How I Graduated Completely Debt-Free

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This may sound crazy in our modern world. A debt-free degree? It is practically impossible, I know. Yet, I have been blessed with a good balance of support and smarts (not just academic, but some social/logical smarts you’ll need in the university experience). Much of this I learned from observing others and hearing their stories. Some I learned while I was in the midst of it. Even if this isn’t a one-size-fits-all college plan, it’s how it worked for me! Hope these five main points will help in your future endeavors!

On the 11th of May, 2015, I received my BA of Arts and Sciences with a major in English and a minor in Anthropology from Northeastern Illinois University.

1. FAFSA

One of the first ways graduating (without taking out massive loans) was possible for me has been through governmental assistance. FAFSA, or Federal Student Aid, has played a huge role in my schooling. I’ve applied for it early and almost every year I’ve been awarded up two two-thirds of my schooling cost. Some of this has to do with receiving such a low income in life, and some of it has to do with making sure to apply THE DAY or WEEK it opens in January. This way, your information will be reviewed in the beginning— and guess what?—the more financial assistance the state will have available.

Disclaimer: I don’t know how funding will play out as the government changes it’s state funding. Especially here in Illinois, thanks to massive education cuts by Bruce Rauner. We shall see.

2. State Schools and Scholarships

I want to be humble with how I write this part because I don’t want to toot my own horn. I’m not the smartest person out there. I only got a 23 on my ACT testing, for example. Good, but that’s fairly average. I didn’t get into the school I originally dreamed of attending (University of Chicago) but I got into a state school right away (Northeastern Illinois University).

Let me take this moment to say this was the best thing that happened to me. Going to school in your home state already awards you extra funding. Also, a school funded predominantly by the state as opposed to private donors automatically makes it more affordable, provides a more standardized format of schooling, teaches you what you need to know in regards to requirements in your state. Not to mention you have quicker/easier access to your home base (parent/guardian/family house), and you’ll find loads more scholarship opportunities. Score!

Now, you must know, I can procrastinate and be prone to laziness as much as the next young person, but in my first two years I was motivated enough (and pushed by my mom) to apply for anything and everything I could. When I first began my schooling, I had excellent high school grades. These high grades and a continued GPA of 3.5 or higher throughout my years at university have helped me get a few academic scholarships through my university honors program and the dean’s list. These scholarships have always made up the gap left after FAFSA grants rolled in. This is why I didn’t have to take out any loans. None. It took me five years and not one single loan.

This is an incredible blessing and not everyone has this opportunity, I’m well aware. But I’m also aware that not many people are motivated enough to search for scholarships that very few other students apply for. Sometimes, I would be one of three people applying for a scholarship that could cover five students. Of course we all received it. This is my point: Apply for everything. Every single scholarship you qualify for. If it takes you a full Saturday just researching, and writing, it is very worth it. One or two days of your year and you get partial funding for school? Always worth it. Ask advisors in your school for help, too. Sometimes they will already know all the awards you are eligible to apply for.

As I said, I’m not that smart. I did work really hard, but I didn’t earn all these high grades on my own:

3. Tutoring/Mentoring

I cannot stress this part of my educational experience enough. In my first year I went to a tutor for EVERYTHING. Especially the stuff I thought I knew. I didn’t want to be too confident and get it wrong—I wanted to make sure I really knew. My writing improved tremendously and my tutors always helped calm my anxieties about the subject or assignment and shared with me what to expect from the professors they knew. This also helped me get through the one Math class I was required to take. I do not like math. I do not do well in Mathematics. But I’m okay with that now because I got through the tough class with an A thanks to my tutors and my high school math teacher who was always available back home when I needed her.

Sometimes I wish I had started tutoring others in my junior/senior years through the university work-study program because I loved the feeling of being mentored by someone who’d just recently gone through what I was going through. Oftentimes I would get a tutor who had taken the exact class a year prior and had kept all her notes. It was beautiful. Instead of paying-it-forward in the traditional way, I opted for casual tutoring of friends and classmates whenever they asked, which ended up being great. They might have never gone to the tutoring department or I might have never got the added experience of editing and contributing to others’ work.

Many people don’t think they need a tutor, but if you want to boost your GPA it is a must. Unless you are ridiculously disciplined you can’t do everything alone. I don’t care how knowledgable you are, if you’re smart, you’ll ask for help when you need it and work to improve your imperfections via mentorship/tutoring/advisors.

4. Support Team

On a similar note, make sure you find your tribe, your team, your cheerleaders. It doesn’t have to be your parents or your siblings, but it can be. I’ve had the wealth of growing up in a way where my community supported me heavily. I lived with my family my first two years of school and with my husband the last two (in the same area). My high school teachers, church friends, mentors, were all a few doors (or a phone call) away. Each person helped me in different ways. Learning who plays what role in what season is equally important. Only then will you know who to go to for advice, who to go to when you just need to vent, and who to go to when you need to relax/have fun and stop thinking for a bit.

5. Prayer

This is what gets me through life itself, but it especially helped me stick with school through the tough times. It’s our lifeblood! Talk to God, tell him about your day, pray in times of stress. When there is no one else and you are at your wits end—maybe you forgot to study for a quiz that came out of nowhere or you don’t think your ready for an exam—just stop and pray.

Well, that’s all I’ve got! Those are the most important parts of getting through school at all, but many of them are how I got through without owing a penny to “the man”. Best of luck! And always write me with your questions. I’d love to hear your story. How did you get through school? Anyone else graduate without massive debt or debt-free?

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