It is very hard to articulate the anguish of a heavy student loan burden. After countless drafts and attempts to frame this in an impersonal way, I am now convinced that the only way to get the message across is for me to tell you my story. I can throw facts around all day, but without humanizing the real toll that daunting student debt is having on our society, we cannot expect to change anything.
As hard as this is going to be, and as much ridicule that will inevitably be thrown my way by fly-by trolls, I have to share this—if only to let you know, you are not alone. I am inevitably building a new stop on the Blame Train Railway, opening myself to the dissection of each of my life’s decisions and how they are ultimately my fault. Hop aboard, take a picture while you’re passing through. It doesn’t matter.
My story is only one of millions of stories of American students caught in this trap and I promise you, we are not any more stupid than anyone else was at the age of 18-23. The difference is our mistake was seeking an education—our mistake was doing what was beat into us from the beginning of elementary school: “Go to college, you’ll get a great job and make great money!”
I just want to offer a little perspective. I will not be citing sources here because this is from my heart, feel free to fact check me. Before you do, however, make sure you read my blogs about student loans as well.
Without further ado, here are what I consider to be the important events in my life that landed me where I am today.
I grew up in Lubbock, Texas. To be honest, it was wonderful. Growing up in a place like Lubbock has its consequences, though. I was very sheltered. I thought that everyone was polite, said ‘excuse me,’ and held the door open for others.
My parents, both from Lubbock, got married at the age of 22. When I was born, my mother was 27—by West Texas standards, she waited a long time. My dad earned his associate’s degree at the local community college, but neither of my parents finished their bachelor’s degrees. My dad is a master auto technician and my mom recently retired after 30+ years of service to the United States Postal Service. They made decent livings and as far as my sister and I knew, we were comfortable.
Unfortunately, my parents got divorced while I was in high school. Our comfortable middle class life, took a nose dive. It was the first time that I became aware of how expensive life was. I knew I would be going to college—my dad, teachers and society made it clear that I did not have an option.
Even back then, both of my parents, especially my dad, regretted not earning an undergraduate degree. My dad would tell me how his options were severely limited if he ever wanted to change careers. He instilled in me that knowledge is power, the power to control your own life. The power to work for a great company and be able to leave a bad one. The power to find what you love and having the tools to know how to make money at it.
Something else my dad always told me was that I could get my college paid for if I could get a scholarship playing soccer. From the third grade until I finished high school, this became my goal. This was not for the reasons you think, however. In my teenage mind, this was a way to extend my soccer career. Up until this point, I had never loved anything more than I loved soccer. It was everything. I had very little interest in school, but I had always done well. I was excited to receive a small athletic scholarship at Texas Tech and this is where I started my college journey.
When I began attending Texas Tech in 2002, the price of tuition was around $2,000/semester. Although I had a small scholarship, the bulk of my college tuition burden fell on my dad for two years. At the end of the 2003/2004 season, I made the decision to transfer colleges. Back then, Texas Tech soccer was not good and it was not a good fit for me to stay in Lubbock.
I visited several schools and ultimately fell in love with Berry College in Rome, Georgia. For those of you who are not familiar with Berry, it is the largest, and arguably most beautiful, college campus in the country. Their women’s soccer team has also won 3 national titles.
More importantly, I had finally done it! My [private liberal arts] college was paid for. How lucky can I be? Now, I know how fortunate I was, but back then? No way. I went to college to play soccer. I did not play soccer to go to college.
I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. I was sure that I did not have to decide during college and that I would figure it out later. In all honesty, I believed I would be a soccer coach for the rest of my life.
Thus, I did not put much thought into my degree choice. Nobody had ever discussed with me that some degrees are worth about as much as the paper they are printed on. My parents could never have advised me that no degree—no matter how lucrative your major is—guarantees money or happiness. They did not go through the college process like me. How could they have known?
More importantly, though, none of my academic advisors had ever said anything to me about this phenomenon. Nobody said, “Hey, maybe you don’t want to change your psychology major to interdisciplinary studies.” In reality, either degree is largely worthless without graduate school, but one is less worthless than the other. No one ever challenged me on my life’s path or tried to hold me accountable. I did not hold me accountable, either. Honestly, I did not have the tools to do this for myself.
As a college-age woman from small-town West Texas, I had no idea what I was doing. Of course I have some responsibility in this. I should have asked more questions, but for the life of me, I’m not sure how I would have even known what questions to ask.
When I finished my B.S. in Interdisciplinary Studies (Sport Psychology), my parents were so proud. Honestly, so was I. I had lived away from home for the first time in my life. I worked at the HVAC department for the entire time I was at Berry. I coached soccer and interned with the best coaches in the business. It was amazing. You can imagine my shock when I graduated and nobody gave a shit that I had gone to college.
Real-World Bitch Slap
The summer after I finished college, I coached soccer camps full-time. After the summer was over, I was at a loss about what to do next. I had never had this little structure in my life. I had always had a very specific schedule. I knew what the expectations were. Keep your grades up, practice hard, travel for games, work, and repeat. I saw my best friends every day at practice where we blew off steam—sometimes even aimed at each other. But in the end, when we walked off the field we were one. In the real world, I was totally alone and quickly realized that not everyone “leaves it on the field.”
Soccer is a very physical (and sometimes violent) game, but it is much more civilized than the “real world.” I would take a broken hand/ankle/finger over someone conspiring behind my back, setting me up to fail, or treating me unfairly in a way that is hard to explain, but made me feel like trash.
To make matters worse, I needed a plantar fascia release and a tarsal tunnel release on my foot. Years in cleats had left me with battle wounds. My soccer career was over. I was not even sure I could ever coach again because the pain was so bad.
I began substituting for Lubbock ISD and then got a full-time job as an attendance clerk at Lubbock High School. I made $765/month once a month. The receptionist at the time was an attorney. She had just passed the bar and she made less money than me.
I was officially pissing my pants. What the hell was I going to do with my life?
I started looking at graduate school and was between getting a master’s degree in business or marriage and family therapy. I had never taken a business class before and honestly, it scared me. I had never considered myself to be that intelligent but I thought, if I work hard, I can learn anything. Plus, business school is a very pragmatic choice, right? I had never been pragmatic in my life because up until this moment, I had not thought that much about what my life after soccer would look like. I was a kid. And I was invincible. I didn’t need a plan B.
MBA—Where I fell in love with learning
Since earning my MBA, I believe there are generally two types of people that pursue graduate degrees. The first type are the people that earn a master’s degree for a purpose. It is the last degree they ever want to earn. Some of them begrudgingly went back to school for a specific purpose—get a credential, get a promotion or get a master’s degree and the company will pay for it. They have a plan in mind and this is just a stop on their path.
The second type of person is more like me. I pursued a business degree, not because I love business, but because it seemed like the responsible thing to do. Once this type of person begins a graduate degree, they are consumed by it. They take the ethics courses seriously, they begin reading the Wall Street Journal, and start following politics. That was me. I made it my responsibility to get a 4.0 GPA. I was that person.
I did not end up with my dream GPA (I finished with a 3.8), but I was so proud of myself. Along the way I had met many JD/MBA candidates. After talking to law students and taking an extra business law class as an elective, I started to believe that my MBA did not have to be my last degree.
I began to become passionate about something other than soccer. After learning about corporations, finance, and the law for two years, I was disgusted by Corporate America. To me it seemed greedy, heartless and manipulative. As if I was not jaded enough, I was in the middle of my MBA when the crash happened.
I thought how lucky I was that the market crashed a year before I was set to graduate, so maybe things would be better by then. I watched my friends look for work for years after that. By the time May 2009 rolled around, I had been accepted to Florida International University College of Law after it became clear that the economy was not bouncing back any time soon.
I did not ever receive a scholarship from Texas Tech, but at the time, after finishing my MBA (and working as a graduate assistant for two years), I had approximately $23,000 in student debt. Between 2002 when I first attended Texas Tech to 2009, tuition had already risen significantly, but unbeknownst to me, tuition was about to get much higher in the coming years.
I made my decision to attend an out-of-state law school very carefully. It was not a whimsical decision and I tirelessly researched state laws on in-state tuition and how I could get the most out of my education without racking up enormous debt. Then, it all bit me in the ass. It just goes to show that no matter how much you plan, there are always going to be things in your life that are out of your control. Some of these things affect the rest of your life, some don’t. This was more the former than the latter.
Why did I choose FIU? Why did I not just stay in Texas? I chose FIU because my new husband and I had made a decision to start our new lives together on our terms. I had only lived in Lubbock, Texas and Rome, Georgia—not the most progressive or modern cities. My husband had never lived anywhere but Lubbock. We decided to move somewhere that we would never in a million years thought we would ever go. Plus, wherever we chose had to have an affordable tuition structure and an MBA program nearby.
Why did I not just stay in Texas? I am not conservative and I have always felt like I did not belong. I needed a change in my life. Texas Tech was the most affordable option for me, but I was not accepted at Texas Tech before I was offered admission to FIU. With deadlines looming to accept a seat in a law class, I committed myself to FIU before Texas Tech ever called.
When I applied, and after I was accepted at FIU, I confirmed with the school that after I had lived in Florida for a year, had a Florida residence, etc. that I could be reconsidered as an in-state student for tuition purposes.
It was my intention to stay in Florida, after all. I joined the Florida bar and got a Florida drivers’ license. Unbeknownst to me, in July of 2009, one month before I was to begin orientation at FIU, the State of Florida passed a law making it impossible for an out-of-state student to be reconsidered for in-state tuition. I was never informed by my school that this happened.
Instead, I learned about the legislation from a friend at the end of my first semester. I was inconsolable. I poured everything I had into moving to Miami. My husband and I spent an entire year apart. He stayed in Lubbock to finish his bachelor’s degree, and I lived in the dorms. During my 1L year, my husband was accepted into an MBA program in Fort Lauderdale and he was set to start in Fall 2010.
We planned our wedding for the summer of 2010. We had saved for years and were able to throw a very inexpensive affair in Las Vegas. We no longer had a place to live in Texas. We had packed up our things and shipped them to Florida. My husband was about to start his master’s degree and I was starting my second year of law school. We were all in. We could not afford to not go-both financially and for our futures. We were both in phenomenal programs and learning so much, plus we were broke.
Attending law school and living in Miami was transformational. I had never been around Jewish people, I had never met a Cuban. I was one of those Texan assholes who thought all brown people were probably Mexican. I had never heard of paella, I had never had a Publix sub, and I had never felt like such a cracker! I made the best friends of my life, people that I trust with my life, my heart and my soul.
It is a strange feeling loving and feeling passionate about your life decisions, and regretting them all at the same time. The impending doom of a life of debt is enough to give a person an ulcer. But again, I was young and lawyers made good money, right?
As I pursued my law degree, the debt racked up. Living in Miami is very expensive, but we lived 40 minutes north of Miami proper in Miami Lakes where the rent is much more reasonable. The problem was never the rent, though.
Like my MBA, I dedicated myself to my studies. I graduated cum laude and 22/141 in my class. In the interest of full disclosure, I did not receive any financial aid during law school (other than federal student aid—including a $5,000 grant each year).
As I made my way through my studies, getting a high-paying job after law school began to impregnate my every thought. What I really wanted to do was teach and find a way to practice law that made me feel like I was actually helping others. Down at my core, it has never been about money for me.
It was too late for me now. I had to grow up and get a job and pay back my debts. I interned with a federal judge, a small law firm and worked as a teacher’s aid. I knew after my small firm experience, that Big Law was probably not going to be a good fit for me. Big law firms are not places to learn how to be a good lawyer. But big law firms are the only hope you have for paying off your student loans.
The real work, the real justice, is in the hands of your public defenders (and some state attorneys who will probably get a little booty hurt over this sentence) and they make less money than teachers in some cases. You learn how to be a real advocate in public service work, but good luck paying your bills.
By the time I graduated in 2012, the job market in south Florida was still reeling from the crash four years prior. Further, the law market was flooded. The University of Miami, Florida International, Nova Southeastern University and St. Thomas are all within a 30 minute drive of each other and they all have law schools. My husband was being offered jobs as a COO making $20,000/year . . . that’s just south Florida. He finally was offered a consulting job in Dallas, and after Florida bent me over and f*cked me, I was ready to get back home.
Esquire in Medium Law
I took the Texas bar the summer of 2012. It was a horrible summer to say the least. I was offered a job at a firm in uptown Dallas. It was a national firm with multiple offices. I made a good salary, but I was miserable.
If you follow my blog then you know about the prevalence of depression among graduates with student debt. If you know anything about the practice of law, you know that the job “Associate Attorney” has been dubbed the worst job in America at one point. The industry is plagued with high suicide rates, depression and anxiety disorders, substance abuse and destitution. Being a lawyer does not guarantee that you will make money, and for most people, it is statistically likely to result in an unhappy career.
It’s no wonder with stagnant wages, high billable hour requirements (mine was 2,000 minimum), and the old tales of Christmas bonuses of yesteryear, being an attorney is no longer a lucrative profession for the majority of practicing attorneys. After gritting through a year-and-a-half of hyper-misogynistic, high-pressure and largely unnecessary emotional turmoil, I resigned from the firm. To be clear, however, I did not hate the work. I actually really enjoyed it. The problem was that the firm culture was toxic. It began to affect my mental and physical health. It was a strain on my marriage. It wasn’t worth it.
I had a choice: (1) my health, sanity, marriage; or (2) work, a.k.a. money. But really it was not really a choice; it was merely prolonging the inevitable. The loans are never going away. The anxiety about never having control over your financial future is never going away either—at least not for 25 years. By that time, I’ll be 57. I guess I’ll start saving for retirement then . . .
From Then to Now and the Lasting Scars of Student Loans
Since I gained my freedom from firm life, I have been on a journey of self-discovery and getting help for the depression and anxiety issues that I have had my whole life but were exacerbated during law school and working at the firm. I coached soccer in the meantime until an 8-year old took me out at a soccer camp. I blew out my ankle and said goodbye to soccer one more time.
It took a lot of time and angst, but I finally have a law practice I am really proud of—and I’m actually helping people! It’s still not about the money—and trust me when I tell you, not all lawyers are rich. I have rediscovered my love of art and writing. During this time of reflection and healing, I deferred my loans. I knew I could not jump back into a job like the one I had before. I knew I would not make it. I knew it would destroy my life.
I recently went back into repayment and it has been very stressful and it will only get worse. I am currently using the income-based repayment and it’s a double-edged sword: (1) make more money, get a higher student loan bill; or (2) continue to scrape by so that the loan payments do not go up. They already rival our mortgage payment. How can we pay the equivalent of two mortgages and still live our lives? Right now, we don’t really live our lives.
Student loans invade every purview of my being. Can we afford life insurance, how many times a month can we go out on a date, what if the car breaks down, what if the water heater craps out, what if . . . Everyone has these ‘what if’s’ and there are people in real dire circumstances. I never want to minimize poverty or the financial struggles of others.
For college graduates, though, we went to school to avoid feeling this pressure and angst for the rest of our lives. We went to school to avoid poverty. Now school has broken us financially. It is not a hole we can dig out of with hard work and determination. The only way we get out of this hole is to work our lives away always chasing a higher pay check or win the lottery—most of us can’t afford lottery tickets, though.
It is completely possible that 20 years from now we will be asking ourselves the same questions because there is no light at the end of this tunnel. Student loans are like a black hole for millions of us. They are so powerful, even light cannot escape.
We are drowning every day.
Mine and my husband’s student loans could pay the rent on a really nice apartment or a mortgage on a decent house. We also pay a real mortgage (the kind where you actually gain equity and get something in return for 30 years of consecutive payments). Just like everyone else, we need a place to live, we need transportation and we have to be able to go on a date with each other once and a while. We do not take extravagant vacations, we do not buy clothes, we cut our cable, we seek out free activities, and we spend a lot of time at the dog park and at our friends’ houses.
The dread of being perpetually financially impotent infects every facet of our lives. It’s the reason we stay in jobs we hate. It’s the reason we drink. We are so afraid of losing everything, that we never do anything.
I would never wish this burden on my worst enemy. It can wreck your life and destroy your relationships. It is exhausting sounding like a broken record player, “That’s just too expensive;” “We can’t afford to do that;” etc. What a bore we’ve become. #FirstWorldProblems
But really, how hopeless we’ve become.
I struggle with the question, “If you could go back, would you do it again?” I have to answer honestly and say I don’t know. Law school made me who I am today. Those experiences I had in my MBA and law school can never be taken away. My knowledge and my credentials cannot be taken away, but I am not too prideful to say that I am not sure they were worth the rest of my life.
I feel guilty, and I feel proud. I love who I am (and who I will be), but I hate the cloud that will hang over my head for the next 25 years. I feel like I committed a crime. I feel like I ruined my life and my husband’s life.
My generation is defined by this debt and it is going to get worse. At least we are not alone even though it may feel like it.
Stay strong and get out and vote. #FeelTheBern
Peace and love,