I cannot afford to go back to engineering school

How I got screwed over by the FAFSA for working at a paid internship.

Well, there could be worse problems in life. Mine aren’t so bad; just frustrating. As I start to write this post, I am sitting in bed with a cider, bag of peanut M&Ms and Dexter playing in the background. Today, I unregistered myself from all my courses and officially became a college dropout. Here is my story:

The 2011-12 school year was a financial nightmare for me. Despite having federal loans and a work study job, I had to borrow money from my friends and max out my credit cards just to make ends meet. On top of the demanding engineering schedule and financial stress, I had health problems to deal with. I was in my third year of electrical engineering degree and it felt like I was sinking.

That summer I started my first engineering internship for six months from June to December, making $25.85 an hour working for a well-known tech company. I was drowning in debt. I needed to pay off credit cards, finish up paying my tuition from the last year, and I was worried about rent. It made no sense for me to stay in school; the financial stress was affecting my ability to get work done, and subsequently my GPA dropped. As a result, I fell below the requirement for most scholarships.

After my six month internship, I broke even. I barely had $1,000 before starting the next semester. I knew that in order to take the classes I wanted to take and afford it, I needed to wait to start school again in the fall. So, starting in spring, I decided that I would take the off rest of the 2012-13 school year by doing another six month internship, which came with a pay increase and a move to the far more expensive Bay Area.

To make the most out of my second internship, I took drastic measures to save as much money as I could, in hopes of putting myself in a much more financially stable position in order to afford my education. For the last six months, I was very lucky to cut costs by primarily eating the free meals provided at my work, couch surfing with friends, and living modestly. Then, I found that it didn’t matter; I was worse off than I was before.

This June, I was notified that my financial aid was reduced from $16,000 to $104 because I had made too much money in 2012, which put me in a higher income bracket to receive less financial aid. I was shocked. I had saved so much to cover the costs of living for the upcoming school year, but I definitely had not saved enough money to cover my tuition costs in full.

This system baffles me. Every attempt to contact my financial aid office has been unhelpful. I’m simply dismissed as having worked too much. Even though it looks great on paper how much I made last year, the reality is my internships are not a sustainable income that can put me through school.

There are unpaid internships out there, however I am lucky to be in a field where mine came with a paycheck. How many articles have you read about Google interns? Many engineering students that go into this industry come from better financial backgrounds than I am. They have parents that pay for school and all their expenses, which makes their internship money pocket money. Not all of us are like that though—certainly not me. I am a financially independent student, and I haven’t taken out alternative loans, nor could I, because I don’t have anyone to cosign for me. All of my debt is government loans, but this time around I don’t even have the option to take those out.

There’s sometimes this sense in Silicon Valley that you don’t really need college and that self-directed learning and internships can be better. There is truth to that, and I can clearly create value. I’m passionate about engineering, but I feel like I’m fighting an uphill battle just to be where I am. It’s been really hard for me to stretch out my education like this. I feel punished for working hard. Students should be warned that doing a paid internship can negatively impact your ability to finish up paying for school. I don’t want to discourage people from taking paid internships — but this issue is important to highlight and people should talk about.