Think college is hard? This student tackled cancer before he even moved into his dorm room

Joseph Bartholomew, student
This student had to choose between his dream career and a grim reality

"My College Dream" is a series of first-person essays by college students about their college and career aspirations, the serious money struggles they faced along the way and the real-world consequences that resulted from their circumstances — and their decisions.

College can be challenging for most students but for Joseph Bartholomew, he faced one of life's biggest challenges before he even moved into his dorm room: He was diagnosed with cancer in high school. But, he persevered, going to his dream school, the University of Missouri, and finding a job that would accommodate his physical limitations that resulted from chemotherapy.

After his sophomore year, Joseph decided to move back to Dallas, where he's from. He is currently a part-time student at community college and is working as a bookkeeper for his mom's accounting business. He plans to go back to school full time in the spring to finish up his senior year at UT Dallas.

In this installment of My College Dream, Joseph shares his amazing story and some of the hard money and life challenges he's had to face at such a young age – and the lessons he's learned along the way.

In high school, during the summer going into my sophomore year, I was diagnosed with cancer, at the age of 15. This prevented me from living the normal life of a high schooler as I was pulled from my classes and began treatment.

I would continue classes at home, with a private tutor coming over twice a week for a couple of hours to deliver school work to me and help me finish my assignments. There were days when I would be too ill from the chemotherapy to do anything but sleep, but I managed through the nine-month intensive chemotherapy regime and was able to return to school my junior year. Unfortunately, that meant homeschooling to finish my junior and senior years of high school due to surgeries, one on my hip and one on my ankle. Thankfully, I was able to graduate on time and was able to go to the school of my choosing, the University of Missouri, where I pursued a degree in sports journalism.

Before I left Texas to begin my freshman year, I had scoped out a couple of jobs, but it was rather difficult to find jobs with my limitations. I could not do heavy lifting, as my ankle and hip had been badly affected by chemotherapy, causing the bones to have inadequate blood flow.
Joseph Bartholomew

Being an out-of-state student from Texas, I was overwhelmed with my new way of living. My mom was originally against me going so far away, as she worried about my health and overall well-being.

Before I officially signed up for classes and became an undergrad at Missouri, my mom and I had to do a lot of homework.

First, we had to find an oncologist near the university that would see me for my regularly scheduled check-ups. Next, we looked into the out-of-state compensation and if there was any way to lower the tuition bill. We found that the University of Missouri offers out-of-state students in-state tuition if they live in Missouri over the summer to work in the state and make at least $2,000. I had to promise my mother that I would find a job in Missouri and live there over the summer to work. I was only allowed two weeks out of the state and had to deliver many documents to the university in order to qualify for in-state tuition, including copies of every paycheck I received in Missouri, my apartment bill and my debit card bank statements.

More from CNBC's My College Dream series:
This college student had to choose: Go to class, or go to work so she can afford to eat
How this college student's responsible money decision took a turn and forced her to drop out
This college student's family has been in financial crisis for nearly seven years

Before I left Texas to begin my freshman year, I had scoped out a couple of jobs, but it was rather difficult to find jobs with my limitations. I could not do heavy lifting, as my ankle and hip had been badly affected by chemotherapy, causing the bones to have inadequate blood flow, resulting in two experimental surgeries. The surgeries had worked but doctors remain very cautious and warned me that I may never be able to run or ever do high-impact activities.

The one advantage I did have going into college is that I would have my car. I had a friend at home who told me about a job that he did on the side that also paid well, UberEats. I had finally found a job that I could do — all I would have to do is drive in my car and pick up orders at restaurants and deliver them to their customers. It was the perfect job for me, the only problem was that UberEats would not arrive to Columbia until 2019. Luckily, I found another delivery company in Columbia that I could work at, called OrderUp.

Over the summer, I lived in a four-bedroom townhouse and worked full-time as an OrderUp delivery driver. I would work 3-4 hours a day for 4-5 days a week. I was able to make great money when working during dinner time — around 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. I made over $2,000 and successfully qualified for in-state tuition. By doing this, I had cut my monthly tuition bill by almost 75%.

When school started in the fall, I worked at UberEats in Columbia, though far fewer hours than I did over the summer. To save money, I chose to live in an off-campus apartment that has a shuttle that runs to the university. That way, I wouldn't have to spend extra money driving to school. I made enough money through work to pay for my own groceries while my mom helped me pay for my monthly tuition bill and apartment bill.

This is a wonderful time in your life to start mastering the fundamentals of personal finance that are going to pay you dividends from now throughout the rest of your life. The first area to begin around is cash management and really knowing your financial life.
Doug Boneparth
financial advisor

After my sophomore year, I decided to move back to Texas, where I changed schools and majors – I am now studying accounting. I realized that I just missed being in Texas – and I wasn't as passionate about sports journalism as a career choice as I had thought. I currently go to community college part-time (8 hours, 2 classes), and work as a bookkeeper at my mom's accounting business. I plan on attending classes full-time at UT Dallas in the spring and expect to graduate in the fall of 2021.

I have been cancer-free since December 2016 but I still visit my oncologist about once every quarter for routine check-ups and bloodwork. I also keep in touch with another specialist about my ankle and my hip.

Money has been tight for my family. I don't have any medical debt but it can be difficult for us to keep up with insurance payments beyond medical such as insurance for our cars. My job is very important to my mom because it allows her to focus on bigger projects.

My college journey has been mostly positive and enjoyable, but I have learned that it is important to prioritize yourself and take care of yourself as college can be very stressful at times. It is okay to ask people for help.

The life lessons I have taken away from my experience are if you are not satisfied with what you are doing, it is on you to make a change. Other people will help and support you along the way but focus on you and how to make yourself better.

The money lessons I have taken away from my experience are that it is important to be open with people you trust about money. My mom and I, along with my siblings, have always kept an open dialogue about money and by doing so we are able to work out problems logically and know what to expect in the future, like school loan payments or car payments.

I am hopeful for the future because I feel that I am in control of my career and that feels amazing. I feel that I am on the right path to have a successful career and the ability to live comfortably in the future.


Joseph chatted with Doug Boneparth, a financial advisor and president/founder of Bone Fide Wealth, specializing in financial planning and advice for millennials. He is also co-author of the book "The Millennial Money Fix." Here is Doug's advice for Joseph.

1. Get organized with your money. Boneparth says this is a great time – when you're in college — to start mastering the fundamentals of personal finance that are going to pay dividends from now through the rest of your life. He says the first area to begin is around cash management – really get to know your financial life. Right now, Joseph has debt that he's accumulated. He's not able to earn a full salary because he's in school. Boneparth advises figuring out exactly what the student-loan amount is. What the interest rates are. He says Joseph needs to get comfortable with the loans he's taken out so he can anticipate what he'll need to take out for UT Dallas.

2. Learn what kind of debt burden you will have when you graduate. Boneparth says, in a perfect world, students would know by the time that diploma is placed in their hand how much debt they have from borrowing for college and what kind of payment is waiting for them six months from now when the first payment is due. Then you say, "OK. I can handle $300 a month paying back my student loans if I get X kind of job that makes X kind of money." Boneparth says pencil in what that looks like.

3. Be disciplined about how you spend your money. To be clear, Joseph isn't a big spender. But, Boneparth says writing down your budget and where your money is going helps to build really good discipline and behavior. It comes down to tracking your expenses. Joseph is helping his mom with accounting for her clients but Boneparth says he should do some accounting for himself. How much does he spend on groceries? It's important to be able to quantify what comfort means to you – and what your financial goals are. And, even if students like Joseph aren't making a lot right now, they should start to build a cash reserve, even if it's small at first, to have a cushion – but also for when those student loans come due. That's not free money!

4. Set it and forget it. Joseph says he doesn't have a separate savings account – but he knows he probably should. He mostly just pays attention that he has a minimum amount of money in his bank account – he treats that minimum as zero and doesn't go below it. Boneparth says that's a good habit – to give yourself a cushion. But it's a good idea to get a separate account, one with an interest rate to let that money make you more money. Set it for a regular contribution – monthly or whatever. Then set it and forget it. Leave it alone and don't use that money unless it's an emergency. When that money is automatically taken out, you won't accidentally spend it. You never treated it like available cash flow in the first place.

5. Plan a budget for NEXT semester. Joseph plans to go to UT Dallas in the spring. Boneparth says he thinks Joseph has built some good money habits but it's important to map out what his income and his expenses will be when he goes to UT Dallas full time. Figure it all out – how many credit hours you're taking. How much it costs to eat and cook and get gas in your car. How much can you afford to spend on entertainment to keep yourself happy? And your cash flow. Ask: How much am I going to make from my job? What amount will my parents contribute? If there's a deficit, that's how much you're going to borrow. You need to know what that amount – that deficit – is. "99% of people don't do this!" Boneparth says. "That's how they wind up with large balances. That doesn't get you ahead – it puts your behind. If the difference is $400, $200 – you've got to be fully aware of what's waiting for you. Don't wait until it's at a point where you say – 'I can't believe I gotta pay back this much money in loans!'"

6. Remember: Life gets much more complicated after college. College and managing your budget while working and studying may seem complicated but remember, Boneparth says: "Your financial life is only going to get more complex!" You'll get an apartment. Maybe get married. Buy a house. Have kids. And then … you need money to retire! When you think about it in those terms – and the potential snowball effect – you realize getting your financial life in order in college isn't that daunting after all!

7. Audit yourself. Boneparth gave Joseph an assignment: Going forward, on a month to month basis, reconcile your living expenses. Get 12 months of credit card and banking statements. Start to categorize your expenses. You can let software do the heavy lifting – programs like Tiller or Mint.

"From 20 to 40 will be the most dynamic parts of your life. When you get to 30, it will be bonkers!" Boneparth says. "The more you get these skills – you'll have an edge."

Douglas A. Boneparth, president and founder of Bone Fide Wealth
Source: Douglas A. Boneparth

The essays in CNBC's My College Dream series were originally published on the SABEW website as part of their College Connect series, sponsored by the National Endowment for Financial Education. They will publish on Mondays for the next four weeks on CNBC.

Next week: How this college student's responsible money decision took a turn and forced her to drop out

Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.