I Wish I’d Graduated With More Student Loan Debt
Passing up internships for jobs has actually worked against me
“But what internships did you complete?”
I mirrored the interviewer’s blank stare back at her, at a loss. This was my least favorite part of any interview, and lately, it had been a part of every single one.
“Well,” I answered. “I’ve worked at a law firm for the past three years. A mix of part-time and full-time, depending on my school schedule …”
I trailed off towards the end and tried switching the topic to the grad classes I’d completed with top marks, watching the woman’s eyes glaze over as she ever-so-slightly leaned back in her chair across from me, growing more and more disinterested. There was no way to spin this in my favor, I realized, my heart sinking. Work ethic, financial responsibility, and explanations about paying my way through a private university education with an irrelevant job are basically useless when I’m interviewing for “real” jobs and haven’t clocked X number of hours of virtual indentured servitude — a.k.a., the illustrious unpaid internship.
Having graduated from a well-regarded public high school in New York City with reasonably impressive grades and a definitely impressive SAT score, I was under the impression that I was all set. I had done my part. I had worked really hard throughout high school, getting an education that, to this day, I maintain was often more challenging than any single semester I spent at college. I was sure that hard work would translate to some kind of financial payoff in college.
Of course, I was an eighteen-year-old moron. I’d listened to the guidance counselors — who, as representatives of a specialized high school, in retrospect seemed to care solely about pumping out the maximum number of graduates to the highest-tier universities, and not about their students’ financial burden — and hadn’t applied to any public universities. That was my bad. Then again, I was 18 and expected that these college-advising professionals were looking out for my best interests and not the school’s fancy-schmancy reputation.
My parents, helpful as they were in the college application process, didn’t know any better, either. My mother hadn’t finished college, and my father had attended a public college nearly half a century earlier. To them, bona fide baby boomers, the ticket to any post-graduation career I could possibly ever want was simply to go to the biggest name school I could get into and do really well, tuition be damned. So I was on my own to navigate the financial costs and loan-borrowing procedures.
The year that I started my undergraduate education at NYU, tuition and fees alone totaled $38,765. I landed a moderate but certainly helpful merit scholarship and, with some family contribution, the maximum allowable federal and state grant amounts. Still, I owed several thousand dollars that first semester. That was a bit of a shell-shock. Living on campus, which then cost around $13,000 per year, was out of the question. I didn’t even consider it. I lived at home, making the hour-long commute by train each way to and from campus for the duration of my education, in order to save tens of thousands of dollars.
Taking out my first loan that semester made me near physically ill. I looked at the loan documentation and practically felt an ulcer forming as I stood there, sweaty palms gripping what I was sure was a paper-shackle clamped to the ankle of my future self. Admittedly, my anxiety over putting myself into debt in order to gain a private education was overblown; massive debt and staggering credit issues had plagued my family for years, and I decidedly did not want to repeat those mistakes myself. Taking out such sizable loans for any reason felt like an admission of defeat.
Compulsively checking my online Sallie Mae account and watching the loan total climb higher and higher during that first year, I made a decision. I would pay this private education off as I went and eventually graduate with no debt at all. I worked out an detailed budget spreadsheet on Excel, and took on simultaneous federal work-study tutoring jobs, part-time work as a medical biller, and waitressing shifts.
I gained about twenty-five pounds of stress weight that year, but alongside it, I gained enough money to pay off my first two semesters’ worth of loans within a few months.
But, I realized, it wasn’t enough. I spent hours and hours at night biting my nails, smoothing out my crumpled waitressing dollars, browsing hundreds of pages of job ads on my school’s career website. Though friends who were less obsessed with debt than I was took unpaid internships to further their eventual careers, the thought never even crossed my mind to do the same — or, when it did, I would brush it off, confused. Who on earth would work for free? Who on earth would essentially pay in order to work for free, borrowing loans to pay for tuition points that would then be used towards unpaid internship hours? The idea seemed tantamount to insanity.
Eventually, I was accepted into a five-year combined Bachelor’s/Master’s program. I was able to take advantage of a 50% tuition discount on grad courses and walked away with both degrees in exchange for doubling up on classes. It seemed like a win-win.
I took on more hours at the law firm where I’d managed to land a well-paying gig, though the work, a mix of administrative tasks and errands, was occasionally mentally and physically training and often took a toll on my ability to make it to class. (Talk about a catch-22.) It was untenable to keep going at the rate I was, so I shuffled around my courses, taking fewer courses each semester and choosing said classes based on whether they fit nicely around my job schedule, rather than the other way around.
When I graduated from the BA portion of my BA/MA program in 2013, I had just south of $10,000 in debt. And I was obsessed with it. I read up on nearly everything I could about subsidized versus unsubsidized loans. At one point I realized that, due to a minuscule and not well-publicized policy change, subsidized loans disbursed prior to July 1, 2012 wouldn’t accrue interest during the six month “grace period” after graduation, while later subsidized Stafford loans would. That meant, having intended to pay off my oldest debts first, I had accidentally prioritized paying off a non-interest-accruing loan. I called up Sallie Mae and argued with an uninterested representative until they finally agreed to reverse my payment and apply it to the later loan instead. I made a Facebook post about it. I felt victorious.
When I found out that subsidized Stafford loans weren’t made available to graduate students, I nearly shit a brick. That meant that my last year of schooling, finishing up my MA, would be entirely unsubsidized (interest-accruing) loans. I panicked at the thought of interest increasing my debt load, imagining it like a trickling stream of pennies slowly but surely burying me under its weight. So, during the semester that I’d finally planned on working an unpaid internship, I took on more hours at work instead.
When I finally finished up my MA in 2014, I walked away with a bit over $5,000 in debt. Pennies, essentially, next to the estimated average $33,000 in total debt that my fellow 2014 graduates would have racked up. But I still didn’t feel good about it.
I didn’t want to be a lawyer at that point, but I arranged to take on a full-time position at the law firm where I’d by then worked for several years, figuring that with a full-time gig immediately after graduating, I could knock off the rest of my debt in several months and then move on to a “real” job. I planned to start full time June 1st. Immediately following my mid-May graduation, I quit the three other part-time jobs I’d been balancing and took a spontaneous Mexico vacation with my fiancé. After eight days crying into pina coladas on the beach about taking a full-time job that had nothing to do with my anticipated career path, I flew back to New York and I worked.
Within half a year, the debt was gone. All of it. It felt like a five-year-old elephant had finally gotten up off of my chest and I could breathe again. When my “Congratulations! You’ve paid off your loan!” letter came in the mail, I went to Ikea and bought a frame for it. It’s still on my wall, next to my BA and MA diplomas.
The moment I was debt-free, I started looking for jobs in my industry, the one I’d actually gone to school and worked my ass off to pay for. And it went … not well.
“But what internships did you complete?”
The question haunted me from one interview to the next. Internships hadn’t been a thing when my parents were in school. According to TIME’s 2009 “A Brief History of Interns,” they “did not develop until the 1960s and remained fairly uncommon at first.” I’d been so enamored with the idea of graduating without the albatross of owed money hanging around my neck that I’d completely missed the part about internships becoming an unofficial mandatory requirement for any gainful post-graduation employment.
Now, over two years since my last graduation, I’ve still yet to land a relevant job. Scrambling to pick up the few and far between part-time internships that allow for non-matriculated interns, I’ve been working the (unpaid) jobs that I should have had as a 19 year old at nearly 25.
I certainly don’t regret my education. I would be way off base to suggest that my years at a well-known private university were useless. That said, looking back, one thing is clear: I may have done better to rack up a few extra thousand dollars in debt in exchange for fewer hours worked at my job, and an unpaid internship, or five, instead. Or gone to a public college rather than a private one.
Overall, I wish I’d realized that student loan debt, today, much as it sucks, is a virtually unavoidable fact of higher education life — and a moderate amount of it isn’t the end of the world.
Caralynn Lippo is a freelance writer and editor from New York. Follow her on Twitter: @caralynn_marie.
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