The Student Debt That is My Privilege to Own

I frequently write on the blog about the effects that my student loans have on my lifestyle. Specifically, the weight of such a heavy thing to bear, and the astounding cost that it takes to pursue a dream career. It’s shaped so much who I’ve become, that I have even adopted the cheeky, and equally lame, pseudoname “The Debtist”. Amidst the writing, one thing in particular may have been misconstrued. That is, this whopping student debt, though extreme to say the least, is my privilege to own.

I never spoke about this before, but my mother wanted to become a doctor. It’s hard to say which came first. If she wanted to become a doctor and that’s what led me to decide on dentistry at a young age of eight years old, or if I voiced my dream to become a dentist which prompted my mom to share her own aspirations to become a doctor. Either way, one dream came true, and the other remained just a dream. My mom is a very highly motivated and smart person. She was the top student of her class, from kindergarten until high school, which, in the Philippines and in the 70’s, having a female as the top of the class was not a common thing. She was the first feminist I have ever met, and I would say that she was way ahead of her time. In the Philippines, there is no such thing as undergraduate school. After high school, you go to college for your chosen career and work right out of college. When it came time to applying for college, my mom applied to two majors: one was medical school, and one was engineering school. Why did she apply to both?

She was born to a family with eight children. Of the eight, she was the middle child. Despite being a relatively well-off family, providing for a family of eight with one working person in the Philippines is still not an easy feat. Money can be tight, at times. Back home, there was no such thing as student loans. In order to go to medical school, one would have to pay for the tuition costs up front, in cash, 100%. And medical school is very, very expensive. If my mom were to go to medical school, she would need to come up for the money herself, because her parents were busy trying to keep a family alive.

She remembers the story well, and every time she re-tells it, it makes my heart sink. She chose engineering as a back-up because it was inexpensive, and still a math and science related career, the two subjects she excelled at most. The day they found out if they got into their schools of choice, the results of the engineering school were released first. A list was posted on a school wall with the names of the students that were accepted. When she found out that she got accepted to the engineering school, she immediately accepted it and never looked back. She never did look at the results of the medical school, which were released later that day. I asked her why she never looked to see if she got in, and she says, “Why would I? There was no way I would have been able to go anyway. I might have just been sad my whole life knowing that I was accepted and could not have gone.”

Having student loans is the reason that I am a doctor and my mom is not. Although it does not cost half a million dollars to become a doctor back home, there lies an even bigger barrier, which is the lack of access to an opportunity to create an equal ground for all citizens. Student loans are a heavy toll, but they are what allowed me to pursue my dream in the first place. Because without them, I would not have been able to afford dental school, either.

I became a dentist because of a deep interest in helping others. I was recently asked in an interview whether I knew what I was getting myself into. Specifically, if I knew the cost of dental school prior to applying and if I knew the average salary of a dentist in my area that I would be making when I got out. My answer was no. It may seem absolutely foolish to enter a career without knowing those facts, but at the same time, I didn’t become a dentist to be rich. So to me, money was not at the forefront of my thoughts. The implication was that I did not know what I was getting into and this is why I am in this mess in the first place. But that isn’t true. Money was not my motivating factor, so I doubt it would have been a deterring one either. Money never made it into my life equation. The minute money dictates whether one pursues a dream is the minute that money wins. I was going to become a dentist so that I could help those in need, no matter the cost. Even now, I look at my loans and realize that 100% of my income goes towards paying for my education over the next ten years. Essentially, I will be working for free until I am in my mid to late thirties. However, I simply attribute that as a medical professional’s responsibility, to sacrifice a bit of our lives for others. Don’t get me wrong. The high cost of education still irks me, and I still question the value of the money that goes into the schooling in terms of what you get out of it, but I understand that this is just part of the process of becoming who I am in this particular educational system.

If anything, I have my loans to thank for creating such a meaningful and intentional life. I can’t say for certain that I would have ever created such a disconnect from material goods and money, or a heavier importance towards gratitude, giving, and general non-maleficence if it didn’t come from a necessity to live with less. The loans have forced me to live without the trivial things, thereby adding value in the form of the priceless. This is why the loans are so much a part of who I am, and why I am willing to identify myself as a Debtist. In the interview, I realized that the loans were misunderstood as something that is all-bad, but they are not. Instead, I am using them as my driving force for good.

I would like to thank my mom for being the inspiration that pushed me through with my decision to pursue dentistry. Even though I may not be financially free, I am grateful to have had the freedom to become whoever I wanted to be, with the understanding that being able to pursue the thought of financial freedom is a privilege in and of itself.

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