‘Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine’: Defining Hardship on my Journey to Overcome Student Loan Debt
As a 41-year-old African American female graduate student it would seem as though I was well positioned and on my way to achieving the elusive “American Dream”-- a wonderful family ( a husband and 2.5 children); a promising career as an emerging community organizer; and a wealth of academic experiences in both student and administrative capacities.
Having nearly two decades of experience as a community liaison promoting access to higher education to inner city high school graduates, I decided to further my education and accepted admission to study community organization at one of the top ranked graduate programs in the nation. Throughout my personal and professional lives, I have zealously focused my energy on enhancing the lives of individuals, who like me; find ourselves surrounded by circumstances that add to the hardships which define our daily living.
Despite the fact that our Nation is suffering from an extended period of economic downturn, and in my deindustrialized hometown, the economy is even more depressed; my wages at the time were garnished at an overwhelming 20% of my monthly income; leaving my husband and me barely able to make our monthly bills. After a decrease in my appointment, and no longer working full-time, the impact of the wage garnishment took a toll on the financial stability I once had. At the point of being unable to care for my family, I made several attempts to rectify the default situation and sought reprieve, only to find out that the verbal descriptions of and documentation proving my hardship were not satisfactory to the lender. I had not sustained a serious injury; had no serious illnesses within my household; and had not lost my job or deemed unable to find a replacement following graduation. The loan rehabilitation options provided far exceeded my financial ability and once again I was left in a state of emotional despair.
Nevertheless, my pursuit of the American Dream is in jeopardy as the end of my first semester swiftly approaches. While diligently managing the financial decline from the loss of a paycheck within my household; a 13- credit hour course load; my family; a two-hour round trip commute; and rising gas prices, I found myself trapped in a downward spiral of arrears as a result of default on my undergraduate student loans. As a self-proclaimed stalwart in the crusade to promoting access to higher education for inner city high school graduates, suddenly, I find myself aggressively campaigning for my own access to higher education around the politics of the government-backed student loans.
To put my journey into perspective, over the course of the past four months, I have exhausted the small portion of my 401k that I was able to withdraw upon departure from my job. Using the funds to offset the costs of tuition, transportation, and books I’ve single handedly spent nearly $7,000 to remain a student in the program. With the quality of life in America based on one’s ability to find gainful employment- which is a by-product of the level of education you possess, discontinuing my program was not an option. Currently, I am still in default status with my government-based student loan, and do not qualify for additional loans due to my negative credit ratings and have $16,000 remaining on my tuition balance. That is roughly $4,000 per semester.
Sadly, under the current administrations Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010, provisions of the Income Based Repayment option benefits an anticipated 1.6 million new student borrowers who graduated with loan debt effective 2014 and overlooks the faces of older, non-traditional, working adult student loan borrowers and debtors such as myself; who without an opportunity to participate in the “Pay as You Earn” plan, will continue to fall further below the poverty line as their wages are garnished, and debt continues to climb due to high interest rates and a lifetime of hardships faced living as the “new poor” in America In order to rise above this disparity, a Presidential Memorandum, like the one issued in 2011 as an addendum to the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010 is necessary. Expanding the reach of the “Pay as You Earn” plan to older, non-traditional students, and working adults could very well make the difference in the access to higher education, emotional and financial well-being.
Sandra Johnson, a resident of Flint, Michigan, is a graduate student at the University of Michigan School of Social Work. She is also a student assistant with the University’s National Center for Institutional Diversity.
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