I have wanted to be a veterinarian for as long as I can remember. Growing up, my mom would read me James Herriot stories before bed, filling my dreams with adventures about one day getting to help animals. As a sophomore in high school, my mom and I drove up to Fort Collins for the annual Colorado State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital Open House. I was so excited sitting in lectures and walking around the campus, I couldn’t believe I’d have to wait another 7 years until I could start the program. I got so energized from that experience, that I took a pre-vet course the following year, spending a semester dissecting a cat and interning at a vet clinic.
I charged into college totally set on being as efficient as possible with my coursework to get all my vet school prerequisites out of the way. Then I started to stumble. I wasn’t doing as well in my science classes as my peers, and I lost confidence in my ability to achieve my dream. At the time, this felt catastrophic; I felt like I was going through an identity crisis because I had been working so hard and planning for so many years to become a vet, and suddenly, my path wasn’t obvious.
I also felt uncomfortable that I was spending money on an education without an obvious professional application. As a result, I started to broaden my horizons and take courses in different departments that I never previously considered because I had been too focused on only one career. In retrospect, this was probably the best thing that could have happened to me. It allowed me to develop new interests and gain new skills.
I met friends who weren’t on the pre-med prerequisite train, and this revolutionized my college experience. I studied abroad in Africa for 4 months and learned to live in the moment and really absorb life experiences. For the first time in over a decade, I allowed myself to be open to the idea that I didn’t have to become James Herriot.
Fast forward a few years to college graduation, standing on the precipice of perceived adulthood, where everyone else seemed to have a plan and know what they’re going to do. I had tried different jobs in college to help pay down my debt, but I hadn’t found something I was excited about as my early experience working at a vet’s office. Then one of my friends encouraged me to revisit my childhood dream and apply for a position at a local vet’s office for the summer.
I sent my resume to over 30 clinics in my area after graduating from college—I heard back from one. I started as a glorified janitor, cleaning kennels, folding laundry and mopping the floors. I was starting to get disheartened about this choice, questioning why I worked so hard obtaining a bachelor’s degree and accruing tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt, when I wasn’t applying my education. A few months into the job, the tech manager threw me a bone (pun intended). She decided to take a chance training me to become a veterinary assistant.
To this day, I attribute a large part of my professional success to her. That summer, I worked full time and took the veterinary school prerequisites that I had failed to take during school at a local community college. It was an exhausting year, but at the end of it, on a fateful day in mid-December, I received my acceptance letter to the Colorado State University School of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences – my 15-year-old self’s dream had come true!
On the first day of orientation, we a 2-hour lecture about student debt. Hearing the reality about the cost of pursuing my dream caused all of my excitement and enthusiasm to come crashing down into a frenzy of anxiety, doubt, fear and anger. Why hadn’t someone been this up front with me about the cost before I signed on the dotted line? I knew it would be expensive but paying over $2,000 a month for 10 years (optimistically) to repay the debt, or worse, having the cloud of debt hover over me for over 20 years, only have a tax bomb dropped after the government so generously forgave my balance, just seemed like a cruel way to reward years of hard work.
This anxiety propelled me into a rigorous study regime. I tried to absorb every bit of knowledge to make me feel like I was getting my money’s worth. I felt like I had to attend every lecture because one of my classmates calculated it was costing several hundred dollars per class hour. I studied for hours every night trying to absorb every word on the page. I passed on doing social activities with classmates because I felt obligated to study. I worried about the pressure I would feel after graduation to love every minute of my job to make the financial investment and the years of academia justified.
In retrospect, those decisions and worries were misguided. I made it through vet school but the pressure I put on myself took a toll. Vet school is hard enough without worrying about the financial aspect, especially when there is very little that can be done in the moment to change it. Of course there are things that you can do that add up in the long run to save money and reduce student loans: have roommates, live frugally, maybe work a few hours a week to pay down some interest.
Beyond that, accept that there will be a pile of debt waiting for you at the finish line and no amount of worrying will change that. A piece of advice for future students: work hard, but don’t forget to have fun and live in the moment. Take the time to get to know your peers and their unique paths that called them to the profession. Realize that taking a night off once in a while to nurture yourself will not cause you to fail out of the program. And most importantly, don’t let the fear of the debt discourage you from achieving your dreams.
I met with Rob from Student Loan Planner not long ago. He made me realize that paying off my student loans in a reasonable time frame is achievable. Paying back $200.000+ takes hard work a dedication, not unlike the process of becoming a vet. The difference is that debt is temporary; achieving a lifelong dream in a career that lets me strengthen and maintain the human-animal bond will stay with me for a lifetime.
(Becca Pava is one of two finalists for the “client category” for the 2018 Student Loan Planner scholarship. To vote your preference, make sure to share her story on social media with the share buttons below and leave substantive comments on what you think of her essay.)