Friday, December 11, 2020

My Debt Repayment Journey


Recently, I posted on Facebook that I had made my last student loan payment and was debt free. I received several follow-up messages from friends asking about my process and, since enough people asked, I thought I would write about it here. 

For context: I'm in the humanities (specifically writing studies and women's and gender studies) and I was in college/grad school for ~12 years. Here's the break down of that:

  • Bachelor's degree (graduated 2011) - 4 years and 1 summer session
  • Master's degree (graduated 2013) - 2 years and 1 summer session
  • Graduate certificate (graduated 2017) - 2 years (completed during my doctoral program)
  • Doctorate (graduated 2019) - 4 years
I was extremely fortunate that my parents paid for my bachelor's degree (tuition and room and board and living expenses), so I had no debt from my undergrad (thanks, Mom and Dad!). When I was about to start my master's degree, I took out student loans to pay my tuition and to cover some living expenses (I worked various odd jobs during my master's program that barely paid for my rent and groceries - in the print center at Office Max, as a nanny, as a research assistant in the social work program at my university, as a counselor at a summer camp, etc.). 

Sidebar: Going into my master's program, I knew nothing about grad school or student loans and didn't realize it was not a good choice to go into debt for that degree. I learned later that many grad programs provide tuition assistance and a stipend, but my program didn't offer either. The benefits of a humanities degree do not often outweigh the costs, so looking back, I wish I would have found a funded master's program. I ended up owing about $20,000 in student loans for my master's. 

During the two years between my master's and doctorate, I worked as an adjunct instructor (if you don't know what that means, check out this article) and was only able to make small payments on my loan. I was lucky enough to be accepted to my doctoral program with an assistantship and a stipend, so most of my tuition was covered. However, I did have to pay some fees each semester, which added up to about $1,000 ($1,000 x 8 semesters = $8,000). In addition, my assistantship was also not enough to live on (it was about $600 every two weeks). Several colleagues took out loans to pay the extra fees and to live on, but with the loan from my master's degree hanging over my head, I couldn't justify going into more debt. I picked up other jobs and side hustles to pay the fees each semester and to make ends meet. I taught online courses for other schools, did photography sessions, and found childcare jobs through (in addition to my assistantship, which consisted of teaching, mentoring, website development, and/or shooting photography, depending on the semester). It was tough, but I completed my graduate certificate and doctorate without adding any more student loan debt. 

It's also worth noting that I got married right before the end of my master's program, so I had a partner with an income during my doctorate. However, he works in ministry and church salaries are notoriously low (not quite as low as my grad school stipend, but close). As a result, he worked side hustles, too (mostly at coffee shops or in retail). While we lived paycheck to paycheck and often went without, we were happy and tried our best to live within our means. 

While the loan from my master's was deferred during my doctoral program, the payments kicked in again right after graduating in 2019. I had just spent a year on the job market, traveling and going to conferences, and we were about to move so that I could begin my new job (for more on that, read here). The traveling and moving expenses added up and ended up on our credit card. My partner, Justin, had also experienced a workplace injury that year. While at one of his jobs, a 400 lb. sign fell and crushed his leg, resulting in lots of medical bills and time off work. His paycheck made up most of our income, but we didn't receive a paycheck from worker's comp for almost 8 weeks. It was stressful, and while we cut down where we could, most of our living expenses during that time ended up on the credit card. Also, worker's comp decided to appeal all of the medical procedures, claiming they weren't necessary (after doctors had recommended them and we agreed under the impression that worker's comp would pay). They won and we were stuck with thousands of dollars of medical debt.

We moved in July 2019 and I saw it as a fresh start. We were going to be a one-income family for awhile since Justin was starting a new venture with a college ministry that required him to raise his own salary and ministry budget (we moved in July and he didn't start receiving a paycheck until March), but I was committed to paying down the debt as quickly as possible. We were frugal and saved as much as we could. I budgeted a certain amount each week and the rest went toward debt repayment. We started with smaller debts, which included our car loan, medical debt, and the credit card we used to buy furniture after the move. Once those were paid off in about 3-4 months, I moved to our credit card and paid that off in about 6 months. Right after that (in June 2020), I took advantage of the CARES Act (which prevented federal student loans from accruing any interest) and started making aggressive payments on my student loans (I had one subsidized and one unsubsidized). My goal was to pay it off before interest kicked back in on December 31st (it has since been extended) and I met that goal. 

I am fortunate and grateful that my family hasn't been financially impacted by COVID-19. Since we were in quarantine for quite some time (and we honestly still don't get out and do much), we were able to save more than we had before and this gave us a boost in the funds we had available for debt repayment. I feel incredibly blessed that we were able to tackle this kind of debt repayment during a worldwide pandemic, and I know this approach isn't possible for everyone. The keys for us were living within our means, budgeting a weekly amount and not going over, picking up side hustles where we could (I'm still booking photography shoots if you are in the Evansville area!), and putting any bit of extra money toward debt repayment. 

A few other suggestions:
  • Delegate based on strengths. I'm the saver in my family and my partner is the spender; as a result, I handle most of our finances.
  • If you have to have a side hustle, try to make it something you enjoy. I had lots of cool jobs throughout my educational journey that I am thankful for (the job as the counselor at the summer camp for at-risk youth was the most rewarding).
  • Don't get too overwhelmed. Any repayment toward debt is progress, even if it's not much. (That said, make sure you are still considering your interest rates!). 
  • Cut costs where you can. I found those quick trips into the convenience store a few times a week for an iced tea really added up. 
  • School is hard, but if you can work, do it. I'm incredibly grateful now that I had so many job opportunities during my doctorate. (However, the fact that I had to work so many jobs during my doctorate is evidence that the higher education system is broken and grad students are not supported like they should be, but that's a rant for another day). 
  • It gets better. Just because your job/financial situation is not ideal now doesn't mean it will be that way forever. Save what you can, even if it's not much. 
Thanks for reading! If you have any questions that I didn't answer here, I'd be happy to follow up with you. You can send me a message on Facebook or reach out via the Contact tab on my website.

Stay safe, stay healthy, keep thriving (or surviving - we are still in a pandemic, after all). 

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Evansville House

So much has changed since I posted on here last June! My family moved to Indiana from Ohio at the end of July and I began my dream job in August. It's hard to believe I've already been here for an entire semester. The spring semester started a couple weeks ago and I just spent a week recovering from the flu. Since I had a bit of down time, I thought I'd finally share a bit about our journey to Evansville and our new home (and many friends and family members have been asking to see photos of the new place!).

Justin and I have always wanted to live downtown; we love local businesses, the people, and being able to have so much within walking distance. This wasn't really an option for us in Toledo because everything was so expensive downtown. Last May, we came to Evansville (the third largest city in Indiana) to find a place to live. We had been looking for places online and had set up several appointments to see homes, but nothing was working out - someone else would get to the place before us, appointments would fall through, or the place would not be what we were looking for.

On our first day in town, we had a rough day and decided to take another look at some properties on Zillow. We stopped at a restaurant downtown and our waiter saw we had Zillow open on my laptop. He started telling us about how he had lived downtown for years and loved it and that we should look into it. We said we wanted to, but weren't finding any places that were a good fit for us. He gave us the contact information for a friend of his and said she had several properties downtown that we might be interested in. Justin texted her and she said she only had one property available, but that it was undergoing renovations and wouldn't be available until July (which is when we were moving). Without even knowing what the place looked like, we set up an appointment to see the property the next day.

The house felt like home as soon as we pulled up. It was right downtown, very close to so many awesome local businesses and restaurants, and was in a gorgeous historic neighborhood near the Ohio River. We toured the place and, while it was a mess because of the renovations, Justin and I knew it was the place for us. We moved in on July 28th and have been in love with our house and our neighborhood ever since. (And Ruby loves it, too!).

We're so happy here. We love our city, our neighborhood, our jobs. We've met so many new people and it's been great to feel settled after so many years of moving and being in grad school. So, I thought I'd share our new home with you!

We were lucky enough to participate in the Old Evansville Historic Association home tour back in December and around 400 people from the community toured our home (and six other homes in the downtown historic district). Through the home tour, we were able to learn more about our house. Some quick facts: The house is known locally as the Theodore Venemann House as it was built for Theodore and Britania Venemann in 1869 (crazy, right!?). Venemann was trained as an attorney but eventually took over his father's business (which was listed in the local directory as "Foreign Exchange, Steamship, and Railroad Agents"). The house is a simplified example of Italianate style.

As a side note: If you click on the photos, it enlarges them and you can scroll through them like a slideshow.

The entryway/front hallway and stairs leading up to the bedrooms/office.

We call this our Harry Potter bathroom because it's under the stairs. There's a toilet back there but you can't see it in the photos. 

The dining room. 

We don't have a garage, so the dining room is the only convenient place to store our bikes (we bike a lot living downtown).

The kitchen. 

We actually have four doors that lead in/out of the house, but we only use the front door - the other doors are either sealed or always locked. 

This bathroom is brand new and was part of the renovations this past summer. We love the clawfoot tub and exposed brick!

The living room.

Justin keeps his tools in this random closet. 

Now we're at the top of the stairs. This hallway leads to the master bedroom.

Our bedroom.

We sold our old bedroom furniture before we left Toledo and ordered new furniture from Wayfair (which included a king-sized bed)!

And we have a wonderful walk-in closet (and another smaller closet) in our room!

My home office/Justin's music room.

More exposed brick.

We technically have three bedrooms, but we use this one (just off the office) as a storage room.

The spare bedroom.

That's an antique postage box that I use as a nightstand (found it on Facebook marketplace!).

That antique Schwinn was once a Toledo police bike!

The hallway outside the spare bedroom.

This leads to the attic stairs.

The attic is...gross. So we don't go up there. (We did once and found lots of weird stuff, including an old rocking horse, some holiday decorations, and lots of paintings of nude women). 

The laundry room!

Our upstairs bathroom.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Year Four

This year has been chaotic, difficult, and exciting all at the same time. I just wrapped up a four-year PhD program in English with a specialization in rhetoric and writing (and a certificate in women's, gender, and sexuality studies) and I graduated on May 17th. It still feels surreal, but you can call me Dr. LaFollette!

For the first three years of my program, I was mentored by the faculty at my university about going on the academic job market. I knew when fourth-year came around, I would spend the year looking for, applying to, and interviewing for academic positions. However, I don't think I was prepared for quite how difficult the whole process would be, or how difficult the entire year would be as a whole. I began applying for positions in July 2018. At the beginning of August, I became ill (first with strep throat, then bronchitis, then several misdiagnosed upper respiratory infections followed by a whole list of weird and concerning symptoms) and spent the entire month of August barely able to function. (I wrote a post about this ordeal here). I finally received a mono diagnosis during the second week of the semester and subsequently had to take a leave of absence from school and teaching (I was teaching poetry for the first time in my career and had to pass the course off to another instructor).

I was on medical leave for six weeks and then transitioned back to school part-time for another two weeks. At the beginning of November, I was trying to get back to my regular activities, but I didn't really start feeling like myself again until several months later. In November, I spent five days in Cincinnati helping out with a new staff assessment for Impact Campus Ministries (the organization my husband works for). It was a wonderful (and exhausting) experience, and it definitely helped me feel like I could tackle school and work again after being on leave for almost two months.

I had some setbacks with my dissertation, so over winter break, I wrote and revised as much as I could so I could send the final version to my committee when the spring semester started. Once spring semester came around, I took on another job (I was already working as a program assistant at my university and teaching online for another university) as a part-time nanny 15-20 hours per week. We were also hiring a new faculty member at my university, so I was trying to attend the candidates' research and teaching presentations since I was also on the job market. And, on top of this, I was still applying to as many jobs as possible and trying to get my dissertation ready for defense. I submitted the "final" version of my dissertation (which ended up being almost 300 pages) in January and defended my dissertation on February 18th! My husband and parents were even able to attend; it was a great day all around.

By January, I had been applying to jobs for six months and hadn't had a request for a single interview. I was becoming anxious and discouraged, but many of my other colleagues were experiencing the same thing. The academic job market wasn't strong this past year, and there weren't as many positions available. I started thinking about what I would do if the year passed and I didn't get hired. Would we stay in Ohio? What would I do? The whole process was anxiety-inducing, and it didn't help that family and friends and acquaintances were always asking if I had had interviews, found a job, etc. I didn't know what to tell them because nothing was happening.

In February, I had a phone interview with Campus #1, and I didn't hear back from them after that initial interview. A week later, I had a Skype interview with Campus #2, a very small, private liberal arts college (for a tenure-track Assistant Professor position). The following week, they invited me for a campus visit/interview. While I was preparing for that campus visit, I had a Skype interview with Campus #3 (a small, private Catholic university) and was also later invited for a campus visit/interview (it was for a one- to two-year Visiting Lecturer position). I came back early from a conference in Pittsburgh and went to my campus interview at Campus #2 the following day. A week later, I went to my campus interview with Campus #3. I didn't get the job at Campus #2, and Campus #3 canceled their search after my interview.

In late March/early April, I had a Skype interview with Campus #4 (a mid-sized public university) for a tenure-track position as an Assistant Professor and Campus #5 (a small branch of a larger public university system) for a one-year Visiting Assistant Professor position. Campus #4 followed-up and asked me to come for a campus interview, and then Campus #5 asked if I could come during the same dates that Campus #4 had booked me for. When I asked Campus #5 if I could come during a different time since I already had another interview scheduled, they said they were no longer interested.

After returning home from my interview with Campus #4, I had a phone interview with Campus #6 (a small, private Catholic university) for a non-tenure track Assistant Teaching Professor position and a Skype interview with Campus #7 (a very small, private liberal arts college) for a one-year Visiting Assistant Professor position. I went for a campus visit/interview at Campus #6 and never heard back from Campus #7.

(As a side note, some of these terms/ranks might not make sense if you don't work in academia. Here's a Wikipedia article that defines some of these positions: Academic Ranks in the United States).

I tell you all this to give you an idea of how stressful the academic job market is. You invest so much time and effort into each application and interview (each takes hours of preparation as you tailor your cover letter, CV, and teaching and research materials to the job ad and research the school and the department before interviews).

If you don't know anything about academic interviews, let me tell you a bit about them. Universities will usually do initial interviews (via Skype or over the phone) with 10-20 job applicants, then they will narrow that pool down and invite 2-3 candidates for a campus visit/interview. The campus interviews can last between 2-3 days and involve meals with the search committee and meetings and presentations that last all day. I usually would have dinner with the search committee the night before my official interview and then the interview would start the next day between 8:00 and 9:00 in the morning. Depending on the size of the school, job candidates meet with the the president, the provost, the dean, the department chair, the search committee, human resources, etc. In between those meetings, candidates are required to give presentations on their research and facilitate a teaching demonstration (all of my teaching demonstrations were in actual classes, meaning I took over for that instructor for that class session and taught their class while the search committee and other faculty members observed). Lunch is typically with students or other faculty members, and candidates usually have dinner with the search committee after the day-long interview is over before returning to their hotel.

The process is exhausting.

While I was traveling for interviews, I was also going to conferences, submitting applications, and continuing with my work responsibilities (I was still working as a program assistant and teaching online, but had dropped the job as a nanny). My husband had also been in a workplace accident in February and injured his leg. Worker's compensation was taking forever to come through, so we were without his income for almost eight weeks, which only added to the stress, anxiety, and uncertainty we were both already feeling. On top of this, our lease was up in May, and when we asked our landlord if we could extend it until July or August (when hopefully I would have a job and we would be planning to move), she initially said "no." We spent two or three weeks trying to figure out what we were going to do about our living situation. If I did get a job offer, we would need to move in July or August, so we would have to move out of our current place and into a new place for two months just to move again. If I didn't get a job, we had no plan and didn't even know where we would live. A friend offered to let us stay with her and we could put our stuff in storage, but luckily it didn't come to that and our lease was extended until July.

May came around and I still didn't have a job offer. I was trying to come up with a plan for what I was going to do if I didn't get a position, but most days, it was too much to think about. Getting a PhD was the hardest thing I've ever done, and I kept hoping I didn't go through the whole process to come out empty-handed.

On May 6th, after applying to almost 80 jobs and having many interviews and campus visits, I got a job offer from Campus #4, a dream school and a dream job. (And, the day after, I got a job offer from Campus #6, but knew the other job was the right position for me). I accepted the offer and signed my contract; we're moving (back) to Indiana on July 27th! I'm so excited about this position and can't wait to start in August. After the year we've had, I'm looking forward to getting settled in our new place in our new city.

I'm sharing these stories on my blog for a couple reasons. One, I don't think many people knew how rough this year was on us, and announcing my new job and the move on social media was exciting, but it didn't show any of the chaos of the months leading up to it. Transparency is important, especially when we only tend to share the good things on social media. Second, if you are on the academic job market this year or will be soon, you can do this! Surround yourself with good friends and family who support you. Be patient. Don't take rejections personally - there's so much that happens behind the scenes of a job search that you just don't know about.

God is good. Here's to new adventures!

My partner in crime. After five years in Ohio, we're moving back to Indiana!

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Art Show: Assemblage of Existentialism

I'm excited to share a bit about a collaborative art exhibition that my friend and colleague, Jonathan Brownlee, and I are showcasing during the month of February at the Art and Performance Center of West Toledo. Our exhibition is titled Assemblage of Existentialism and it showcases the artwork from my dissertation project and a four-part series called Anatomy of the Writer. Jon is showcasing several pieces from a series and other stand-alone works. I love the way the exhibition came together, and I think Jon's work does a nice job of complementing mine and vice versa.

You can visit the exhibition during the month of February whenever the Art and Performance Center is open (see the event calendar at the end of this post), and we will be hosting a reception later in the month (TBD). You can find more information below about my part of the exhibition, and there are some preview photos below of our showcase:

The Queer Art of Writing
This series of collages was created for my doctoral dissertation, which is titled The Queer Art of Writing: (Re)Imagining Scholarship and Pedagogy Through Transgenre Composing. Since I am defending my dissertation this month and am graduating in May 2019, it seemed like the perfect time to showcase the artwork I’ve been working on for the past two years while writing my dissertation.

The idea for my dissertation developed as I was attempting to reconcile my identities as both a creative writer and a writing studies scholar. My driving questions have been: Can creative writing be scholarly, and can scholarly writing be creative? Is there a place for art in writing? My dissertation works to answer these questions and advocate for the use of art in writing studies scholarship and pedagogy by examining “transgenre” compositions (or compositions that combine elements of both art and writing). Because of the focus of my dissertation, I decided to make the project a tangible representation of what the intersections of art and writing can look like. As a result, my dissertation is a combination of art and text. The collages in the showcase are interspersed throughout the first four chapters of the project; I took a different approach with my fifth and final chapter, which was created using photographs and footnotes.

Anatomy of the Writer
Anatomy of the Writer was created to accompany a medical rhetorics article I’ve been working on for an academic journal. Staying true to the focus of my dissertation, the artwork works with the text in the article to create an altogether new reading/viewing experience for audiences. The text of the article intersects with this artwork, which outlines my experiences with traumatic injury, surgery, and recovery, to emphasize the rhetorical nature of bodies and the importance of acknowledging our embodied subjectivities in writing.

Enjoy the preview! The photos show a mix of me and Jon's work.