Alumni Giving Season

by Christina Nelson

It’s the holiday season again, which means it’s that time of year when universities try to raise more money from their alumni. Every year around this time, I start getting a call every day from an unknown number. At first, I ignore it, thinking it’s a wrong number. But I eventually realize that it’s someone calling from one of the universities I’ve attended and that they are not going to stop until they talk to an actual person.

Last year, I had been avoiding the call for a few weeks when, getting off the metro, I answered my phone without checking the number. In the past, I’ve always listened politely to the plea for cash before saying a firm-but-polite “no, thank you.”

This time, the NYU student on the phone said a donation would mean a lot to her, a scholarship student, because alumni donations go to scholarships. I graduated from NYU more than 10 years ago, and paid for it with a combination of scholarships cobbled together from multiple sources, my parents’ and grandparents’ savings, and student loans. But I couldn’t have gone without the scholarship I received from NYU — a discount on tuition, really — so the call caught my attention.

Alumni fundraising calls and their email and snail mail equivalents have always irked me. There is something so audacious about asking former students for donations — particularly if those former students still owe thousands of dollars in student loans. It’s even worse when the university you graduated from gave subsidized loans to professors and administrators, including the current U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, for second homes and built brand new campuses in China and Abu Dhabi.

Right around the time I received the call last year, I had started making a conscious effort to pay down my student loans more aggressively, sifting through my budget to find extra dollars to throw at my loans — $20 dollars here, $50 there. My loans from NYU are not that bad, but I deferred payments or paid the minimum for years as I worked in low-paying jobs, traveled, and worked abroad. They might have been paid off a few years ago if I had chosen a better paying field or stayed put and climbed whatever corporate ladder would take me.

I was finally making OK money, but because of extra debt I took on to finance my master’s degree, I was feeling more broke and frustrated than ever, wondering if I would ever have that extra chunk of my income back or if I would still be paying my student loans when I retired.

Finding a balance between paying as much as possible on my loans while also living my life has been a struggle. I used to vacillate between trying to live on a bare bones budget and not paying any attention to my spending. There were stretches of weeks or months when I would eat beans and rice a few nights a week, pack my lunch, and only watch movies at home to save money, turning down offers to go out with friends. But then I would eat out at a trendy new restaurant or spend too much on a concert, only to feel guilty the moment I swiped my credit card, the budgetary equivalent of bulimia.

Instead of repeating my usual “no, thank you” while I stood on the metro platform, I ripped into the student asking for a donation. Do you know those moments you wish you could take back, a lapse of judgment leads to a feeling of sinking shame when you realize you’ve just become what you never wanted to be? This is one of mine.

The mix of anger (“how can they take advantage of students like this?”) and guilt (“it’s my fault for taking out these loans”) I had been feeling about my loan debt spilled out onto this student I didn’t know, who probably needed the job more than she wanted it. She may even be facing the same situation when she graduates. I wondered, was her scholarship enough that she would happily write a check when those calls started coming in around the holidays? Or did she leave her job at the end of the night wondering if she would also end up yelling at someone she didn’t know who was doing a job she didn’t want for an hourly wage that wouldn’t make a dent in her tuition anyway?

Passengers walked around me towards the exit, glancing at me as they left the station. I told her I might give NYU money when I paid off my loans, but that it was unlikely. I was angry and my voice was rising. I told her that if NYU cared about scholarships, maybe administrators would use the money they’re spending on building their new global university on scholarships instead. And then I hung up.

Christina Nelson is a writer and editor in Washington, D.C. She last wrote about her nightmare student loan servicer.

Photo: slgckgc