Two years ago, I began my first writing workshop in the Greenwich Village apartment of a well-known professor in New York City. I paid five hundred dollars for five weeks of rapid-fire instruction while seated on a folding chair between a retired accountant who’d been published twice in the Wall Street Journal and an HR executive who’d written the most popular Modern Love essay in The New York Times column’s history. There I received my first assignment: the humiliation essay.
At thirty-six years old, after a thwarted career in fashion and a brief stint as a lifestyle editor, I was working as an executive assistant at a finance firm — my literary ambition relegated to a hobby by necessity. If humiliation was grist for the publishing mill, I would never run out of material, I thought to myself.
Still, there was an embarrassing secret I wrote about then but never published, nor did I try, because I was ashamed of my contribution to a national debt now soaring over $1.6 trillion — a burden I took on in exchange for the opportunities of generational progress and financial stability, and the privilege of career fulfillment.
As the third daughter of two Latinx immigrants who were deprived of their own academic choices, it was never a question that I would get a college degree. I qualified for some grants and was awarded small scholarships, yet most of my annual tuition at Northeastern University was paid via student loans. I was a distracted student, forced to pack my course schedule into a three-day week in order to have the other two days, in addition to the weekend, to work as a waitress where I earned enough to cover living expenses.
Going to college wound up costing me $100,000, indebting me to Navient, formerly Sallie Mae, for the foreseeable future. This financial commitment, made upon high school graduation before I even had my first checking account, seemed to be the only way to escape my family’s generational poverty. With the hope of rising out of the working class into the professional arena, I signed onto a lifetime of debt.
“Student loan debt has a tight relationship with racial inequality and particularly the racial wealth gap,” Suzanne Kahn, director at the Roosevelt Institute told ZORA. “Because Black and Brown students typically have less family wealth to draw on when they start school, they take out larger loans; when Black and Brown students graduate, they face racial discrimination in wages and job placement that make it more difficult to pay off their loans.”
I spent four years at Northeastern, graduating in 2005. I planned to apply to law school, until I was chosen for a prestigious — though unpaid — internship at Ralph Lauren in New York, which I subsidized with my student loans. In other words, I paid, and am still paying, for the privilege of working for them.
When collection on my debt began after graduation, the monthly payments were impossible to afford. Most of the entry-level jobs in fashion editorial were unpaid, and those that were salaried offered a barely livable wage without parental subsidization — something everyone in my cohort seemed to have but me. I accepted deferment and forbearance plans until all options were exhausted, multiplying the balance of my debt with interest. With my financial future as battered as my credit score, I was eventually forced into an administrative position to stabilize my income, which entailed submitting nearly half of my monthly earnings for those four frittered years of study towards a career I never pursued.
As a result of the pandemic crisis, federal student loan payments have been frozen through December 31, 2020. My private loan payments have been reinstated at a manageable amount — $254 versus the usual $600 — and, for the first time, I’ve felt the strength of my income. I’m able to pay down credit card debt, take the necessary steps to maintain my health, and invest time and money in my passion — converting my side hustle into a full-time career.
President-elect Joe Biden has explored various ideas regarding student debt cancellation: an immediate cut of $10,000 per person in response to COVID-related hardship, and perhaps in the long term “forgive all undergraduate tuition-related federal student debt from two- and four-year public colleges and universities for debt-holders earning up to $125,000.”
Now more than ever, relief seems likely.
“Did you know if you two get married, he will inherit your student loan debt?” a friend told my partner and me over lunch as we discussed theories of debt abolition. We laughed off the fact in the moment, but I could barely contain the shame that coursed through my veins.
The campaign to address the student debt crisis is called student debt forgiveness. To be forgiven implies a sin or a transgression — the language alone elicits shame, inviting the judgment of naysayers who object to the proposal. Ignorant to the predatory mechanisms of student loan schemes, I blamed myself for my predicament for many years.
“What if, instead of believing the myth that we are guilty debtors,” Astra Taylor wrote in The New Yorker, “we saw ourselves also as creditors — as human beings entitled to a dignified, secure and flourishing life? What if our societies really do owe us all an equal living?”
My father didn’t receive more than a primary school education. At age 10, his father pulled him out of school to work as a merchant handling large bulk goods such rice, flour and fruit in Ecuador. He taught me the art of storytelling through oral tradition — though he considered writing as a career to be a privilege we could not afford.
Whether student debt forgiveness legislation passes or not, I have awarded it to myself. Education is a human right — along with 45 million Americans, pursuing access to it by any means necessary requires no explanation or apology, it demands a solution and an equitable path for all.
If you enjoyed this article, check out Jessica Hoppe’s spotlight on the Sad Girls Club.
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