"I Cannot Eat Your Prayers": How Student Debt Changed One Woman's Mind on "Christian Charity"
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I do have a few things going for me, in other words. That’s the crux of the shame, I think. I am smart and well educated, and I shouldn’t be in this kind of trouble. Mind you, I’m not suggesting that anyone deserves to be in debt slavery, but people’s expectation is that smart and highly educated people will also be financially well off.
I am not telling you these things to facilitate a bonding experience or to bare my soul. I am coming to believe that refusing to be silenced by shame is the first step in fighting predatory student lenders. I am so deeply ashamed about what I’m about to share that I’ve only told a handful of people about it until now.
But I’m tired of hiding. At this point, I realize that coming out can’t hurt me more than my lenders have already hurt me, and the only way to decouple financial struggle from shame is to normalize it, one person at a time. This is my attempt.
I was raised by parents with solidly working-class roots in the suburbs of one of the most affluent towns in North Carolina. My parents never taught me how to manage finances, and neither did the parents of my peers teach them. In my town, we were all trained to be optimistic about the future.
Every adult mentor of the boomer generation that I ever had urged me to follow my dreams no matter what they cost. So I took out loans. First, because as a well-above-average high-schooler in an affluent town there was never any doubt that I was going to college—and then because “following my dreams” meant attending graduate school.
Every older mentor that I ever had also told me that student debt was the best kind to have, that it was a great way to build a credit history, that it was altogether worth it because it would give me so many opportunities to “follow my dreams.”
I did well as an undergraduate at UNC, and I really hit my stride as a graduate student in international relations in Washington, D.C. My tuition was covered by scholarships there; so again, all of the older mentors in my life assured me that this was a financially sound investment.
None suggested that I turn down this offer due to the high cost of living in D.C. It was going so well that I decided I wanted to be a professor. I loved the academy, and I was good at asking tough, big-picture questions that got to the heart of things. I was at the top of my class, and I was physically healthy. I have never been a big spender. I saw no reason that I couldn’t live on the paltry stipend of $14,000 per year that I would receive from the PhD program that admitted me in Pennsylvania.
I knew it was risky, but I saw it as a bet on myself. I trusted my intellect. It had never let me down before. With much bravado, I told one professor/mentor that “I could fucking compete with anyone,” and back then, I was right. This was important, since I do not come from a wealthy family—there would be no cushion if I didn’t fast-track my way to tenure. I remained at the top of my class until my health began to deteriorate.
A few years ago now, not long after I began my PhD program, I was diagnosed with a life-threatening autoimmune disease called lupus. Of course I had health insurance, but it was designed for young, healthy people, not people who developed serious diseases in their late twenties.