This essay is from a winner of the 2019 Student Loan Planner Scholarship.
“If I told you that the moon was made of cheese, you’d believe it.”
I was surprised when I heard my high school math teacher say this to me, one of her A students. I looked at her dumbfoundedly as she continued, “You’re very gullible.”
I don’t remember what she had said before the moon comment exactly, but I remember feeling very insecure at that moment. I didn’t like being called out in front of the rest of the class as being gullible.
Perhaps she thought we had a strong enough student-teacher relationship for her to be able to say that. I just laughed it off and carried on in my state of denial. About ten years later, I have finally come to terms that my math teacher was right all along. I am gullible.
After finishing high school, I went straight to college getting my BA in English but choosing not to go the teaching route – at least at this point in time. I held the belief that I could use this degree in some other way but still be related to my chosen field. While this is true for many BA English graduates, this wasn’t the case for me.
I spent a year after graduating living with my parents in Minnesota and sputtering around as I tried to find work as an editor or writer only to find out the hard way that I needed a Master’s degree and years of experience.
I felt as if I wasted a whole year of my life working as a receptionist making only $10 per hour. I suffered from panic attacks and depression, and it was in this dark moment of my life when I fell into a financial trap.
Tricked by a Loan Repayment Company
It was November – six months after I had graduated from undergrad and time to start repaying student loans. The fact that I was hardly making anything and just started my low-paying receptionist job made me nervous.
On that cold, fall evening in Minnesota, my dad received a phone call from a third-party loan repayment company who called themselves National Secure Processing. They promised lower monthly rates based on income.
My dad, who pulled out loans to help my older brother and me, was immediately sold and then asked the salesman to talk to me as well. I took the phone my dad handed to me and listened to the salesman’s spiel about helping me with my debt, especially when I make so little.
I found myself giving him my information and signing up. I remember thinking to myself, I only have to pay less than $100 a month? Awesome.
I carried on for the next year and a half paying my low rates to this company while trying to figure out my life. Working as a receptionist for the Department of Transportation was tedious work, answering phone calls from fellow Minnesotans complaining about snowplows knocking down their mailboxes.
My Journey to Teaching English as a Foreign Language
It was during this time when I started looking into teaching – something that I had tried to avoid in undergrad. Wanting to get out of the snowy cold tundra of Minnesota, I looked into getting my Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) certificate in Italy.
I found myself signing up for an August program and purchasing my plane tickets for Europe. Even though the certification program was only a month long, I made my round trip ticket for one year with the hope that I’d be able to land a teaching job shortly after completing the program.
My year in Europe changed my perspective on teaching. A profession I once scoffed became one that I embraced. However, things didn’t go quite as planned.
Originally I wanted to stay in Italy, but the job market was more difficult than I thought. Wanting to stay in Europe, I looked into other countries and eventually accepted a teaching position in Bielsko-Biała – a city in southern Poland. It was there where I developed a genuine love for teaching others my own language.
I found that I could be creative in my work and have fun with my students, but I knew that this wouldn’t last forever. Eventually, I would need to go back home to my own country, but this time I would return with a long-term career plan.
The first step was to go back to graduate school. This made me nervous because I would be the first in my family to go to grad school. I was already a first among my siblings – the youngest of four – to get my Bachelor’s degree. Now I was taking it further by applying for MA programs in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL).
I also tried to get into an MFA creative writing program, entertaining the dream of becoming a writer. It turned out that I got rejected by the MFA program but accepted into the TESOL programs. I took this as a sign from God that He wanted me to be a teacher, and I eventually accepted the program at American University in Washington D.C.
I returned to the United States with confidence, having a plan for my life.
Grad School and More Student Loan Debt
Within three weeks of landing back in Minnesota, I packed up the car I had left behind for a year and drove out to Maryland. I started grad school, acquiring more student loan debt. I called up National Secure Processing, told them that I was back in school, and stopped making payments.
I wasn’t worried about debt because I knew that this would degree would open doors that I was unable to open before, but I really should have worried about what has been happening to my debt.
My two years of grad school flew by. I made new friends, started dating the man who is now my husband, gained valuable teaching experience, and found myself teaching at two different community colleges in Maryland as an adjunct professor.
I didn’t find a full-time job as I had hoped, but being an adjunct allowed me to blend my love for writing and teaching at the collegiate level while working with international students from around the world.
Due to these circumstances, I returned to National Secure Processing to resume repaying my loans only to discover that they renamed themselves as Mission Hills Federal. I didn’t think twice about this as I gave them a call and enrolled.
I remember finding it odd that I was still paying less than $100 in their income-driven plan. After all, I was now making much more than $10 an hour. When I asked the agent about this, she told me that if I make these small payments for 15 years, all of my debt would be forgiven.
Again, I remember thinking to myself, I only have to pay less than $100 a month for 15 years? All my debt will be forgiven? Awesome. I believed the moon was made of cheese just then.
The Moon Isn’t Made of Cheese
For nearly two years I made payments to them. In the meantime, I continued teaching and got married. One day, while I was at school, my husband asked me about the loan company I was using. Now that we were married, he took a special interest in what I was doing financially.
I was looking up the website for Mission Hills Federal to send him more information when I discovered that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) sued them for their student loan relief practices.
Panicking, I made several phone calls to the FTC, FedLoan, and the lawyer on this case to discover that I had believed in a scam. Furthermore, this company had lied about my information to FedLoan saying that I was an unemployed single parent. My debt had also substantially increased due to interest rates and unnecessary loan consolidations.
That same day I called my dad to warn him. It turned how that he hadn’t been aware of the change in companies, but he knew that his interest rate would increase with the little bit of money he shelled out to them. From his logic, he would just pay a little bit until the day he died. As much as I love my dad, I did not want to make the same financial mistakes a moment longer.
Now I am communicating with FedLoan about getting into a real loan repayment plan. I look back on what happened and want to scream about how gullible I really was.
I didn’t want to admit that I could easily believe the lies around me. I also didn’t want to believe in how desperate I was financially. Unfortunately, there is no turning back, but I can look back on where I came from. Just as I was determined to change my life career-wise, I can change my life financially today.