On the face of it, I’m a living embodiment of the American Dream, says Tara Westover in The New York Times. Born to poor Mormon parents who kept me out of school, “I had never set foot in a classroom before my first semester of college”. I got up at 3.40am to work a cleaning job before classes started – sleeping in my clothes to save precious time – and did other jobs on the side. My main memory of that period is, quite simply, of being tired. Constantly tired. But I strived and strived, and after graduating I secured a scholarship to Cambridge. My memoir became a bestseller; people constantly tell me my story is an “inspiration”.
But the real reason I was able to finish college in the US was because – just as I was about to give up and find a job flipping burgers – I won a grant for $4,000. “In those desperate years a few thousand dollars was enough to alter the whole course of my life.” I swapped my night shifts for days and stopped sleeping through my classes. The sad thing is that this couldn’t happen nowadays. Grants like mine once covered up to 79% of a student’s costs. Now, the same scheme accounts for just 29%. It’s a shame, because the day I cashed that cheque was “the day I became a student”. We Americans love attributing success stories to “grit and diligence”. It’s not always so simple.