It’s hard to think about what is the right thing and what is the wrong thing to do. I feel like I’ve always tried to do the right thing for myself and those around me. Why, then, does it feel like everything I’ve accomplished in recent years is a mistake? In 2002, I did what most high-school graduates do: I applied for college. I was accepted into the State University of New York at Plattsburgh, which meant relocating from Tampa, Florida to Plattsburgh, New York. I suppose this was my first error in judgment.
Going to college is great, no doubt about it. I chose to go to a school out of state (way out of state), though, which meant a greater cost of tuition. Not only that, but my financially not well-off parents apparently made too much of a combined income for me to be offered any sort of support to help pay for college.
Immediately, I was thrust into the world of student loans. My parents and my brother did their best to help me out when I first started my college career, but soon enough I had built my own positive credit and was able to acquire loans in my own name.
That sure felt nice. I was financially independent from my parents. I was learning and growing on my own. I was becoming, or was preparing to become, a functioning, important part of society.
And then I graduated.
That’s supposed to be a time for great joy, right? Celebrations and parties. Pats on the back and hand shakes from those who have taught you for the past four years. A first step into the “real world” where you could find a good job. A job that would put everything you’ve studied for the previous four years to work. A job that would help you sustain an adult life.
Now, I realize that you’re not guaranteed a firm landing feet-first as soon as you receive a diploma. I didn’t expect, though, that it would take two years for me to find a job that applied even a hint of what I had studied each day.
So, there I was. Finally. A job that I enjoyed in a field that was related to my degree. Things were looking up, right?
Because I still didn’t make enough money to cover the costs of my growing student loans. The main problem? Loans through Sallie Mae. A company, who I’ve found, through research online and from word-of-mouth, is one of the most customer unfriendly loan-servicing companies around. A quick Google search of “Sallie Mae Complaint” will bestow upon you a bevy of sites chock full of people voicing their displeasure with this company.
I could be one of them. I should be one of them. Each month, Sallie Mae expects me to pay them in excess of $400. That comes out to be a third of my paycheck each week. That doesn’t sound so bad, until you factor in some other things. Things like rent, groceries, bills... oh, and let’s not forget – my other student loans.
I spoke with Sallie Mae. I tried to tell them that there was no possible way that I could afford that payment each month. I tried to tell them that I just didn’t make enough money to make ends meet. I tried to work with them to lower my payments. I tried. They didn’t. Every response was a canned response. Every solution came from a playbook intended to drive my debt up even further while I flounder.
I’ve met with a student loan advisor whose advice to me was: “You need to have more money. Or marry someone who does.”
I sought out additional employment, and I’ve finally come across it. Now I work two jobs – one full-time, one part-time. From 9 to 5, I have a day job where my degree is put to use. From 5 to 9, 10, or 11 PM, I wash dishes. Is this it now? Are fourteen hour work days the American Dream?
It might be, but I wasn’t done there. I’ve now got a third job! A design job on a project-by-project basis. 24 years-old with three jobs, and I’m still not sure if I’ll be able to fully support myself. Maybe that’s it? The unending stress and helplessness that comes with being a college graduate? Is that the American Dream?
I know that I’m not alone. I know that I’m not the only person who is affected by a loan company keeping them from experience a life that is free of doubt and sadness. I know that I’m not the only person trying to work with a company to set some sort of realistic payment plan to work on paying off a debt.
I know that I’m not alone. But maybe nobody else knows that. Maybe other people in my shoes don’t know that there are others just like them. Maybe the people who would fight for us don’t know that there are enough of us out there who are struggling. Maybe the people who are holding us down need to know that there is a better way. Maybe the people who outrank them need to see that there is something happening that just isn’t right.
I’m not looking for an easy out. I’m not looking for a way to get out of paying my loans back. I’m just looking for a way to pay my loans back. On time. At a rate that I can afford without having to decide if I’d rather not buy groceries this week or not pay a bill.
I thought I had it all figured out. High-school. College. Graduation. Job. I took all of the right steps. I did all of the right things. Still, I win and lose. I succeed and fail. I take one step forward and one step back. All at once. Every day. I am going nowhere with these problems looming over my head.
If this is how it is supposed to be – if this is the American Dream, then I hope that I wake up to a better reality.
Plattsburgh, New York