Today’s topic will not be about anything LGBTQIA. The only thing relating to the subject is the person this is about. Me. My apologies if this disappoints you.
This week, I did something that ended a chapter of my life that I have been struggling with for many years…I paid off my student loans. As excited and satisfied as I am to put such a damaging experience behind me, I wanted to take a moment and briefly stroll down memory lane and explain to you why this has been an experience that I will never want to endure again.
I was a senior in high school and still needed to solidify a path that I wanted to take with my life. I grew up in a generation where our educators and elders had drilled it into our heads that “If you don’t go to college, you will not be successful,” or “You will end up flipping burgers for the rest of your life if you don’t go to college!”. Falling into the pressures of society, and for personal accomplishment, I was dedicated to getting a college degree. I struggled with the idea of either writing, teaching, or fashion design. After many sleepless nights, I went with my heart and decided to go for fashion design. The next step after that was to figure out where I was going to go. Growing up in a small town that, at the time, did not embrace a slightly feminine and creative person like me. I’m not going to go into full details of the torment I experienced since that is not the topic’s focus. But, I wanted to get as far away as I could. However, I am very close to my mother and siblings; I couldn’t leave them behind and go to another side of the country. I didn’t think that it would be a healthy transition for them or myself. I decided to go to school at a university that was roughly three and a half hours away. Being far away from my hometown to start fresh, but close enough to come home if I’m needed or if I needed them.
I had a great first year of school, especially since this was the year I finally came out of the closet and chose to live my fullest life as my authentic self. I was enjoying my classes and met some fantastic people that I valued deeply. But, of course, with every experience comes the fine print of the contract. That, I’m talking about student loans. Being an out of state student that was minutes from the border in a state that didn’t offer reciprocity, I was responsible for paying roughly $30,000 in tuition and costs.
Luckily(to some extent), I had work-study that paid for a decent chunk of the costs where I worked at a bowling alley on campus, which was tons of fun! I also had over half of my tuition covered by grants. I still had my fair share of federal student loans though. One loan that I had that was my demise was a parent PLUS loan that my mother had to sign for me to finish off my costs. My mom signed the first year of the loans, which I believe equaled to about $4,000. I’m not sure of the charges since it was the first loan that I decided to pay off many years ago. My mom was apprehensive to sign the loan, to begin with, with her credit being affected and unable to make payments while I was in school. She ended up signing for it to help cover the remainder of my costs.
In the second year of college, I was eager to get back. I dealt with a traumatizing summer living back in my hometown where, long story short, I was treated even worse than I ever had been as an out gay person. I packed all of my belongings and canceled my dorm contract for the year, and just signed a lease with a friend for an apartment so that I could stay yearly. My sophomore year was not the best year for me. I had more challenging classes that I managed to pass by the skin of my teeth. I was sick the entire first semester and was burned out and stressed trying to figure out how to adapt to a fully responsible life in renting an apartment for the first time. By the time it was a couple of weeks before finals, I had noticed that I was still short $8,000 on my tuition bill. Being too distracted with my semester of 21 credits and working while sick, I didn’t realize it. I looked up the loan issue and found out that my mother didn’t want to sign for another year of student loans, especially with an amount that practically doubled in cost for one semester alone. After discussing with her, she didn’t feel comfortable adding that amount of debt to her credit and wanted to stop signing the loan and adding more money to her debt.
Am I upset? Not in the least. I understand that loans are a huge undertaking, and trusting in somebody else to pay them off for you would make me apprehensive. If the shoe was on the other foot, I would have the same reservations. To this date, I never held that against my mother.
Unfortunately, I had two weeks to find somebody to cosign this loan. Of course, nobody wanted to. I also didn’t know the other options at the time, being only nineteen and not aware of the financial end of college. Due to the inability to fund my spring semester, I had no other choice but to drop out of college and move back to my hometown.
I was devastated that my educational journey was pulled away from me. I come from a humble, blue-collared family, where we work very hard for everything. I busted my butt in college and was even on track to graduate a year early. Some classmates took their experience for granted and partied the entire time, and didn’t care about failing classes since their parents were paying for it. With my frustration towards myself and these ungrateful people I knew, I fell into a deep depression. I became irresponsible with saving the money I earned working a minimum wage job at the place I worked at in high school. I wasn’t paying my bills and eventually started couch surfing until I moved back to my college town since there were more employment options, and I knew the area well. I also didn’t want to deal with daily ridicule from the closed minded comments I heard every day. Yes, you read that right…I moved from my hometown to my college town three times! I knew it was a crazy idea, but it was the only shot I had at the time.
I lived in my college town for an additional three years. I worked more minimum wage jobs in foodservice and retail while couch surfing for the first year until I had my own apartment with a friend. Through that experience, I met some fantastic people in my jobs that I still consider as family. I didn’t have a car or a driver’s license, so I spent all but a week or two with these people. I couldn’t make it home for the holidays, so I spent it with them. I felt like I had the social experience that I couldn’t allow myself to have in college. I would party and have a good time with people who fully embraced me as who I am. Unfortunately, there was a price for this.
As much fun as I had with my friends, my depression dug me deeper into a point of no return. Partying turned into excessive drug usage and drinking. I also was receiving threatening phone calls multiple times a day from debt collectors, where they yelled and threatened me, even at work. On top of it, I was still not paying a dime on my loans. I would only send the bare minimum to my mother on her loan if I had any leftovers from my habits on my minimum wage salary. I also wasn’t paying my rent on time and relied on the kindness of others to carry me through the expenses. Long story short, my drug habits got me into deep trouble. I ended up eventually homeless, to the point where I slept in a park for a couple of days. Let me tell you, nothing is more diminishing than sleeping in a slide to protect yourself from the cold rain.
Eventually, I saw myself for who I was—a leech. Feeling ashamed for the habits that I allowed myself to integrate into my life, I decided to move back home. My mom picked me up and moved me back. At this point, I had very little to my name and was physically emaciated from eating little and sleeping minimally. I only stayed with her for a short period to rest and eat up before moving to a bigger town conveniently closer to family, but had options for employment. I chose to move out of home quickly to prove to myself that I could do this, this time without roommates or friends to carry me. I needed the redemption in knowing that I could be the responsible person I was before I allowed myself to become complacent and develop horrible habits. I worked in retail, sometimes even a second job, finally started chipping away at my mom’s loan, eventually paying it off within two or so years. I was glad to pay her loan off and no longer burden her with my debt that I was irresponsible with managing. Shortly after, I received a final notice in the mail. My $8,000 that was supposed to be signed by my mom was turned into unpaid tuition that eventually went into collections, and over the past six years with interest has grown into $15,000. Not knowing my rights as a borrower and still allowing them to take advantage of me, I made arrangements for a payment plan. It was a ridiculously high amount, but at this time, I was living with my husband, and I didn’t feel like I was alone with the bills. I also found a better job that paid much more and it wasn’t in retail. I also enlisted the help of a credit counselor who assisted with breaking down finances and my rights as a borrower, so I knew what the debt collectors could and couldn’t get away with. I was able to be knowledgeable with how they can talk to me, and stopped them from the harassment once and for all. I paid the minimum amount and saved every penny, paying off that debt off within two years. I celebrated that victory by getting our cat. That celebration was short-lived since I had received yet, another notice about all of the other loans that I had taken out that I haven’t even started paying. It was another $11,000. Luckily, with my taxes being garnished for the past nine years, I had it whittled down to $7,000. I worked hard at paying that amount off next.
And that’s where I stand here today!
The reason why I wanted to bring this topic up is for a few reasons. Yes, it’s a harsh burden on everybody when they take out loans. These loans almost killed me at some point. As much as I take full responsibility for my actions with my addictions, I think my journey wouldn’t have spiraled as far out of control with them threatening me every day. I have been off drugs for many years and haven’t had a drop of alcohol for two years, so to finally detoxify the one thing from my twenties held me back is a very gratifying experience.
I also want to express gratitude for everybody who has put up with my irresponsible self. In particular, my mom is one hell of a lady for tolerating my moving as I struggled and my neglect for paying her loan off. The one thing that I appreciate in my mom and something that most parents should have is the ability to love their child unconditionally, no matter how much she may have not agreed with my decisions. Not only did she do that, but she motivated me to be better. She didn’t hold my hand and enable my habits. She was tough when she needed to be and supportive when she had to. It was a perfect balance so that I didn’t take advantage of her, and she didn’t leave me completely in the dark. She didn’t have to be supportive…she chose it. And, for that, I am forever thankful. We may disagree on certain aspects of life, and we may argue. But by the end of the day, I love and value the qualities she expressed during my dark times. I am also grateful for my husband, who believed in me through this process even when I didn’t believe in myself at times.
I also want to send a message to any kids that are reading this and are considering college. Even if you want to pack up and get away to a faraway place, weigh out your financial options. Go to a community college to cheapen your bills and not take out an arm and a leg for your general education credits, and THEN transfer to where you want to go and pay the big bucks for the credits toward your major. Also, if you don’t know what you want to do with your life, don’t go to college right away then! The cost of college has sky rocketed even since I went to college twelve years ago. Don’t waste your money on something that your heart is not fully invested in. I also support the idea of going to college later in life. You have some time to find yourself and figure out what you want to do, and financially you are more aware of the risks of failing a class. Thus, taking college more seriously. You are also more knowledge in reading the fine print of student loans, instead of blindly signing the contract at eighteen not knowing a damn thing about it. Also, don’t listen to society’s standards for advancing your education. Only do it if you want to or if the career path you want requires it.
If you are struggling with your finances, just know that there will be a day that the misery will end. Your hard work will pay off if you work hard and believe that you can do it. I’m not saying that it will be easy. It will be worth it when you look back and realize that you just climbed one of the biggest and most challenging mountains of your life! Don’t be overwhelmed like I was and neglect it either. It will only make you fall into a deeper hole that will only be a worse situation to overcome.
I am very proud of the journey that I took that got me here. Based on my story that you just read, you would assume that I would have regrets…but I don’t. I wouldn’t be as wise as I am and as resilient as I have become without these extremely tough moments. It really does take for somebody to hit rock bottom to motivate them to become the best version of themselves. Losing everything makes you know how far you’ve come and where you never want to end up again. Just remember that in most challenges you face in your life, you are your own problem…and your solution.