Sunday, September 19, 2010

Taking her musical talent elsewhere - an indentured educated servant discusses student loans, her love for music, and what life is like in Ireland

Diana McLaughlin is not ashamed to discuss her student loan debt story publicly. While I understand why many of my readers wish to remain anonymous (they have their reasons, and I respect that), I think we should all begin to think about ways in which we can overcome shame and guilt. Together we can argue that this problem is not merely about personal responsibility, but represents a larger systemic crisis. So I am calling on all of you to carefully consider becoming more public about the burden of debt you and your family (and in some cases, friends) are carrying. After all, those who have defrauded us are out their publicly, and they are the problem! We don't wish to be the problem, but rather the solution.

As for Diana, she has left her country, too. Much like me, she realized there were better opportunities in another country, and so she made the bold decision to leave. Let's hear what she has to say about her own life as an indentured educated student. You'll see that it doesn't dominate every aspect of her life, and that's something important to share.

CCJ: Tell us a little about yourself. Where did you go to school? Are you the first to graduate from school? If not, what about your parents/siblings? Moreover, what did you study?

DM: I grew up in a small town in western Maryland. I began studying music at the age of seven with piano lessons, followed by classical voice at age eleven. I had wonderful teachers who encouraged me to pursue music due to my talent. I won various competitions in classical voice including the Southeast regional NATS (National Association for Teachers of Singing) for classical voice at the age of seventeen and was awarded a Maryland Distinguished Scholar of the Arts as well (which entitled me to a $12,000 scholarship if I chose to go to college in Maryland, which I did not do). I chose instead to attend The Catholic University of America, a small private college in Washington, DC due to my voice teacher's relationship with the teacher that I studied with there.

CCJ: Yes, I am quite familiar with CUA's music program. Before I decided to pursue history with the intention of becoming a professor in that field, I was a harp and piano major. I too was accepted into CUA's music program as an undergraduate. However, I didn't attend and went to the University of Kansas instead. Years later when I worked for W.W. Norton & Company, I had the privilege of visiting your campus on a number of occasions for work. I especially enjoyed paying visits to the professors in the Music Department. They are outstanding people and committed teachers - it was clear to me. 

Yes. Moreover, musicians like to pass on their students to someone they trust and I didn't want to end up with a teacher I didn't know. Being from a small town, I still felt safe at Catholic. As a small school, I didn't feel as though I would be lost there in a sea of other musicians. I also appreciated the small class sizes and relationships I was able to build with the professors there. It was important to me to be able to communicate with my teachers and build relationships with them. I also knew that in a smaller school, as a singer, I would have more opportunities! 

I got to sing lead roles in six operas in my time at CUA, something that would have never happened in a bigger school. Experience is what counts for professional musicians. I got my bachelor's degree from Catholic and remember feeling as though I didn't really know where to turn next. Opera singers usually don't start getting work until they are much older than twenty-three. So, I decided to stay on and do my master's, so that at least then I would be able to get a job (or so I thought). Neither of my parents had gone to college, and I grew up with "You are GOING to College" said to me every other day. I was the first person to get a bachelor's degree in my family and I am the only one with a master's. My sister has an associate's degree in Radiography. This degree probably cost less than a semester's worth of tuition at my school. 

CCJ: Why did you pursue the degree you pursued?  

DM: At one point I really loved performing. I loved getting lost in my music, because it seemed to be the only thing that made me happy at one point. 

CCJ: Plus, you were talented and I'm sure that inspired you to continue studying music. It sounds like a lot of teachers believed in your abilities, and the fact that you won some awards is a testament to that fact, too.


But that all changed during college, and I think I am finally getting back to that happy place now that I am out of academia and the competition of it all. I also thought 'well, this is what I am good at so why shouldn't I do it?' I was warned I would be broke for the rest of my life and a lot of people from my small town thought I was a fool. It didn't help that I was poorly treated in high school basically for being talented and that made me just want to get out. Besides, I just couldn't imagine studying anything else. I had spent so much time of my life studying music (piano and voice) that I could not understand giving it up. Even now.  .  . I could never walk away. . . it's part of who I am. 

CCJ: Well, it's quite understandable that you'd wish to pursue degrees in music. You spent years of your life pursuing a career related to music. I remember spending hours and hour practicing piano and harp for concerts and so forth. In a way, you began your career at the age of seven. Plus, people treat music majors poorly, and the so-called realists claim these degrees are a waste of time. Well, I have news for them, this realm matters, and thankfully you've found a little corner in this world that truly recognizes and values music in everyday life. Moreover, I won't even go into the economic or cultural aspects of why we desperately need people in the arts.

DM: Yes. It seemed like the next natural step to take.

CCJ: What was the process of borrowing loans like for you? Did you go to a Financial Aid Office on your campus? If so, what was it like? I'm interested in discussing transparency, and think it's important to note schools who are either honest or dishonest when it comes to these things. Please elaborate about your own borrowing experience. 

DM: We were clueless. We had no idea! My mother kept bothering me to go to the Financial Aid Office but I remember saying, 'what are they going to do? They are of no help.' In fact I hated dealing with the administration at the school because I oftentimes wouldn't get a straight answer. My mother kept saying over and over 'I just don't understand this stuff, your daddy and I never went to college, we are clueless.' 

My parents took out the private loans for my first two years at CUA, which was already a whopping $40,000. Then, when I was a sophomore, I was asked to take out the rest. While I consider my family to be middle class, they still made too much for me to benefit from federal help. I was only able to receive small federal subsidized and unsubsidized loans. The rest was private and we were instructed to do it through good ol' 'Sallie Mae.' I remember applying for my first loan my junior year. That was a $20,000 loan. At the time, I thought NOTHING of it. What is going to get me through this next year was all I could really think of. Every once in a while my conscience would catch up with me and I would start to worry about the future. My voice teacher always said things like this:

- 'They can't take what you don't have;' 
- 'You don't even have to worry about that yet;' or
- 'You will get a job, you will have a master's degree!" 

Maybe that was true in the past, but it is no longer true. I don't know why I trusted my teacher so much, but I always did. The person, who handled my voice and future, surely could give me loan advice!  

CCJ: I think the point you just made is a critical one. I don't think your teachers were saying these things to be malicious, and I'm sure you'd agree. However, it demonstrates how oblivious these academicians are when it comes to the rising cost of tuition. I recall when my advisor at Brown told me I'd maybe have to take out a loan in my 6th year for my Ph.D. That's if I couldn't receive outside funding. At this point, Brown was undergoing dramatic funding changes, and the entire graduate community on campus was in an uproar. For instance, when I entered Brown there was an implicit guarantee of funding through six years of your work, but that all changed. I remember being aghast when my own advisor was telling me I'd have to perhaps take out loans. I thought immediately, 'hell no!' So, you see, the school entices you in, offers your grants, and then pulls the carpet from under your feet. An advisor should not be telling a graduate student that they will have to take out a whopping $50,000 for the last year of their graduate work, especially when they are supposedly fully aware that the job market is dismal. In my view that's immoral. Instead, I think she could have just been more honest and said, 'look, Cryn, if you can't get funding for your final year here, I'd quit. I wouldn't risk taking out that type of loan.' But clearly she is unaware, and I think that's one of the problems, of what it's like to try and get a job in academia at this point. (Incidentally, I interviewed Claudia Dreifus recently and we discussed the ins and outs of what's wrong with the university system today, and I encourage all of you to read that interview with her and buy the book she just wrote with her co-partner Andrew Hacker. It provides deeper insights into these sorts of problems). 

But I digress. Please continue, Diana. 

DM: My mother co-signed all of my private loans because I would have never gotten them on my own. Plus it was so easy. All we had to do was go online and fill out a form. A few months later I got a check. I thought it was great. Basically, I was undereducated [about loans] and was also told by my superiors that it was nothing to be concerned with. I now realize they were desperate to keep people in the music school. In addition, CUA has been running a 99% acceptance rate as of late! That would have been unheard of nearly 15 years ago. The facility is in trouble. Buildings are crumbling and moldy . . . I even felt very ill with a mold allergy at one point and was unable to sing due to the conditions in the dorms. It's pretty desperate for the music school especially because the way Catholic operates is that everyone pays tuition and each school gets a certain percentage based on how many people are enrolled in the particular school. My tuition wasn't necessarily going to the music school!

After I finished grad school, I became overwhelmed when I realized I was going to have to start paying back my loans. I met my husband in my first year of grad school and wanted to get married and have a nice wedding, but that was not be possible. I called 'Graduate Leverage' a company which helps people manage their student loans and debt for a small fee of $200 a year. They also do my taxes. They are the only reason I became informed and began to understand just how desperate of a situation I had gotten myself into. Thanks to them, I was able to put some of my loans into forbearance. I only pay the ones with the highest interest, which is still not a great deal but it helps, especially since I just moved to a new country and am a newlywed.

CCJ: You are living in Ireland, and it sounds like things are going really well for you. I think that your background in music is incredibly valuable, and it's a shame that you are not pursuing a career in the U.S. Do you think you are an example of 'brain drain?' Why or why not?

DM: In some ways I do believe my story is an example of 'brain drain.' While there seems to be no shortage of voice teachers in the US, there is a shortage of people who actually know what they are talking about. I am definitely a rare commodity in Ireland. There is nobody with a master's in vocal performance here. This area of Ireland suffers from its very own type of 'brain drain' as there is very little in employment opportunities. I was unable to pursue a career in the US because again, I was poorly educated. Nobody ever said to me that I was going to have to move to New York in order to pursue my opera career. Lord knows, I would have ended up completely broke there. Teaching in DC, I found that my craft was not as well respected. People didn't want their children to learn to sing Ariettas; they wanted them to sing like Hannah Montana. Nobody was interested in really learning to sing, they just wanted me to do some glorified babysitting. At some point I just said, let's get out of here! My husband is from Ireland, so I'm lucky that I had the option to be in another country that actually respects my craft and enjoys my talent. The plus side, the exchange rate is great right now because America is doing so badly. 

CCJ: Well, I completely understand. While I have full intentions of returning to the U.S. soon (I'd really like to join the new Consumer Rights Protection Agency), I do not regret leaving the U.S. It's a painful experience, but, like you, I decided to go for it. It's a type of self-imposed exile. Koreans wanted to pay me well because of the degrees I had obtained, so here I am. 

DM: Understood. I have also heard that Australia is looking for all kinds of workers! 

CCJ: Well, I'm glad you mentioned that. Perhaps some of our fellow indentured educated citizens should explore options beyond the borders of the U.S. I encourage that as a matter of fact. It's hard to leave your country, and I've become so much more appreciative of a lot of things there. However, if I'm not wanted, and all the skills and talent I possess are ignored, then why stay? Why be forgotten? I refuse to become part of a lost generation, and all because a bunch of fat cats on Wall Street decided to destroy the economy, and then weren't made to pay a price. That's why I say: shame on the U.S. for allowing the disintegration of the most vital and robust middle class ever. It's disgusting. 

Returning to the indentured educated class and this movement, why do you play an active role in this movement dedicated to raising awareness about the indentured educated class? 

DM:  Because it's a real problem. It's bad when one-fourth of my income goes directly to my loans. I can barely get ahead! In Ireland, you have to make a certain amount of money a year before they will take any of the money back for your loans. The European countries seem to invest in their people more. Why can't America do that?
 I feel that a lot of people were duped into believing that they would never be able to make a living unless they went to college and in some ways I can see that being true, but we all had to pay in order to keep up with the way things were changing and it has made us all worse off in some ways. We are all more intelligent and knowledgeable in our fields but unable to gain anything from this expertise. I don't mind paying for an education, but I think $100,000 for a bachelor's and master's in music is a little steep. By all means, I should have looked for other schools but I had my reasons for staying at Catholic.

It is also not cool that you can go out and blow up credit cards and buy loads of 'stuff,' [and write those things off when you declare bankruptcy], but you can't write off your student loans? I think that is ludicrous! Americans need to be more informed in general.

CCJ: I understand you are expecting. Congratulations! If you were to return to the U.S., say eighteen years from now, and things hadn't changed much when it comes to the way in which higher education is funded what would you say to your child if they came to you and told you they'd been accepted into, say, an Ivy League or something akin to an Ivy League, but had to take out huge loans to pursue that degree? Are degrees related to the arts still worth pursuing in the U.S. at this point?

DM:  I was expecting . . . unfortunately, I had a miscarriage in May (I was 7 weeks along). It was probably the most heartbreaking thing I have ever lived through. It made me realize that no matter what financial situation I am in, children matter more to me than some crazy debt I have back in the states. Ireland won't let my children go without. If I should struggle, this country won't let us starve. I am comfortable knowing that. Plus, we won't ever be made to feel bad about it. I know in the states people on welfare are looked down upon, but over here it's almost a way of life for people who are unable to find employment.

But to answer your question, my husband and I talked about this a lot. I believe my children would have better education on this side of the world, especially in primary and secondary school. America does have some fantastic universities, but I would say if my kid got into an Ivy League school in the states, why couldn't they get into a great school in Europe? I think if they did and they really wanted to go, we would still find a way but I would certainly warn them of the consequences. It also depends on what they would be pursuing. If it was something that guaranteed a monetary return, I would say go. Or if I knew my children were driven, I would let them. If they are like me, they will be fine. I think I would tell them what I know and leave it to them. I just pray that it isn't like it is now by the time my children would be looking into college. 

Degrees in the arts are certainly still worth pursuing. We have some of the best teachers from all over the world in the US. But I would recommend doing a lot of research before going to the school of your choice. Don't go to a school because its name. 

CCJ: That's a good point. That's exactly what Claudia Dreifus and Andrew Hacker discuss in their book. They are quite critical, for instance, of NYU for undergraduates. 

DM: If you go to Julliard, for instance, you may never get to perform. I feel horrible for singers who went to my school who never got roles, specifically because it's a good indication of how their lives will be after they graduate. If you weren't good enough in Uni, why would you be in the real world? Well, unless they go through some huge transformation, which does happen from time to time. I think in general, even I had no clue what life would be like as a performer, which is why I am now teaching and performing. The full-time performance life is just not worth it to me as I want a family. But that is the great thing about the performing arts; at least you can teach if performing doesn't go at first. You have options. At least in the arts you can usually reap what you sow. Hard work and dedication usually equal success to some degree.

So, there you have it. A woman who obtained two degrees in vocal performance values her education. Clearly, it's a struggle for her, but she's finding a way to make it work. Now we must insist the system be reformed so that young, aspiring women (and men) don't have to pay such a huge price for the degrees they receive in the U.S. 

We're losing so much more than the just their talent when they leave the country. Barbara Ehrenreich put it well on the night before I left D.C. She invited my husband and me out for another dinner, and this time at Jaleo in Crystal City. It was there that we once again discussed my work on the student lending crisis. She told me that this issue clearly shows that there are student loan refugees, and she encouraged me to write about them. We were speaking specifically about the ones in Sout Korea, but I think it's clear that Diana fits into this category, too. It's time we helped student loan debt refugees and helped the rest of the indentured educated class in the US. 

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