Welcome to the inaugural class of '29. We've selected 29 graduating college seniors, entering the "real" world in 2018, to write about the state of their lives. What are their hopes, dreams, fears, stressors, failures, and successes as they leave school behind? We will be releasing new entries on a daily basis. If you would like yours to be considered, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
I put off adding up my debt for a really long time. Every year, as I endured the process of securing more student loans (which was a nightmare in and of itself), I allowed myself to glance at the totals for only a moment. A few months before graduation, I finally confronted the balance. In all, I owe more than $182,000.
Deep down, I always knew it was going to be that high. I had a sense of the ballpark figure from the yearly loan paperwork. In fact, my looming debt load has been one of my best punchlines for years. But it still knocked the air from my lungs. I will be in debt for the rest of my natural life, paying for four years of a private education. I am comforted by the fact that I am not alone: 37% of 18-29 year olds have student loan debt. I’m not sure if all of them are going to be on payment plans until they die, like I will, but my generation has more student loan debt than any other. It’s terrifying to imagine securing any sort of financial stability. I daydream about some modern-day Robin Hood hacking into the system and wiping student loan records. But going into debt to finance my future is a choice that I made and one I will have to live with — and hopefully I’ll make it worth it.
I’ve wanted to be a journalist since I was 11. By my sophomore year of high school, I determined that New York University was my dream school. It was in the center of the journalism universe— even foreign papers had New York offices. As a private school in a major city, it was also exorbitantly expensive. Plenty of people reminded me of that. My assistant principal in high school told me “going into debt for undergrad isn’t worth it.” Others pointed out I could get the same education at a much cheaper price by staying closer to home.
And maybe that was true. But I wanted to be world class journalist, someone who reported from every corner of the globe and who made a tangible difference in people’s lives. I also wanted to get as far away from my hometown of Panama City, Florida, as humanly possible. Plus, my admissions letter included an opportunity to spend my freshman year abroad in Florence, Italy. I had never been to Europe and wanted to see more of the world. This was my ticket. At 18, I saw two paths for myself: the girl who went to Italy and the girl who never left Florida. There was no price too high that could make the second option more appealing.
My mother told me to ignore the doubters. Never one to let being broke get in the way of our dreams, she reminded me that opportunities like this don’t come to people like us twice. “You have to go.”
So together, we decided to swallow the debt and the worry so that I could do this crazy thing.
And it was worth every (loaned) penny. In my four years at NYU, I spent 10 months in Italy, eight weeks in Crete, eight weeks in Ghana, and five months in Argentina. I saw natural wonders of the world and dozens of other countries. Back in New York, I landed dream internships and met the people I want to work for one day. I went to documentary film screenings and art shows, protests and marches. Those experiences were priceless. But now that I reach the end of my time in the fantasyland that is NYU, harsh realities are beginning to set in.
I’m still working towards my childhood dream of becoming a great journalist, but the dream no longer carries childlike wonderment. The weight of my debt means there is no room for failure. I don’t get to take time off or change my mind or make mistakes. For the rest of my life I am tied to my loan balance, and I’m scared of that. My ability to keep up with my payments could impact my credit score and my dream house is only ever going to exist in Pinterest boards and old issues of Architectural Digest. But I don’t know who I would be without this opportunity. I got to see the world.
I texted my mother the number after adding up all the loans, coupled with a string of expletives and an emphatic “What have we done!” As always, she knew just the right words to put my mind at ease: “Well it was fun right?”
Opheli Garcia Lawler graduated with degrees in Global Liberal Studies and Journalism at New York University. After graduation she plans to begin graduate school at NYU in the Fall.