How Student Debt Changed My American Dream

Happy By Eleonora Arosio / @eleonoraarosio
Happy
By Eleonora Arosio / @eleonoraarosio

I was raised with an almost unspoken, but absolute expectation; I was going to attend college.

My life started in a one-bedroom apartment above my grandmother’s house. I lived there with my parents and sister until I was a teenager, when my father moved us to our own house in a quiet suburban town. He chose the worst house in the best neighborhood. My dad had spent his career building electronics that produced experimental protons and guided planes safely to the runway. Despite these accomplishments, he did not have the degree required to collect the associated promotions or paychecks. College, he felt, was my key to unlocking the door he had been unable to open for himself.

My hopes were high as high school drew to a close. Anticipation turned to excitement as college acceptance letters arrived, but the letters that followed would break my 18-year-old heart. I read each with disbelief; I would receive $0 in financial aid. Reality intervened, and instead of attending the school of my choice, I embraced my middle-class practicality and switched to a state school. This was a blow to my teenage ego, but this is not an entirely sad story.

I had an unprecedented opportunity compared to the women who raised me. My grandmother embarked on her first marriage, to a cruel man, feeling it was the only way to start a life of her own. My mother confided in me that she didn’t feel she had the means to attend nursing school, and so she married instead.

“After graduation, the bills began to arrive … Over the years the interest accumulated and nearly doubled the amount I borrowed.”

Determined, I sought direction and guidance. At school, I received the unhelpful advice, “your parents should pay for college.” At home, my parents had little advice to offer, having never walked this path themselves. Despite the need, financial support was not an option.

The answer, it turns out, was a student loan—first one, then another, and another. Resolute, I signed on the dotted line and then registered for classes. To keep costs down, I entered the workforce; as an administrative assistant, a retail clerk, a waitress, and a student, I worked toward a future I believed would afford me more stability than my past.

After graduation, the bills began to arrive. Faithfully, I sent my monthly payments. Still, my modest entry-level paycheck couldn’t make a dent in this debt. Over the years the interest accumulated and nearly doubled the amount I borrowed.

I had mortgaged my intellect. I had gone to work during the day and to school at night to avoid the locked door I was now desperately banging on, and I was angry. Instead of building a future of stability, I am still living paycheck to paycheck, paying for the education that was supposed to result in prosperity. Years after signing my promissory notes, I realize the disillusionment of student debt, which can confuse a future of opportunity with a lifelong deficit—making the great American dream seem more like the great American divide.

Still, I am not alone in this struggle. I stand, keys in hand, with many of my peers, all struggling to balance gratitude and disappointment—holding our degrees and student loan statements side by side. We watch as those not weighed down by debt seem to sprint toward a future of freedom and privilege. What frustrates me most is this: the debt I struggle to overcome may leave me unable to financially help my own child’s quest for a higher education. Will the next generation find themselves on the same side of this divide, watching, as the gap widens?

Eleonora Arosio is a freelance illustrator based in Amsterdam, but keeps changing her base around the world. Born in 1992, she started being passionate about drawing from an early age. Many years after that, she graduated in fine arts from NABA Academy in Milan and started dedicating herself to illustrations, mainly focusing her work on everyday life from a woman’s ironic point of view.

This essay originally appeared in the Money issue. Find more inspiring stories from the Money issue here or read How a Free Education Shaped My Life and How to Be in Charge of Your Finances and Your Future.