The other day, I noticed that I had an email waiting for me in my inbox titled, “Loan Management Made Easy” from Fedloan Servicing. Throughout my time in school, I have been successful in avoiding any messages, email or snail mail, that have to do with my student loans. Until this dreaded day.
For starters, I have been in school for about eight years, which includes my current graduate program. It took me about seven-ish years to graduate with my undergraduate degree due to several different factors. I became a statistic; after freshman year at a four-year institution, I spent about three to four years trying to get back into a university to finish my bachelor’s degree. All of the factors that you can think of were reasons as to why it took me so long to finish school: not having enough money to cover funds after financial aid, not being focused, partying too much, no financial support from family, and not knowing what type of major I wanted to pursue. I was your typical unfocused student with no direction or guidance on how to get back on track.
It wasn’t until I took Ethnic Studies and Asian American Studies classes during fall term of 2009 where my passion for social justice and my love for school was awakened. Then when I started attending Portland State to finish my bachelor’s degree, I became immersed in women’s studies courses where a complete transformation of the world as I knew it took place. I distinctly remember a moment during a conversation I had with my partner over the phone, where it clicked in my head that a change in my thought processing had shifted.
I had been talking for about half an hour straight about the new concepts and theories I had been learning in class, throwing out names of feminist theorists, feminist philosophies and the struggles of women of color throughout U.S. history. Then a long period of silence ensued. My partner finally responded quietly, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” You can imagine the frustration I felt. I had been struggling for years, trying to find the subject and discipline that made sense to me and now that I had finally found it, I was misunderstood. We chatted for another 45 minutes, but it was really me just trying to convince him of how much in love I was with feminism and social justice. Like a good partner, he listened and responded with little interruptions. Mostly.
I look back at this memory and can’t help but laugh at how far I have come in the development of my feminist and social justice consciousness. That’s why it pains me to see all of my education summed up in a numeric value. Was all of the studying, learning, and coming into this state of mind, worth more than $50k?
Granted, there were a lot of factors I faced that were out of my control. Or if I had the right supportive structure, I would have had more access or awareness to things like free tutoring or academic coaching. But this is information that first generation low income college students aren’t always provided with at the beginning of the journey to college, and sometimes we don’t even have those options.
Now that I’m almost halfway done with my master’s degree, I have major decisions I need to start thinking about. Do I continue onto Ph.D. after I graduate or should I start working? I’ve been on the trajectory to continue onto Ph.D. but what if I can’t get any fellowships or graduate assistantships to support me? What if I’m not competitive enough as an applicant? I worked a lot throughout school, I didn’t always have time to be a student leader, community organizer, or publish articles. If I consider working outside of academia instead, what type of career do I want to pursue if I’m not teaching or researching? Do I have the skill set to go into a totally different direction? How do I obtain the skill set now to prepare for a different career?
I look at my debt-free colleagues who are on different paths and see the type of opportunities they are afforded. Then I think to myself, I wouldn’t be doubting myself or considering other options, if this growing amount of debt weren’t looming over me.