...many of us are struggling privately with a very public and widespread problem. I know that I'm not the only one who's only choice of a future in higher education was through OSAP.
My name is Sarah. I had a difficult time considering if I wanted to speak up about my personal debt. It is a topic of embarrassment for me despite the fact that it is circumstance which lead me to have OSAP loans in the first place. I have realized that something else is more important here, and it is the fact that many of us are struggling privately with a very public and widespread problem. I know that I'm not the only one who's only choice of a future in higher education was through OSAP.
I was raised in a single parent home. Both of my parents were considered to be low-income earners. Neither of them finished high school. I was the first in my family to attend post secondary school. Coming from a home where abuse and alcoholism was present, I knew that my only choice was to get a higher education, sustain myself independently and succeed on my own. I even began saving in an RRSP fund at age 17, which sadly at age 27 the remaining balance would be withdrawn due to desperate financial need...
I went to school for Social Work. I have 3 degrees. In my first year of school, I studied full-time and worked part-time. In my second year of school, I studied full-time and worked two part-time jobs. Being young, wildly ambitious and driven by my father's work ethic of "hard work will pay off", I paid a great portion of my hard earned money towards tuition and school books. I relied on grants and OSAP to cover the rest. If you ask anyone who knew me at the time, the consensus was, "I don't know how she does it."
After my second degree, I wanted to make the most of my education, wonderlust and a favourable exchange rate, so I flew to London England to secure a social work job in what I was lead to believe was a high-need sector. I did all the right things, was connected with two recruitment agencies... I ended up working for minimum wage in retail. After 5 months, I was offered my dream job (that I found on my own) working in fostering and adoptions only days after to learn that my father had terminal cancer. I flew home right away.
I went back to a contract position working shift work at the agency I worked for before I left for the UK. It was shortly after my father died that I had to take a stress leave from work. I worked as a waitress for a short time. That fall, I began my Masters of Social Work program, which I hoped would give me the opportunity to secure a well-paying 9-5 clinical position. I was doing an internship counselling victims of sexual abuse at the time. I did not work during this program, as I knew the work load would be intense. I was so strapped for cash that I couldn't afford internet, so I completed all of my school assignments at the school library.
My rapidly rising debt had me worried, so I sought a job during the second half of my studies. I got a job running suicide intervention groups. It was a part-time contract. I counselled adults and university students who had attempted suicide more than twice in their lives.
Ironically, not long before this I had been contemplating suicide myself. Not because I was a sad person. Not because I had nothing of worth in my world. But because I felt incredibly trapped. I felt doomed. The intensity of my work and the pressure of my financial situation was making it feel impossible to survive, let alone thrive. How could I help anyone else if I was struggling so much myself? I felt like a lost cause. I distinctly remember imagining someone finding my lifeless body, take a note out of my hand that was addressed to Stephen Harper outlining what exactly went wrong.
It was at this point that I did the responsible thing and sought professional help. That was in 2012. Since then I have flip-flopped in and out of my chosen field, not wanting to give up on all my hard work and acquired debt, yet not wanting to beat a dead horse, so to speak. The hours I have spent manicuring job applications, seeking career advice, networking, information interviewing, updating my job skills, etc. I can never get back. I even moved to Toronto in hopes that I would have better luck finding employment there. I left after 10 months of working part-time as a waitress and a fish monger (yes, a fish monger) after no call-backs and even a failed attempt at starting my own counselling business. Only recently have I decided to cut my losses and begin a new field of work: teaching. Unfortunately, I can't obtain the type of job I really want unless, you guessed it, I go back to school. I can't imagine tacking on more debt to my life, as I am now almost 30. It seemed like yesterday when I was 17 and my personal vision was to have bought my own house by now. The reality is, I wouldn't be able to afford my 1 bedroom apartment in south Kitchener if it weren't for my loving partner. You could imagine my deep sense of discouragement and disappointment though.
I write this in hopes that someone else can find comfort knowing that they're not alone in their struggle. I write because I'm now at a crossroad in my life. I know I can't stomach taking out more loans to go back to school, yet I want to advance in a professional discipline. It pains me to think that the only option I can think of is to leave my partner behind to go teach ESL abroad where I can make enough to make the payments towards my OSAP loan. And continue to do this for the next 6 years of my life, loosing a total of 3 years in total of our lives together.
If someone were to ask me now if my student debt was worth it, I'd answer carefully. I loved every moment of my post-secondary education - even when it pushed me to my limits. But if I would have known that years later it would mean me having to leave the person and home I love to pay off what I owe, I would have promptly ripped up the application.
If there is anything that I've learned, it's that I am worth more than my education - and you are, too.
Not all of us are born into financial security, savings plans and wealthy families. That doesn't mean we don't deserve to be given a fair chance to be better than the generation that came before us.
A call to debt abolishment is in order. I challenge this province and this Country as a young woman, as an Alumni from two higher-education establishments and most importantly, as a Canadian to free us from these monetary chains.