This essay is from a finalist for the 2020 Student Loan Planner Scholarship.
I’m currently five years into my career as an acupuncturist and traditional Chinese medical herbalist. This means I’m also five years into my student loan payment plan with the PAYE program.
I’ve long had an unconventional approach to life. I loved playing first the recorder, and then the trumpet, as well as spending long hours wandering around the Pine Barrens of NJ where I grew up, trying to figure out what the plants I found could be used for (or ideally, eaten). It wasn’t until I was older that I realized I might make a career out of these interests.
When I tell people I have student loans and that I have four college degrees, two of which are for music, they automatically assume the loans were for music, a profession not known to be especially lucrative. My reality was a lot different.
I worked hard to get scholarships to undergraduate school. I attended the school that offered the most money to me. I maximized my learning by completing two degrees (music and environmental geology) in four years (I was allowed to take any amount of credits I wanted with the dean’s permission- I took 23 on average most semesters). I worked 20+ hours a week in work-study jobs. I then attended grad school that was tuition-free and paid living expenses at a university where I had the same teacher as the conservatory in town. I had three college degrees before I ever had a dime of debt.
Not having debt allowed me to truly make a career out of music during my twenties. I was able to take risks and learn other styles of music than the classical and early music I learned in school. Gradually I found my niche in Balkan and Turkish music, which I continue to perform to this day.
However, age 30 approached. I didn’t have health insurance, I didn’t have savings for more than a few months before I’d need to use it again. More importantly, we fell into the recession of the late 2000s.
I lost 75% of my “day” job – a part-time admin position in the music department of a major university, and that I’d held for six years – with one day’s notice.
Students dropped out of private lessons at the private schools I was teaching at and often dropped out of the schools completely. Pick-up orchestras dried up, musical theaters closed down, weddings stopped hiring as many live musicians. After a failed attempt for a new start in Los Angeles (where I faced misogyny and actual sexual propositions and blacklisting when I refused) and about 1500 job applications out East and West, I decided I needed to go back to school and try for a medical field. I assumed that having a medical degree was a ticket to financial success and security, unlike the music degrees I had before.
My interest in herbs and preventative medicine led me to traditional Chinese medicine, in which many therapies (acupuncture, herbal medicine, cupping, gua sha, nutrition, meditation, even tai chi and qi gong) are part of how illnesses are treated and the body is restored.
Facing possible homelessness, I read as much as I could, interviewed some local practitioners, and jumped in and applied. I found the medicine a natural fit- allowing me to integrate both the scientific and creative parts of me, both of which are crucial to being an effective acupuncturist.
My school was mid-priced, and I took out the max of student loans to help me deal with the cost of living in West LA – jobs were hard to come by and the only reliable ones I had were through the school at minimum wage.
Acupuncture schools simply don’t have scholarships, unfortunately. I still ended up living in a van and doing house-sitting for the last 2.5 years of school because I couldn’t find an affordable long-term place to live, and it seemed like throwing money away. Our teachers never spoke too much about how exactly we were going to make a living once we finished.
We had one class supposedly on business skills that had an awful lot of people coming in to demonstrate products we could buy or insurance we could get policies from. We were told we were paying a lot for our education – in terms of both study efforts and cost – and that we should get well-compensated for it.
I hold a different view.
For years I’ve told my patients that my student loans are not their karma. It’s more a problem with the educational system in this country and probably the healthcare and insurance industries, too. A lot of people feel not just anxiety from their loans, but profound guilt. To me, I decided to focus on my commitment to health and keeping things affordable, participating in a few community acupuncture positions over the years. I didn’t feel bad since I was helping people to feel better and live more fulfilling lives. What some of those teachers told us about our “worth” increasingly smacked of privilege to me.
After my first 2.5 years out of school, I knew I needed to get my mental and physical health figured out before I felt stable enough to treat patients. I spent time traveling the world with the little money I’d saved, work I picked up along the way, and acupuncture volunteering, then two thru-hikes surrounding time working as an acupuncturist on cruise ships.
I moved back to my old city, Philadelphia. Jobs were not plentiful compared to the West coast, but the experience I’d gained abroad allowed me to find regular, if not high paying (community acupuncture usually pays $18-22/hr), work. I could forge a life more steady than when I was a musician, and for the first time, I was able to accrue emergency savings and open a retirement account at age 38. My music career rejuvenated as well, and I met the love of my life. In February 2020 I had such high hopes for the future.
By April, a completely different mood prevailed.
Most of my friends in the Philly area are in the arts and entertainment field and have lost their jobs unless they were a teacher. It’s now August and I don’t know any of them who have gotten a new one, although many (including my partner) have made do with delivery app gigs.
I was mainly working at a semi-private community acupuncture practice- which had more space and easier facilities to clean. We were able to stay at least partially open physically and additionally offer telemedicine. We are maybe back to 30% of patients. Two of four acupuncturists have left. My other works closed and have not reopened yet. I was able to apply for unemployment (PUA), and while it’s taken many, many phone calls and research, I’ve received at least some of it.
In the last week, I accepted positions starting an acupuncture program in two new facilities. 2020 will be the 2nd year I’ve broken $30k in earnings (just barely hit it in 2019), and $40-50k might even happen depending on the success of the new workplaces, despite my music income going to nearly zero.
I have so many mixed feelings about being an acupuncturist at this time. We are considered an essential service, but not as high risk as many other health workplaces. I feel grateful for reliable work, let alone to do something that improves health and immune systems. People are so grateful right now to simply be touched and heard by more than the people in their house or apartment. I feel I am providing a safe environment but am I being a vector unintentionally in such a high-risk area as Philly/NJ? No one has gotten sick, but it is a worry of mine.
I also feel pressure to work as much as possible. Yeah, I don’t work in the ICU, but I am touching people, I’m in their personal space. My partner and I don’t have children to worry about, and our parents are in good health. Since my personal life is low-risk, I feel I must offer my services, but I worry about the number of people I encounter each day, while COVID-19 is still rampant. I also have avoided going to some protests I might have otherwise gone to since I felt an obligation to keep myself well for my patients. I feel guilty each time I play with my band out in public areas.
I know the fact that I took out this massive amount of debt ($204k now, five years into PAYE) is allowing me to work today. Would I feel better if I had zero debt but little work?
My partner is in this exact situation (no college degree, lost his job, didn’t qualify for unemployment, doing deliveries). He’s getting by and grateful for it, but has so much anxiety over not having a stable living.
It’s hard to imagine the future of student loans, but if plans like PAYE and REPAYE ever become discontinued, I don’t know how I’d survive.