Somebody please explain.

The Goldie has spoken at 8:56 AM

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