Ivan and I were students in the same second-grade class in Cleveland back in the 1990s. I distinctly remember his braces and big ears. He was quite mischievous, and I may have fallen in love watching him run on the playground; the sun beaming from his metal grin. The little girl back then, with curly pigtails and unlaced K-Swiss shoes had no idea that she was staring at her future.
When my family moved to another city in Ohio, I assumed that I would never see Ivan again. That was until the birth of social media, which changed everything. Ten years later, his Facebook friend request sparked our destiny.
It was the summer of 2008. The best summer of my life. We were both 18 and heading off to separate colleges. Starting a new relationship was very ambitious of us. Our friends thought we were crazy, but it just felt right. Ivan wasn’t like most guys. Since the age of 16, he knew that he was going to be a dentist. I knew that Ivan was the stable man that I needed to build a successful life with.
I think our troubled pasts were driving forces in our relationship. I grew up in inner-city Cleveland. My parents were teenagers when I was born, and I don’t remember them ever being together. I lived with my mom most of the time and she did the best that she could, raising six children alone. Although my family was on welfare and frequently moved around, my parents would constantly remind me of the importance of education and financial independence.
Neither of my parents had a college education. After high school, my mother became a hairstylist, and my dad was a mail carrier. My grandparents were also trade workers. Money was always an issue for my family, and I recall being aware of our economic status as a child. The option of my parents paying for college did not exist. There were no college accounts or trust funds. We struggled to live, and college was my answer to break the cycle.
“Although my family was on welfare and frequently moved around, my parents would constantly remind me of the importance of education and financial independence.”
Ivan, on the other hand, grew up in a stable home. His parents were married, lived in the suburbs and made a profitable living as successful real estate brokers. When Ivan turned 12, his family’s stability came spiraling down. It started with the tragic death of his older brother and the incarceration of his father. His mother tried to support the family on her own during the recession. Every bit of their savings was used, but overall they were unable to recover. Ivan and I were young, hopeful and eager to learn from our parents’ mistakes. Together, the sky was the limit.
I applied to Miami University of Ohio after reading a mail brochure. The school launched a scholarship program for underprivileged students. I was accepted and later committed to the university without any idea where it was or what the campus looked like. Attending Miami was the best decision. Not only was the majority of my tuition covered with scholarships, but the campus was beautiful. I graduated in 2012 with $23,025.88 in student loans. With my English degree in hand, I was ready to face the world and chase down a dream job in magazine publishing, but I was stuck. I had zero leads on where to start job-hunting and lacked the confidence to try. I was frozen, Ivan had to stay in Pennsylvania for another year to finish his degree in biology at Lincoln University. So, I made the decision to go back home to Cleveland and work until Ivan graduated. From there we would make plans to get married and move to wherever he was accepted for dental school.
Life did not go as planned. Ivan and I could not secure high-paying jobs. Ivan accumulated $80,000 in undergraduate debt, grappled studying for the Dental Admission Test and couldn’t get the test score needed for acceptance. I doubted my ability as a writer and began to explore a career in the mental health field.
If Ivan and I agreed on anything, it was definitely the importance of family. We were married in 2014 and due to some birth control errors had a surprise baby in 2015. Although we were not planning to have children yet, starting a family was a big deal. The two things that we wanted in life were children and financial happiness. I stopped working to stay home and raise our son with plans to expand our family. After leaving work, I was confronted with intense identity issues: Who was I without a career?
“The two things we wanted in life were children and financial happiness.”
I’d scroll down my social media timeline and compare myself to others. They appeared to be traveling, shopping and building perfect homes. On the other side of the screen, I was pregnant, full of dreams and broke. I later enrolled in school for my master’s degree to fill an emotional void. A decision that cost me $64,595.44. After three years of rejections, Ivan gave up on being a dentist, and he earned an MBA in health administration for a whopping $101,000. Whew, I’m out of breath typing about it! Our problem was that we were trying to fit into a life that I don’t believe was designed for us.
Ivan and I come from a city where healthy and educated Black families were few and far between. Without any resources, Ivan and I were drawing the road map to success while voyaging to our destination. Externally, we did everything right. We graduated from college, were married, purchased a house and had children. Our career paths just didn’t follow along, and worse yet, we were drowning in $268,621.32 in student loans. Looking back, I understand that we couldn’t have it all when we wanted it.
The American dream requires sacrifice. Love and family simply wasn’t something we were willing to give up. I didn’t have married parents. I lived between two homes with half-siblings. I was determined to create the family I never had. I think we live in a culture that measures a person’s worth in numbers. It’s about credit scores, salaries and bank accounts. From what I see, love is desired by many but is deemed negotiable. If I were to live by numerical standards, my life would be over. But it is the love that we have for God, each other and our children that have kept Ivan and me hopeful.
The itch of an old dream reemerged and Ivan applied to dental school a final time. On Feb. 27, 2019, he was accepted. The American dream is not cheap, and when he graduates it will cost my family a total of $718,000 in student loan debt. So you can imagine my excitement when presidential candidate Bernie Sanders announced his plan to cancel all $1.6 trillion of student debts if elected.
“I think we live in a culture that measures a person’s worth in numbers. It’s about credit scores, salaries and back accounts. From what I see love is desired by many but is deemed negotiable.”
My husband and I were first-generation college students in our respective families. Choosing to attend a four-year university was not a lighthearted decision for either of us. Our education was the way out of poverty. Now, my husband is a first-year dental student. Despite his earning ability, we are still burdened with massive debt. His salary as a medical professional cannot save us. It seems as in our attempt to flee destitution; we are peddling back towards it.
America has the highest average tuition cost in the world. The U.S. is also the land of opportunity but crawling out of the sand hole of poverty requires tremendous loss. Nothing is free here. Ivan and I grew up fiscally challenged but as American citizens, we had the chance to work hard and achieve success. Every postgraduate decision was a leap of faith. My husband’s road to dental school was competitive and expensive. Our upward ladder to success was a slick one.
Today, we are eager to provide a fruitful life for our two children. We desire to give back to our community, support businesses and help our parents. The expectation was to work and support our families in a country that would support us in return. But the high tuition costs and ballooning interest rates limit us. I feel that Americans are sold a dream and then punished for pursuing it.
I hope that our nation will learn to empathize with others and value its citizens more than monetary gain. The future should look bright for us, but life currently resembles rush-hour traffic while driving through a dark tunnel. My husband and I have experienced many struggles and, with perseverance, have overcome those barriers. Whether or not our student loans are erased, we’ve found our peace and will pay it off slowly. Although our debt cannot be avoided, it does not rule our lives, it will not stop us from being happy.
The names in this piece, including that of the author, are pseudonyms to protect the family’s privacy.