Living with Student Loans

A broken student loan system is ruining my life

Melissa Byrne
Jun 9, 2014 · 6 min read

Today and throughout this week, the President and Democratic Senators are going to announce baby steps on dealing with student loans. I’m an organizer with an insurmountable student loan burden like the 40 million other Americans with student loans. This is my story of how I came to have over $100,000 in student loans a decade after leaving school- and my hope for how this may change.

I don’t remember exactly, but sometime in my late teens I made a choice about how to relate to the world. I grew up in a single parent family where my mom worked so hard to keep up in a home. My teen years were disrupted when my father decided to enter the scene and throw everything into chaos. I decided I could either become bitter or I could work to make sure other people didn’t suffer.

So with that in mind, I left home and entered college. I didn’t understand the financial aid process. I didn’t understand the why there were few grants and more loans. I didn’t know that I had a voice. I just knew that I had to take out these loans if I wanted to have the education my mom instilled in me every day of my life to get.

This was before I had the vocabulary of organizing. So, with a fire in my belly for justice, I immersed myself in organizing. I organized to close the School of the Americas, support better wages and working conditions for sweatshop workers, taught children who lived in the abject poverty of 1999 Newark, and worked passionately on other issues. All of this happened while I was in college and signing away my future each semester to Sallie Mae.

Now that I’m over a decade out of school, I think a lot about my over $100,000 of debt from college. That’s the amount I owe after already paying tens of thousands of dollars. It’s my $60,00 defaulted to Sallie Mae. It’s my $20,000 with co-signers in repayment . It’s my $20,000 federal consolidated. (Yes,my first college lied to me about how to take out loans and I ended up getting less federal loans and more private loans.). It’s my $7,000 of my final tuition bill when I was tapped out on taking out more loans. I don’t remember the original principal of my loans. But between deferrals and forbearance, I learned the tragic lesson of compounded interest.

I think about how my student loans left me with horrible credit. I think about anxiety I feel every month just to keep treading water. I remember running out of money and campaigns- scrounging for quarters for gas money until my next check came. I have no savings, and well retirement- I’ll be lucky if my loans are paid off by then— let alone any savings.

I’ve been lucky. I learned the beautiful history of organizing in our country, and across the globe. I ended up in handcuffs twice. I worked on winning campaigns. I worked on losing campaigns. I occupied. I saw the strength of allies who would fight through the Devil himself to get to a win in their community.

But even though I came from a working class family, I always felt like I was a facilitator uplifting other people’s stories. I forgot that I had a story and that I had skin in the game to make this country better, and that I needed justice for me, and for the 40 million others like me with insurmountable student loan debt.

Organizing is systematic and analytical. It’s issue, anger, hope, action. You work with someone you are organizing to help them tell their story, feel their anger, explain how there is hope, and then get them to commit to an action to bring about change. I had done this so many times and I’d never gotten tired of seeing the light in someone’s eyes when they realize their own empowerment.

Throughout all my work, I knew a big part of it was connecting through story and also talking folks into staying involved when the government moved at a snails pace. Or when Congress made horrendous choice like authorizing the War in Iraq. Or when the President wouldn’t sign an executive order to enact ENDA or to end deportations. I would listen and smile and gently but forcefully remind people that everything is a stepping stone. That today’s baby step of Obamacare would be tomorrow’s launch of single payer health care, even if that tomorrow might take fifteen years. This isn’t to say I never got frustrated but I could also see the very long arc of justice. Perhaps, all my faith in the world is in that arc.

Needless to say, I wasn’t prepared for the flood of tears that accompanied the announcement of Sen. Warren’s bill to reduce to student loan interest rates to around 3.6%. I didn’t have to do the math to realize that the savings over the lifetime of my loans would be minimal. Likewise, the President’s executive order to cap federal student loan repayment at 10% of income doesn’t tackle the heart of the crisis. I realized that these solutions wouldn’t provide me real relief or justice. And, this goes for most of the other 40 million with student loan debt. It doesn’t do much for the class of 2014 entering college in a few months.

I have no economic future. The math is not in my favor. I made a choice to get the college education I needed. And, while some would argue I should get a job on Wall Street or go to law school. But, Wall Street collapsed and law school means more loans. I am proud that I work everyday to make our country a more just place. I believe in an America where the American jobs market shouldn’t have a tariff known as a college tuition that prevents people from getting an education or forces them to work in field just to pay back their loans. We can surely do better.

In many ways the 40 million of us are all tributes who volunteered to compete in the college version of the Hunger Games. Our debt was an act of resistance to college system that makes college education a gift from parents to children. We volunteered to carry the burden so that we could get an education and the skills to support our families and communities. We took with us the hopes of our families and stood on our two feet because of their sacrifices.

Why should any student have a limited future because of their parents “lack of wealth”?

I was told that if I studied hard and went to college I would be able to move forward in America. I would be able to work hard to expand the American Dream for people who come behind me. I would be able to support my mom for all the support she gave me. Instead, I find that there is no option for relief to have a decent quality of life. To go to college, I mortgaged my future. Meanwhile, colleges grew their endowments, quit hiring full time faculty, and Congress bailed out Wall Street banks instead of supporting folks with student loan debt.

I am full of anger because I know that an interest rate reduction here, or a cap on payments there, won’t make my life better or the lives of the 40 million dramatically better. It’s surface level, message-level actions that don’t tackle the real problem of student loans— the principal. It’s the reality that 40 million Americans have student loans, and that millions more take out loans every single year. I am full of anger because we need a broad vision for student loan forgiveness as a form of direct economic investment, and we need a future of free higher education.

I don’t like that the first steps to fixing the horrible college finance system is less than a baby step. I hate that people are telling me to be patient and to trust organizers. I just want to yell and scream and tweet anger filled messages. I want justice so badly for me and the other 40 million in the country like me. I want us all to have the future we deserve- one that is beautifully loan free.

And, it is here, in these moments of tears that I am now a stronger organizer. I understand now why it is just so painfully horrible to have to wait through the slow moving process of Congress. I understand why being told to see the long game doesn’t heal the pain of the moment.

But, I’ll listen to the advice I’ve given so many other people: See the long game through the pain of today. I remind all of those with loans that we are powerful, we are resisters to a college system designed to exclude us. I’ll remember even on the hardest days that the organizers are trying their hardest, and that most of our electeds are trying their best.

And, I’ll stand up and organize, too. I’ll organize as an impacted community members demanding justice for myself and the 40 million.

We will win student loan forgiveness.

We will win loan free higher education for all students. @ Medium

Worth your time.

    Melissa Byrne

    Written by

    I’m an organizer by calling. @ Medium

    Worth your time.