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I set three goals for myself when I first entered the University of Mississippi: to graduate with the university’s highest academic honor, a job on the table and without loan debt.
Hitting all three has been one of the golden stars of my life. The Taylor Medal still hangs off the tassel of my graduation cap, and the bonus of my first job at the Decatur Daily was having a Black editor to whom I owe my whole career. But one of these goals isn’t the flex I originally thought it was.
My college career was a balancing act of studying and working hard for the money to pay the remainder of my tuition that Pell Grants and scholarships didn’t pay plus living expenses. Days were mostly spent in class, while nights and weekends were spent at food service jobs that barely paid the bills. I’m still in awe at how I found time to study and complete my journalism projects, although there were times I had to weigh going to class over getting two hours of pay.
I missed out on journalism trips because I couldn’t risk missing out on work. Since most of the money went to rent, my grocery bill was $30 weekly. I honestly wouldn’t have made it at UM if it wasn’t for the church that housed me at a fraction of the cost as those expensive rents near campus. I cleaned the church’s student building during the weekend as a side hustle to knock money off that rent as well. Rihanna’s “Work” was literally the theme song to my life in college.
Most people would glamorize my college story or laugh it off as just the struggle of college life. But I wouldn’t wish the experience I had on anyone. And to those who laugh I ask why is the risk of starvation or homelessness funny to you? That’s mad weird.
When President Joe Biden announced his plan for student debt cancellation, a reporter (I’m assuming) asked him at the end of his presser, “Do you think this is fair for people who don’t have loans or who have paid off their loans?”
My answer is absolutely. I may be able to move more freely in my life because I lack debt, but as Mississippi activist Fannie Lou Hammer said, nobody is free until everybody’s free. Black women are not only burdened with a disproportionate share of the nation’s $1.7 trillion student loan debt, but also have a harder time paying off those debts due to the wage gap. I don’t just fight for myself. I fight for my sisters and every other Black, brown, elderly and LGBTQ+ person more affected by this debt.
Many organizations and activists lead are on the frontlines of the student debt crisis. So the next two newsletters will highlight those who help people – especially Black women – fight for freedom in this space. So slip this newsletter to your friends and fam so we can all fight for liberation together, and let’s get free.
Releasing shame by telling our stories
Shanna Bennett believes we can learn a lot from each other when we are vulnerable enough to share our student debt stories – including her own.
After emigrating to the U.S. from Jamaica with her family during the 90s, Shanna navigated the college financing process as the first in her family to go to college in America. She graduated college with a double major in psychology and Spanish, a master’s degree in industrial-organizational psychology and six-figures in student loan debt. In response to the student loan debt crisis, Shanna created a community where student debtors empower and educate each other by sharing their stories.
Her Instagram, Student Debt Brand, is both informative and funny. Shanna hopes that by early next year Student Debt Brand will be raising money to pay off people’s student loan debts by selling products. Shanna is also the host of “Matter of Life and Debt,” originally a debtor-education podcast started by Nikki Nolan. Since becoming host in February, Shanna talked to experts with the Debt Collective, the nation’s first debt union, and gave student debtors space to share their stories and release their shame.
Shanna chatted with me to explain her journey of joy and liberation and how she is helping others do the same:
Do you feel comfortable with sharing with us your own journey of student debt?
My mom made it very clear what my job was, and my job was to get educated. It’s like the cliche immigrant experience, ‘We came to this country so that you can get an education. So that you could have a better life.’ I credit her with so much because she moved to a foreign country, literally by herself. She had one suitcase and $100 in her pocket, literally, but I watched her navigate that process with such grace and intelligence. She really made some smart moves. So we navigated the funding or financing process of higher education to the best of our ability. But not once did anyone say to me, ‘Hey, let’s consider the cost.’ It was never that. It was, ‘Where do you want to go? Where are you most comfortable? What do you want to study.’
It wasn’t until graduate school that I became more conscious of how much debt I was accumulating. I only knew of one student in college who seemed to be more savvy about the cost, and I think it’s because her dad was an accountant and he was advising her as to what she should and shouldn’t do. By time I left graduate school, I had six figures in student loan debt. When I tell you I was stressed. I did not know what to do. I was always anxious about it. I was incredibly depressed. I did not have a plan. I didn’t know who to go to.
How did that debt affect your life?
At the time (of graduation), the economy had crashed because I graduated in 2009. So the economy wasn’t really back to where it should have been. It was tough because I graduate with this degree, but I didn’t have a lot of real-world experience. I kind of fell in the cracks because it wasn’t really something that anyone discussed with me. It was very difficult to find a job, but I finally found something with a Black woman doing cross-cultural health literacy work. It was beautiful to watch her help these companies better communicate to the black community about their health and prevention of disease. But while I was doing this really meaningful work, I was getting paid pennies. So through that period, a lot of my loans were deferred and growing with interest.
I took on other jobs. I worked at the sandwich shop. I did stay-at-home customer service. I worked for my local community as the village clerk for speeding tickets, and I did payroll. So I took on other things, but I still was not able to make these payments. It wasn’t until I got my first “big girl job” that I was able to start paying. Maybe about a year or so after that I got divorced, which is also incredibly destabilizing because I had to figure out what I could and could not do with my own salary.
So how did you find your own liberation through your story?
I just decided that I didn’t want to be afraid of this anymore. It came from learning more about the process, learning about how many student loan servicers have been pulled into court for predatory lending practices for misleading borrowers for you know, leading people into more and more debt. And then once you realize that you realize, “OK, so I’m part of a faulty, very antiquated system,” there’s just no need for us to carry the shame that we’ve been carrying.
There’s this idea that student loan borrowers are lazy, or we’re trying to live off government benefits who are complaining about the system. But when you look at it, we are responsible. We do work hard. And every time I talk to somebody with student debt, they’re working many jobs and are having sleepless nights. They’re just trying to do the best for themselves and their families. I have yet to meet a lazy student loan borrower.
Some of us were sold this idea that doesn’t exist. It’s not, “Take out as much as you need and then you’ll have enough to pay it back.” I will say that there are some people that it has worked for, but I don’t think that’s the majority.
What does true student debt liberation look like to you?
For me, it would be easier access to education, specifically for Black and brown people, specifically women. That means no- to low-cost education. I truly believe higher education can be a pathway to higher level thinking and advanced topics, and I think everyone should have access to that. I don’t think that you should be living a struggle lifestyle, like I had to do, to make that happen.
How do you help others find liberation through their student debt stories?
Just talking about it because I’ve realized that even though it is taboo, the more that you talk about it, the more we normalize it and we make other people feel comfortable to talk about it. It’s like what the “Me Too” movement did. The more you talk about your sexual assault, the more someone else is going to feel comfortable talking about their sexual assault.
What do you hope people will get out of the podcast?
I hope it encourages more people to become more active. That’s why I get really excited about the work that we do with the Debt Collective because when I tell you that Biden did not want to cancel anything. We made our elected official do something last week just from being vocal and applying pressure and engaging in conversations. That was amazing. So I hope that encourages more people to become active by starting to talk to more family members about student debt and become more vocal in the fact that the system is just not working as it should anymore.
Listen up and stay informed
“Matter of Life and Debt” is currently 50 episodes strong. While we hope you enjoy all the episodes, Shanna believes these three episodes will empower and educate you the most.
- Episode 40 – Pick up the Pen, Joe: “This was recorded live at a protest the Debt Collective organized on April 4th,” Shanna said. “It features audio from Nina Turner’s speech, an interview with Briahna Joy Gray (Former Bernie National Press Secretary 2020) and an interview with Marianne Williamson (former presidential candidate). There are so many nuggets from this episode, but basically you can feel a sense of unity with student loan borrowers. I think this episode reminds folks that they’re not alone.”
- Episode 43 – Myths busted: “This episode features very smart members of the Debt Collective, a professor, higher ed researcher and an attorney. I think all of them are Ivy League educated, and we discuss what student debt cancellation means for borrowers and for the economy. We were able to target myths propagated by folks that are against student debt cancellation. This one arms the listener with info and data, so that they’re able to navigate some of the more difficult conversations happening right now about student debt.”
- Episode 47 – Life After Debt: “This episode is EMOTIONAL. It features a previous interviewee that returns to share her after-debt feelings. She worked very hard to pay off her debt, and she reflects on what that means for her, and her family. It’s beautiful, inspirational, and it’s a feel-good episode.”
Spread the Black joy by discovering your part in fighting against student debt and by helping a coalition of Mississippians who are making sure folks in Jackson, Miss., get clean water.