When I graduated high school, I was unsure of what I wanted in a career. I always loved art and music but came from the school of thought that I needed a “real” job that came with health insurance and a solid retirement plan. This idea was planted in me from having parents who were not allowed to self-actualize in their passions. They poured their energy into giving my sister and me better chances than they’d had.
The military brought my impoverished parents into the middle class. Raised with opportunities and education that expanded our minds and opened worlds, my sister and I had chances that my parents were never fortunate enough to dream of.
We were indulged and exposed to ideas of hope — “Feed The World” — in a society that should have learned to take care of itself and our planet. I chose my worldview and set out to become who I wanted to be in the world. From a difficult history, my family seemed to finally produce women who could choose their careers, and how they wanted to live their lives.
I started college thinking I could change the world with U2 blaring in my ears about the dichotomies of politics, money, and war. I felt on fire and that I was called to be a part of a new world that sought equality and choice.
I got four years of college paid for via a War Orphans grant, but I had to go to school in Kentucky. This made my partial scholarship to Stephens College in Missouri, a prestigious all-female school, illogical and not cost-effective. I was interested in journalism but found writing from an objective or unbiased point of view was not in my nature.
I got my basics done at a community college, then headed to WKU to study advertising. Commercials with jingles and humorous quips hooked me from a childhood when television became our babysitters, and I thought it to be a good fit for me.
I took a required class called “Persuasion,” and it pushed me into a huge dilemma about having an ethical career. I was challenged to see how advertising could damage society. The example before me was the creation of Joe Camel for Camel cigarettes. This cute cartoon character was focused on hooking them young. The cigarette industry knew they had an addictive product, and could benefit from a twelve-year-old getting hooked for life. To be involved in this industry was out of the question at this point.
I changed my major to social work and moved to Louisville. My father had passed away, and I was on my own financially. I worked in mental health while in school and learned from the streets alongside the books.
The real-world work experience from inpatient psychiatric and street social work was the best education I could receive. I was full of passion by the time I talked my way into a position at the Home of the Innocents in their Pregnant and Parenting Teens program. I received my first salary of $19,000 per year — a joke, but one I was happy to accept. I was in my early twenties, helping to grow a program with young homeless families not much younger than myself.
I completed my bachelor’s and master’s degrees with this job, and I hit my goal of making at least $30,000 a year by the time I was 30. My pride in my accomplishment of being a part of something that truly helped stop homelessness in young families fed my grieving and lost soul.
The time came to pay back my loans and hopefully thrive in my career, but the world of social work was shifting from a street-based model with qualitative data to one that was backed by big medical dollars that needed quantifiable outcomes to flourish. I found myself begging for funds to keep programs going and to maintain salaries for the staff.
The work got harder, and the children and families we served got more and more difficult to handle. The salaries did not improve over time, and I found myself having to jump through more and more hoops to maintain my own healthcare and living expenses alongside my clients.
My company hosted a dinner that cost $100 a person. I couldn’t afford to attend.
Seeing others’ trauma and personal struggles for 30 years will affect you no matter how strong and educated you think you are. Now, I find myself disabled, having had to retire early from my chosen career. The sicker I got, the less I could afford the copays for prescriptions I needed, and the residual student loan payments took any monetary benefit I had from having an education and career.
As I look at my student loans today, they are stagnant — the same $42,000 that I originally borrowed. It doesn’t add up that the $60,000 I’ve already paid is not enough.
That being said, I own my ignorance about how these predatory loans worked.
I’m also dismayed by the fact that I had to be found disabled to afford the meds I needed for feeling healthy, finally.
As a nation, we are richer than we have ever been, and farther from true humanity. Yet, I stay here with my little fire still burning with hope.