This essay is from a finalist for the 2019 Student Loan Planner Scholarship.
For as long as I can remember, I have always felt like I have been playing catch-up. Constantly looking around and wondering, what am I missing? Why am I struggling while my peers seem to be soaring gracefully past me?
Even as I enter the fifth year of my teaching career, I am still finding myself wondering, what am I doing wrong?
Still waiting for my college education to propel me into that promise of a better life I was promised as a child.
The Promise of the “American Dream”
I am a first-generation American citizen, my parents coming from the islands of the Azores. My parents found themselves surrounded by students who were living the “American Dream,” however it was just out of grasp for them.
Girls and boys walking down the halls in their Levi jeans signified that dream that they could not afford. When they became parents, they decided they would do everything they could to give that dream to their children.
I began kindergarten with little to no knowledge of the English language. In first grade, I was pulled out to work one on one with an aid on my reading and language skills.
The shame of being different and the feeling of needing to catch up started to consume me. I began practicing my reading every chance I could get, eventually working my way out of reading intervention and above grade level.
I was lucky to get a scholarship to a private high school that was a college-prep school. Going to college wasn’t presented as one option of many, but as the only option. The question wasn’t, “Are you going to college?” it was “Which college are you going to?”
However, how college would be financed was not apart of that
discussion. My parents, trying to give me that “better life,” assured me that a degree was the only way to live a life above financial stress and struggle and was the only acceptable step after high school.
The feeling of wanting to catch-up to the life of privilege my friends had driven me to stay in all honors classes, take early college courses, and most importantly, be accepted into college as the first person in my entire family to do so.
Unaware of the Cost of Tuition
Although it wasn’t discussed how my college education would be financed, I was made aware of some parameters of my college choices. Out of state was out of the question, and it was clear that state colleges were more affordable than the UC system.
So I choose, in my own non-educated decision, what I thought was the most prestigious California state school, San Diego State University.
What I did not know, was that I was choosing one of the more expensive college state options and I was still blissfully unaware of what the tuition was and how it would be paid.
My mother simply reassured me that I didn’t need to think of that now because my job was to focus on school.
I was also unaware of the fact that my parents had taken out three private loans in my name to pay for my education. And although I would never actually have access to this money, they would use it to pay for my tuition and part of my living expenses.
My Seven-Year Battle
The summer before starting my college career, I suddenly recalled sexual abuse I had experienced as a child at the hands of my father.
I went to San Diego State University playing a new catch-up game, trying to catch-up with these new feelings and revelations I was having about the trauma my brain had repressed.
Unfortunately, I did not seek the professional help I so desperately needed. Instead, I tried to drown out the pain with the distraction of partying and I very quickly went from a motivated student to one that slept through midterms.
Not only was I not processing my trauma, I was also not processing the fact that as I partied away my education, I was also accruing tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt.
My partying ways finally caught up to me and I was not allowed to continue my education at SDSU after the first semester of my junior year.
I had deeply lost my way on my path to my “American Dream,” but what hadn’t left me was a deep belief that college was the vehicle to get me there.
I sought financial emancipation from my parents and was able to secure federal financial aid to continue my education at my local junior college.
The shame I felt stepping backwards into a junior college and the desperate need to get out from my father’s house fueled my determination to get back into a 4-year college.
Now I was playing catch-up with my GPA and did everything I could to begin the painful process of bringing my destroyed grade point average up enough to be once again accepted into a state college.
What should have been a four-year experience turned into a seven-year battle to earn my degree. Through those seven years, I acquired five student loans.
I graduated with a degree in Psychology, mostly because of my desire to understand the trauma I had experienced.
From Psychology to a Teaching Degree
After working at a mental health facility, I came to the realization that the patients were already so damaged by the time they found themselves in front of a therapist.
What I wished for my childhood-self was that I had someone to intervene during the abuse so that the damage could be repaired quickly and so that I was taught strategies to cope with the trauma.
How different my life would’ve been had someone told me when I was young that it wasn’t my fault.
It became clear that teaching was a way I could take my trauma and turn it into a tool for good. I would be the one person in a child’s life who would recognize the red flags, who would understand the sudden change in behavior, who would hear the oddity of a child’s statement.
I would be the person who would show a child that the trauma does not define you or control you. I would be the hope that you can have a happy, fulfilled life no matter what kind of family or life you are given. I would make sure each one of my students knew that they were in control of their futures and that they could achieve anything as long as they worked hard.
I would be the voice in their heads saying “I believe in you” even if no one else in their life is.
I went back to graduate school to obtain my prerequisites to be accepted into the teacher’s credential program and I again took out the loans that would allow me to realize this new dream I had for my life. I was hired by a wonderful school that served low-income students before I even graduated from the credential program.
My New Catch-Up Game
I began my life as a teacher excited to make a change. Instead, I was hit with over $80,000 in loans.
Today I am living my dream of welcoming students into my classroom to teach them not only how to read and solve math equations, but that they have the power to change the world.
My new catch-up game is playing catch-up with my student loan debt.
I am beyond lucky to have a husband who works 15 hour days to supplement the loss of income I have due to my debt. We pay our bills, but we are living paycheck to paycheck and some days I worry that I am too stressed about my personal finances to be able to see those red flags or be that positive voice.
I know that it is because of my life experiences that I can be an advocate for students at my school and that without a college education I would not have the privilege of teaching first grade.
But I never could have imagined the impact my debt would have
on my life. I live with the weight of my college debt on my shoulders, but I stand tall from the strength I get from my husband, our sons, and my students.