Essay: Forgiveness, fear and student debt

My parents encouraged me to go to college, and pay for it myself. So I did. Now, more than 25 years and two degrees later, I still am.

When I was your age, my dad opined, I took a work study job at the university cafeteria and did factory work in the summer. That paid for all four years, he said, implying I could do the same. Hard work was the ticket to both a good education and financial freedom, I thought.

My mom attended a small community college in Northwest Iowa until she met my dad. Then she quit, got married and went to work. I remember bringing home a FAFSA application (for federal student aid) one day toward the end of high school, given to me by an encouraging school counselor. I asked my mom to help me fill it out. Oh gee, I don't know anything about those forms, Mom said. You're going to have to figure it out yourself. But, she added, don't worry. The government helps you when you're poor. To go to college these days, you have to be either very rich or very poor. I knew which one we were.

Work hard and figure it out for yourself. So I did.

As soon as I could convince my mom I was old enough, I began babysitting for families nearby. I was thirteen the first time that a very trusting couple left me with three kids and went out on date; I could smell alcohol wafting off of the dad as he drove me home later. Soon I was babysitting for least 5 different families when they had a need, taking any job I could get. One summer, I took a 40-hour a week job watching four kids while the mom went back to school and the dad was out farming. Most of the money went into my college fund. Even in middle school, I knew there was no family money for college. In summers, I also picked up rock in a neighbor's field, back-breaking and gritty work, but at least I got paid – my parents made me do the same for free on our own small farm, which was not nearly as satisfying.

As soon as I was 16, I put my application in at a local restaurant and took two to three shifts a week through my junior and senior years of high school. The money was better and the work was more fun, never mind the hours inhaling the second-hand smoke of men who called me girl or honey, or trying in vain to wash the reek of the deep fryer from my clothes. I still babysat whenever I could. I was earning money for college. I was going to make it.

During my senior year of high school, it was time to apply to colleges and for scholarships. I applied for every scholarship I could find: fraternal organizations, community organizations, foundations, and of course those at the school I ended up choosing – a Lutheran liberal arts college. Not nearly as cheap as Iowa State, my dad groused. He was right, but why did his opinion matter, I remember thinking. He wasn't paying for it.

The summer before I went to college, I added it all up: a generous academic scholarship at the college I chose, a Pell Grant for low-income students (thanks Mom and Dad), several community scholarships from organizations like the Masons and Farm Bureau, and all that babysitting/rock picking/waitressing money. It all added up year of college, debt free.

So I went and enjoyed the very last year of my life as a person with no debt: 1995. After that, I took out loans for the last three years of college. I also juggling two jobs in college: work study like my daddy and waitressing at night at a local pizza joint. I was also in a traveling college choir, several clubs, had a double major and even joined the track team one year. My grade point wasn't too shabby, either. Did I ever sleep? I can't remember. It was fun and it was a hustle.

Summers in college I worked at a Lutheran summer camp. Those were no factory wages and some days I felt guilty or wistful for the money I could (should?) be earning elsewhere. But that was when the call to ministry started, I recognize in retrospect, and some things are stronger than money's allure.

I graduated from college with moderate debt, all things considered. I wanted to go to seminary but who had money for grad school? I wanted take a year off and do Lutheran Volunteer Corp or teach English overseas – same problem. So, I got a job at local newspaper and started paying off those loans. If I'd stayed there, I'd be debt free by now. But the call to ministry would not leave me alone and after only a couple years, I went to seminary. Here is where my shoulds begin.

I should have attended the least expensive seminary I could find. I should have waited until I had paid down more on my student loans. I should have realized that the seminary I did select didn't actually have as much money to offer me as the charming admissions recruiter indicated. He told me he would put my name in for a full-ride scholarship that our denomination was offering. I would probably get it. I was wooed by the chance to go to school on the West coast. I would see the world! I would have adventure! I would serve the Lord! I would probably get a full ride!

I made plans to go. I did not get a full ride. Three of us incoming students were nominated for two full tuition scholarships, and I wasn't picked. I went to that seminary anyway. And that's when my financial situation deteriorated.

Living in California was not like living in the Midwest. Everything was expensive. And I wanted to see my new home, so I traveled some, mostly hiking and camping trips, but those still require food and gas. I got a work study job on campus, and then took a second job as a fitness instructor at a YMCA. It was not enough. I took out loans. I took out more loans. My credit cards filled up. I couldn't get ahead. I ate mostly rice and noodles. I could barely keep up. One day I got a parking ticket and I couldn't for the life of me figure out where I was going to get the one hundred and something dollars to pay for it. I still can't remember what I did.

The loans piled up. I didn't even look at them anymore. I had no idea how much I owed. It was too embarrassing. Here I was trying to follow God – why had He led me into debt? Either I was a fool or God was and you can guess where I landed.

For my first call out of seminary, I only considered congregations that could afford to pay me well. The bishop suggested I consider a small-town congregation that sounded great, until he told me I might have to knock on a few doors to help raise my salary. Hard pass. I landed a job that allowed me to slowly begin crawling out of debt. I paid on that debt. I paid and I paid and I paid. The principle dropped imperceptibly at first. I took a second job teaching yoga and increased my payment. I paid and I paid and I paid. I was embarrassed. I still could barely look at the total amount owed. I couldn't preach on stewardship or invite people in my congregation to give. I was hardly giving anything to the church and felt terrible about that and about myself.

I wish I could say that I finally made my last payment on my student loans or I took on yet another job or found some creative way to dramatically cut my expenses and get that thing paid off sooner. Nope. I'm still paying, as of today, September 22, 2022. My plan, when I was single, was to keep working until my 70s and carry enough life insurance so my parents could discharge my student loan debt and pay my funeral expenses if I died early (I assumed if they couldn't pay then, they couldn't now!)

But my financial situation has improved, via the most old-fashioned way in the book: I married up.

My husband is older than me, makes more money at his job, and holds only an undergraduate degree, so I could understand why he was in a better position. But as were getting to know each other and dreaming of building a life together, I learned one other important difference: his parents paid for his college education. (Side note: he did have a job in high school to save up for a car and other expenses.) I remember when he told me this on a date and I was floored. I thought of the years of fear, worry, hustle, juggle, guilt and frustration. What would it be like if that simply wasn't there? I'm proud of the life I've made, but I wonder what it could have been like without that extra layer of fear and uncertainty? What would that freedom have given to me? To those around me?

Now, after living with student debt for about 26 years, I might – might – be about to get out of it. Not by my own determination of paying and paying and paying and not by my husband's generosity (we decided when we married that I'd keep paying down my student debt and he'd shoulder a greater burden for home and family expenses). No, I might – might – get out of debt because a former senator from Delaware has a plan.

The president's plan to forgive up to $10,000 of student loan debt and up to $20,000 for Pell Grant recipients will directly impact me, a Pell Grant recipient. Probably. If this plan doesn't get challenged in court. And if my loans are the “right” ones (I called my loan servicer and they said yes, but like Thomas in the Bible, I may need to see it to believe). After being in debt since 1996 and paying hundreds of dollars every month, I still owe....$21,000. I can't imagine what it would feel like to have most of that erased. Will it be like a person leaving prison after a long sentence? Can I even imagine myself as a person out of debt? Who am I without that sheen of fear and worry? I don't know.

I never expected my debt to be forgiven. I don't qualify for other debt forgiveness programs because I haven't been paying long enough, or I don't have the right kind of job and, more recently when many clergy are getting federal debt forgiveness, because I work part-time and not full time. I expected my debt to be with me always, like Jesus. It was my responsibility and mine alone. It feels weird to be forgiven. Like I don't deserve it.

You can scroll social media and find many who will agree with this. Freeloading, lazy people with student debt like me don't deserve to have it forgiven. We should have planned better, attended a cheaper college, worked harder and drank fewer Starbucks lattes. Why should we mooch off the government and taxpayers like this?

The thing about forgiveness is that it's never earned – it's a wildly generous gift. Not one of us deserves anything, really, in a cosmic sense. Martin Luther said the purpose of the law (as opposed to the gospel, the good news) was for us to see our own wretchedness and let it drive us to Christ. If you have ever been a person who can't find $100 to pay a parking fine, then you already know how to feel your own wretchedness. There is no meme or internet troll who can make you feel worse, more guilty, more fearful and more undeserving than you already do.

Debt relief will ease financial burdens and emotional ones, too. I have a baseline level of fear and guilt that I am going to have to let go, or maybe God will lift it for me when I see all zeros in my Navient account. Jesus knew about this kind of freedom, too. He healed the sick, forgave sinners and welcomed strangers at the table, not just to ease their physical wounds but to tend to the soul pain, too. There's a story in the gospels about Jesus healing Peter's mother-in-law and she gets up and starts serving them – which I used to dislike because the feminist in me balked at the idea of women always rushing after men's needs. But there is a dignity of work and service that you can do if you're not broken down, physically or emotionally or socially.

About two years ago at this time, I was pregnant with our third child. Going over our finances one day, my husband casually mentioned the amount in the college account that will be shared by our children. I quickly divided the sum by three in my head. I looked down at my swollen belly, patting it gently, thinking: this kid already has more money for college than I, with all my hustle, was ever able to amass.

Perhaps my children won't know student debt (although maybe they will – you're on your own for grad school, kids). Part of me worries that they won't know the rewards of hard work and sacrifice that I learned and the satisfaction of figuring it out and getting by on your own. But maybe they can learn those things in other ways, perhaps getting a job and saving for other expenses. And maybe self-reliance is a little bit overrated in the body of Christ. We need other people. I want my children to learn hard work, perseverance, delayed gratification and more, but without the Damocles sword of fear and guilt that has hung over my head for so much of my life. That sword has got to go.


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