For the fourth annual Nation Student Writing Contest, we asked students to send us an original, unpublished, 800-word essay detailing how the recession had affected them. We received hundreds of submissions from high school and college students in forty-four states. We chose one college and one high school winner and eight finalists total. The winners are Jim Miller of Henderson State University in Arkansas and Deborah Ghim of Buffalo Grove High School in Illinois. You can read the essays at The winners receive a cash award of $1,000 and the finalists, $250 each. All receive Nation subscriptions. This contest was made possible by the BIL Charitable Trust to recognize and reward the best in student writing and thinking.   –The Editors

On a Sunday afternoon in January I waited for the bus. Still 17 and living in Austin, I had just moved into the sitting room of my sister’s apartment, and applied to my prospective colleges. With each long walk to the bus stop, I lost myself in fantasizing about the Gothic architecture of Boston College–my dream school. By now, the suburbs were a skyline slowly disappearing into the endless miles off Texas plains; by squinting, perhaps, I could see through the blurry heat and catch the outline of some building.

After hearing the mellifluous chirp of the fare machine, I walked down to the back of the bus. My eye caught “Boston College” written in gold on a crimson sweatshirt. I looked up at the man, a well-built black man in his 40s, sitting with a young woman.

I hadn’t been acquainted with public transit that long, although my family had left the suburbs some time ago. My exile built up slowly, beginning when my family put our two-story suburban home on the market in the summer of 2007–the year, of course, when a wave of subprime loan defaults crashed down on the lending industry, stagnating financial institutions like cars in Austin traffic. As these major lending corporations began either filing bankruptcy, or, like panhandlers on 6th Street, surviving off other banks and government bailouts, we waited, until finally, after months of investing in “flipping” the house, we were bound to a profitless offer, not knowing when another possible buyer would materialize. The investment, in the end, was a failure. We slowly slid down the social status scale as my dad quested for a new job.

“Are you all right, man?” The man on the bus asked, amused at my expression.

“Yeah, it’s just your shirt. Boston College is where I really want to go.”

He introduced himself as Kenneth, and his wife as Lydia, and we started talking–about Austin screenwriters, the night life on 6th Street, the Eagles at BC, Old Navy (where he got the sweatshirt) and, of course, New England winters.

“Now getting in’s not the problem,” he said. “What you really have to worry about is the weather.”

I chuckled. That’s essentially what everyone had been telling me, but I wasn’t convinced. BC prides itself on its highly competitive admission process–30,000 applicants for 2,250 spots.

At length, I stuck up two fingers and pulled the worn stop-request cord. Getting off, I saw the couple following me.

“All right,” he said. “There’s something I want to tell you, and I didn’t want to tell you this on the bus.”

I listened.

“I’m homeless. Now you probably didn’t know that. You see that I can take care of myself. I dress myself and wash myself. And I don’t do any of that crazy stuff.”

He told me they had been married three years, and Lydia was three months pregnant. He worked twelve hours a day on the weekends at a construction job, and she worked full time as a waitress. For the past few months, they had been trying to get an apartment, but were currently living in a motel with a room rate of $36 a night. To him, though, it was much better than sleeping in the woods or in the streets–even if it meant having to ask strangers for help. As he confessed, he could never go back to that life.

“Have you ever had to sleep out in the woods?” He asked me.

I, of course, answered “No.”

“Good. Don’t do it. It’s horrible. Pursue your dream.”

My hands shoveled into my pockets. My parents provide me with a hundred dollars of grocery money for the month, and I was planning to spend $20 that day. But I decided to make an investment instead. I could live off peanut butter and jellies for the week. I handed him the money. My old renovated bedroom flashed in my mind.

“Thank you, man.”

A firm handshake fell into a grateful hug, after which he, laughing, began pulling off the sweatshirt. In my hands, the gold Boston College logo stared up at me.

Three months later, I found a portly envelope from Boston College in the mail. I laughed in disbelief, shouting into my cell phone as the neighbors stared. I placed the packet on top of the sweatshirt.

Walking down Congress, I pass by the Statesmen headlines–the bailout’s underway, the Obama administration has hope for the economy, the right criticizes the plan. Everything’s a gamble. The American Dream is about waiting to get lucky now. After all, the admissions officers decided to invest in me, rather than seek immediate profit. Like me with Kenneth, they’re giving me a helping hand to pursue my dream. I’m Boston bound.