Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Graduate School and Debt - The Big Decision

I've been back in the United States for a year now. Wow!  The familiar weight of my iPhone is a constant presence in my hand or pocket, and my fingers can type a text message without my eyes' help anymore.  I've become accustomed to drinking tap water and not getting sick, I can sleep through the night without worrying about my house getting broken into, hot showers no longer feel like a luxury, and I'm beginning to lose my taste for beans.  My Spanish doesn't come as easily as it did, but I cultivate it through monthly calls with Nicaraguan friends on Skype.  I'm officially converting back into an American again... We all knew this day was coming.

When I first arrived home, it was initially hard to find a job.  For the summer, I worked as a sales associate at an outerwear store.  I was grateful to have something, but I was starting to freak out about my future.  Then an opportunity came up to work at an Alaskan foundation that grants millions to nonprofit organizations in our state every year.  I worked there as a temporary employee for four months, getting my feet back on the "professional ground" as it were, and remembering what it was like to be in an office and work at a computer every day.  After that, I moved to Alaska's capital city, Juneau to work as a Legislative Aide for the Alaska State Senate, a position I currently hold. 

Working for the Legislature has been a whirlwind experience.  This is my first experience with state government and policy making and I felt like I was trying to drink from a fire hose.  Every day brought new challenges and the short 90 day legislative session put everything in a time crunch.  Working late and on the weekends was normal for our office, so the fact that Alaska received record snowfall this winter didn't phase me much; I was inside for most of it. 

Despite these great jobs, my long-held goal of earning my Master's degree persists, and I applied to several schools to study international relations.  I have accepted admission at Georgetown University and will begin graduate studies in the Master of Science in Foreign Service program this fall.  While I'm excited to begin school and live in Washington DC, I waffled over the decision as I thought about the repercussions of taking out large student loans.

I applied to schools without thinking about the cost of attendance; I just wanted to see where I could get in.  Now that the decision is finally upon me, I'm realizing that taking out around $80K in loans is no joke.  I have no loans from undergraduate study, and I appreciate and enjoy the freedom this gives me in my life.  Having my Master's will undoubtedly open professional doors that would have been inaccessible otherwise, and allow me to earn more over my lifetime, but it also means that I will have to be working from the moment of graduation until they are paid off (possible 10+ years). 

As I contemplated this decision, I looked to many friends and family for advice.  Everyone told me something different.  "Debt is just part of life," some would tell me.  "Don't take out more loans than you can expect to make in your first year after graduation," was another piece of advice I often heard.  "Follow your heart!" my friends would say.  "Move to California with me!" one friend countered (I do have to say this was the most tempting option...) 

I stumbled across a great blog by a Harvard University Master's of Business Administration (MBA) graduate:  He chronicles his journey into over $100K of debt, and how even after making 21 payments of over $1000, he still owes over $90K due to accumulating interest.  He sees his life being eclipsed by a downward spiral of debt, but is smart enough to take drastic measures (selling off cars, motorcycles, getting roommates, living more frugally...) and pays off all his loans within seven months.  Of course, a lot of this is a no-brainer.  If paying off the debt is really a priority for someone, they can make it happen (of course, it helps to have a Harvard MBA and a well-paying job like the blogger does, too)  As a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, I already know how to live frugally, but this is harder to do in the US vs. a developing country.  I'm not a great budgeter, but I think that's because I've never really had to do so before.  I've always had "enough" money to get by and with merit scholarships paying for virtually all of my undergraduate education, I've been able to spend my summer earnings how I pleased.  I know I could work another year or two in the job I have now to save money for graduate school (it's a great job, really), but I'm ready to leave Alaska and advance my education, despite the inherent loans.

I ultimately decided that graduate school at Georgetown University is the best path for me right now.  I've visited the campus a few times, met and spoken with several professors and students, and am familiar with the DC area after living there for an internship in 2008.  I've decided to go for the debt, and I'm at peace with the decision.  Let's just hope all goes as planned (I remember when I joined Peace Corps in January 2009, I thought the recession would be long gone by the time I returned in 2011.  Not so...)

I'm excited to begin this new chapter in my life, although starting school again is intimidating.  I'm going to try and update my blog more often now that I'll be leaving Alaska and my life will probably (*hopefully*) get a little more interesting.  Who knows, maybe I'll start blogging about my own student loan debt, too... But for now, I'm just savoring the sweet feeling of having made my decision, and looking forward to an upcoming winter spent outside of Alaska.

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