I moved my husband and son to Oklahoma so I could pursue a PhD in English, but now I can’t afford to see my family for Christmas. Is all this worth it?
As the heartache sank in, I stared out the back window at mounds of leaves littering the ground, accepting the finality of my decision. I grabbed my husband, Nick, and our two-year-old son, Bennett, and we got into my 1995 Jeep to head to a Christmas tree farm. I had accepted that I couldn’t afford to spend Christmas with my extended family, but without question, I was making sure the three of us had a tree.
As Nick reversed the car out of the driveway, the steering wheel wouldn’t turn. “What’s happening?” he asked, a little panicked.
I got out of the car, popped the hood, and poured in some power steering oil. My car had a leak, and I had grown accustomed to doing this every week or so. It was cheaper than paying the $1,000 a mechanic had quoted me to actually fix it.
As we pulled out of our neighborhood, our small town in Oklahoma disappearing in the rearview mirror, Nick noticed my knob for the heater was broken, and that I used a portable stereo to listen to Christmas music because my radio did not work. “You need a new car,” he said.
“I cannot afford it,” I replied. Of course, I could “afford” it with student loans, but did not want to borrow any more.
On the drive, looking out at the cattle and farmlands and abandoned, dissipating barns, the reality set in: I am a broke graduate student, who cannot afford to see her family for Christmas, just like I hadn’t seen them for Thanksgiving.
A year and a half ago, I moved my husband and son from California to Oklahoma so I could pursue a PhD in English, with hopes of landing a tenure-track job.
That day in the car, gazing out the window of my old Jeep, a heaviness pulsed through me: was all this worth it? The abyss of debt; pursuing a PhD that did not guarantee a job at the end; and most crushingly, missing my parents, two sisters and brother, Gavin, now 12, who was not supposed to live past his first Christmas.
On Gavin’s first Christmas, he was declared “failure to thrive” and placed in hospice care. Nurses dropped by almost daily to provide care because the end was near. That first Christmas of his, he was gifted a silver cradle with a red bow glued to it. I remember crying as I hung that ornament on the Douglas fir tree that year, shattered at the prospect of my baby brother having only one Christmas. But Gavin survived his first Christmas and many more. Still, I realized Gavin having more Christmases is never guaranteed – they’re not guaranteed for any of us. The faster and harder I work toward my PhD, the sooner I could get back to California to share more of them with my family.
But I can only go as fast as I can afford.
I receive a tuition waiver for grad school and a small stipend. But it is never enough. I have to take out thousands of dollars in loans every semester to afford books, childcare and university fees. My personal debt is growing, as I’m still paying off undergraduate loans from a decade before, all of which is compounded by my husband’s loans from his medical degree, costing us hundreds of dollars in payments every month. Meanwhile the loans keep growing, of course, due to aggressive interest rates.
By the time I graduate with my PhD, I will owe about $50,000 – the cost of a small house here in Oklahoma. My debt is pennies in comparison with medical school, but debt is debt. It all sucks.
During my first semester in graduate school, after leaving a birthday party, a classmate asked if we could make a pit stop at a discount grocer. She told me this was the only grocery store in town that didn’t lock its dumpsters at night, and she wanted to root through the end-of-day loot. I held my phone flashlight into the trash as she rifled through the dumpster, handing me decent tomatoes and dehydrated grapes.
It was that night, waiting for my classmate to climb back out of the dumpster, that I realized how much of a crisis graduate students live in. In 2019, it reached $1.6tn, an all-time high. Writing out the number with all its zeros is jarring – $1,600,000,000,000 – and it reminds me how much bigger the collective debt is than just my own. Debt usually feels so isolating.
When I complete my degree, I would like to move back to the California neighborhood where my family lives. My mom tells me she has a vision of my son standing in his pajamas, yelling her name from just across the street. I can see that too, on the street where Gavin learned to walk in his walker though we were told he would never walk, on the street I grew up on and still love. I don’t know that we will ever afford to live there.
That day, pulling into the tree farm, two emotions came over me: pride that my Jeep made the trip without breaking down, and peace as I watched people search for the tree that will help make their holiday special, the same as we were about to do. I decided then that instead of lamenting over everything that is not ideal in my life – being a broke graduate student working for a dream that I can only pray pays off – I get to have an intimate Christmas with my husband and son this year. This Christmas morning, we won’t worry about the debt. We will make crispy bacon and blueberry muffins. Bennett will be gifted some Legos and maybe a goldfish (he won’t stop asking for one). We will sing Jingle Bells over FaceTime with Gavin and the rest of the family.
The tree we picked out that day is now sparkling with lights and decorated with handmade ornaments, though there aren’t many presents underneath it. I initially pitched this story in the hopes of getting enough money from it to buy Christmas presents. I didn’t expect to have to do this, but I remind myself this season is only temporary. I hope in the future I won’t have to make last-ditch efforts to increase funds. Just like people count down sleeps until they are reunited with loved ones, I’m counting down Christmases. Only two more Christmases until we are back home.
For the original article click here: https://www.theguardian.com/money/2019/dec/12/college-debt-holidays-broke-home
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