Hello readers, and welcome back to the Flourishing Fiercely blog! As you might have noticed, I took a break for a couple of weeks to tackle some other work in my day job and my business and to recharge over the Thanksgiving holiday. Whether you traveled or stayed close to home, gathered with a big group of friends or family or kept it small (or even solo!), I hope you found some time over the holiday weekend to relax and recenter as we head into the busy last few weeks of 2023!
In keeping with Thanksgiving and with November being National Gratitude Month, I wrote earlier this month about the healing power of gratitude and expressing gratitude. To close out November, though, I decided to do something a little different: share my personal testimony of gratitude. I’ll be honest, writing this takes me a little bit out of my comfort zone! If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you’ll know that while I sometimes share a few brief examples of how each week’s blog theme resonates with me, I haven’t written extensively about my life for two main reasons: I tend to be a private person; but more so, I also never wanted this blog to center around me but rather to be a resource for you, my readers, and share advice and tips that you find helpful and can take into your own lives. For that reason, I debated whether or not to share my story, but finally decided it was worth writing about here because my goal is to provide inspiration and hope to others by sharing. Also, I realized that I often encourage my clients and readers to celebrate the “wins” in their lives—so maybe I should take my own advice too, every now and then! 😊
So, here’s my win: only a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving (talk about good timing for gratitude!), I received a letter with news that I was not expecting, at least not for a number of years. The letter was from MOHELA, my student loan servicer, informing me that all of my student loans had been completely forgiven! I could hardly believe my eyes, so much so that I called my sister on video and asked her to read it to make sure I was reading it correctly. And then I had to thank God as this is something that I have been praying about for YEARS!!!
But let me pause for a minute and share some more background with you. For decades, I’d been one of the 43.6 million borrowers in the U.S. with student loan debt. I probably don’t have to convince any of my readers that we’re in a student debt crisis in America, but to put another staggering figure to the problem, according to recent data, this student loan debt totals $1.766 trillion (yes, that’s trillion). The average federal student loan balance is $37,718; and the average borrower takes 20 years to repay their debt and accrues an average of an additional $27,000 in interest over the life of their student loan.
Of course, I didn’t know any of this when I was taking out my first student loans to pay for college all those years ago, and I didn’t know that these averages—troubling as they are—don’t even fully capture the magnitude of the debt crisis, and the disproportionate impact of student debt on students and borrowers of color. Research has documented that “racial disparities throughout the student loan lifecycle begin long before a promissory note is signed or even before the financial aid award letter arrives”: longstanding and persistent racial wealth gaps mean that Black and Latinx families on average have less wealth than white households and therefore tend to have fewer resources available for a parent contribution to higher education and are more likely to need to take on student debt. After graduation, racial income gaps and persistent inequity and discrimination disproportionately hamper borrowers of color’s ability to repay their student loans.
Even if I didn’t know all of the statistics and the broader context of inequity underpinning the student debt crisis when I was pursuing my degree, I felt the burden acutely as I took out student loans first for my bachelor’s degree—which I saw as a necessary pathway to a stable, family-supporting career—and later for graduate education that many employers in my field at that time deemed essential for growing into higher-level positions. (I should note here: I love education and I’m proud of the degrees I earned, but I’m also encouraged to see greater awareness these days of living-wage career opportunities that don’t necessarily require a four-year degree. And I’m happy to see more employers embracing a “skills-based hiring” approach that focuses on practical skills and experience gained and doesn’t unilaterally or arbitrarily exclude workers who don’t have a college degree.)
I wouldn’t trade my college and graduate school experiences for anything, but that doesn’t mean the student loans weren’t a heavy burden on me as I continued to build my career. Two bright spots emerged, though, the first in 2007 when the federal government created the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program, which allowed borrowers with certain types of federal loans who were working in nonprofit or government to potentially qualify for student loan forgiveness after making 120 student loan payments (or a total of 10 years’ worth of payments). This was exciting to me, since my growing career was in the nonprofit sector—but still, 10 years seemed very far away, and to be completely transparent, there were times when I couldn’t make my monthly student loan payments and I was in deferment or forbearance. PSLF was a light at the end of the tunnel to me, for sure, but the tunnel still seemed endless!
Fast-forward to 2022, when thanks to interest accruing and some of my past periods of deferment or forbearance, my student loans were still very much weighing on me. In fact, it felt like I had barely made a dent in the balance! By this time, PSLF had been around for over 10 years and more eligible borrowers were reaching the threshold where they qualified for forgiveness. I started seeing more and more jubilant posts on social media from Individuals getting their loan forgiveness notifications and I celebrated them—but I can’t lie, I was a little envious too (then I remind myself that what God has for me is for me)! Even though I’d been employed at nonprofit organizations all that time and I knew I’d made some payments on my loans, I still thought I was years away from my own loan forgiveness date.
Then, the second bright spot emerged: I heard about the special PSLF waiver opportunity that the federal government had announced in 2021, with a deadline to apply for the waiver by October 31, 2022. I’d heard bits and pieces about the PSLF waiver here and there, but I hadn’t paid much attention until shortly before the deadline. Honestly, the information was confusing, and I was discouraged enough by the weight of my loans at that point that I didn’t really understand what the waiver applied to and I’d convinced myself I probably wouldn’t benefit anyway. (The limited PSLF waiver allowed borrowers to potentially receive credit toward the 120 payments for past periods of repayment that otherwise wouldn’t qualify.)
Then a phone call from a former colleague changed everything. I hadn’t talked to this former colleague in a long time, but she was applying for the PSLF waiver herself and had actually called to ask if I had any advice about how to get records to certify her employment at the nonprofit organization where we’d both formerly worked that had since shut down. “Jen,” she told me, “you have to submit your PSLF waiver form, it’s so important! Even if you think your loans won’t be eligible, you need to at least try—you never know!”
Her encouragement got me in gear, though the process wasn’t easy. I had to fill out the form, get my nonprofit employment certified by my current employer (who thankfully, was very responsive!), and then fax it to MOHELA, which was the student loan servicer in charge of processing PSLF waiver applications. I can’t even remember the last time I’d sent a fax and because I was traveling for work I was frantically searching for free online fax options pretty much right up until the October 31 deadline, but I got my form in. And then I waited…and waited…and waited…only to get a response back in February stating that my form was incomplete because it had my digital signature instead of a “wet” (signed in ink) signature. I was so discouraged! The correspondence wasn’t clear on whether I could resubmit my form or whether this meant I’d missed the deadline entirely—but I resolved not to give up. I re-signed the PSLF waiver form in ink and then re-sent it to MOHELA, again figuring that I at least needed to try.
So many little barriers popped up along the way to applying for student loan forgiveness (including an initial letter in the spring from MOHELA stating that my loans didn’t qualify for the PSLF waiver), but I didn’t let them derail me. Finally, a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving, I got that life-changing message that my student loans had in fact been forgiven under PSLF! Honestly, I’m still on cloud nine about this news, and thinking about the impact it will have on my budget and on opportunities for wealth-building (not just for myself, but to leave a legacy for my daughters and goddaughter). That almost $800 per month that would have continued to go to student loan payments might just be the difference that allows me to invest in homeownership, increase my retirement savings and/or start investing, and that’s incredibly powerful and transformative.
I’m also reflecting back on Candace Junee’s Go Getter Retreat that I attended early December last year. She asked us to write down 23 “Dream Big Statements” and I remember that exercise so clearly; getting free of my student loans was one of those statements that I wrote down. I specifically wrote “I believe that my student loans will be paid in full in the next 10 years”. It’s an incredible feeling to reach that goal so much sooner than I even dreamed! It’s a reminder to myself—and all of us—to dream big and not let those bumps in the road derail us! I’m grateful for my colleague who encouraged me to send in the PSLF waiver form and for the student loan policies that made PSLF possible. And I’m grateful to you, my readers, for letting me share my story in this space. What are you grateful for this November and what big dreams are you determined to pursue?
As I close today’s blog post I want to share this worship song that has been a blessing for me and hopefully it will be something that will carry you through the end of this year and into 2024 – God Problems by Maverick City Music.
I’ll be back on Thursday, December 14th for my final post of 2023.