On being the undeserving poor: choosing student debt from a shallow puddle of options


I went back to school full-time this week. Again. I’m enrolled in a masters-level program, a professional degree that will hopefully lead to a career that fits my needs and those of my family. I managed to save enough over the last year or so to cover one of two years’ tuition, reduced my monthly expenses, and got a part-time job that fits around my school schedule.

I did everything I possibly could to avoid having to deal with the folks at my provincial loan institution again. I owe. I owe so much, I could be a doctor (almost). I have been screwed over so many times by the student loan system. I don’t trust it, and I resent having to jump through so many hoops to qualify. Before I had children, when I was doing undergrad coursework, I had to drop out of school during a major depressive episode. Every single time I’ve applied for assistance since then, I’ve been required to write a letter explaining what happened, and discussing my strategies to prevent it from happening again. Every year. It’s not enough that I had to do it once (which is entirely appropriate). To have to pull out the memories of that time, rehash my failure, my inability to function at that time, my loss (because that’s how I experience that time of my life) is painful, and anxiety-inducing, and humiliating. I know that a lot of that is my own love-hate relationship with my mental illness and that they would probably be making the same demands had I dropped out of school for a broken femur or a tumour or the death of a parent. But. No matter the reason, it’s a hurdle no one should have to repeatedly try to clear. There is no reason at all why, with the successful completion of subsequent years, this demand should be made annually. I finished a graduate degree with an A- average since that incident (ahem. while raising 2 preschoolers). Obviously, I’ve managed to get my shit together well enough to attain academic success.

And yet, here I am, back again, jumping on the gravy train. I’m at the caboose, this year being the last I’ll qualify for assistance. There’s a maximum amount of support available, you see, and I’m right at that limit. So, why more school? The answer to that is simple, and complicated.

Short story: Because life as a single parent to my children with a traditional 9-5 office-based job isn’t tenable. Because shiftwork isn’t doable. Because retail doesn’t pay enough, and I don’t think my body is strong enough for it anymore anyway.

For now, I need more flexibility to be available to my kids when they need me, and to accommodate my health when it’s not so good. I need to work towards having a schedule that is always somewhat flexible in terms of amount of vacation time (if not actual timing of vacation). I don’t have regular kids, and I don’t have a lot of back-up on a daily basis. As they get older, it’s entirely possible that at least one of them is going to need me more, not less.

I am ingratiating myself to the system, and playing by its rules, in order to finance my future ability to be available to my children. I am agreeing to pay back this not insubstantial loan, that may actually lead to a system-wide savings of several hundreds of thousands of dollars, as I position myself as my child(ren)’s adult care provider. I am increasing my capacity for resilience by slowing down my life pace to accommodate the stresses my particular set of variables creates/attracts. With luck, this will increase my overall physical and mental health, and keep my needs for accessing the public healthcare system to a minimum.

I am accepting the ongoing bureaucratic bullshit that comes with provincial student loan agencies because there aren’t affordable mental health options for me (or my kids). Because there isn’t enough support in their schools for them. Because social assistance wouldn’t begin to pay my rent. Because I’m likely not disabled enough (and what does that even mean?) to qualify for disability. I am choosing to BORROW money because the “free” money costs too much.

I’ve been accused of “hiding from the real world” in choosing to return to school. I’ve gotten comments about the amount of student debt I’ve accrued over the years, and questions about why I’d willingly choose to do so again. To those people, I say, “spend a week in my life, then talk to me about what’s real,” and “I’m open to whatever viable suggestions you have to go a different way.” So. If y’all have some other ideas, I’m open to hearing them. In the meantime, I’ll be sitting over here doing my homework.

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