Upon telling all of my friends and peers that I’m graduating a year early, I always get the same reactions. Usually I’m asked “why,” followed up with a reminder that I’ll be “missing out on an amazing year of my life.” My response is always the same: overwhelming student debt paired with the credits to graduate early left no doubt in my mind that saving myself another $70,000 was more important than making memories in the fourth year of college.
Although I was lucky to be supported by my parents throughout the process, who paid for some of my college and cosigned on my loans, becoming financially independent earlier than most of my peers at a wealthy institution has been a difficult journey. Regardless, now less than a month away from graduation I should be feeling the normal mixture of pride and anxiety of ending a comfortable chapter of my life and starting a new one. However, at this point in the semester I am instead finding even more financial burdens that are overtaking the feelings of excitement I should be feeling about my accomplishments. Financial barriers to graduation are unfair and directly burden economically disadvantaged students over their more financially dependant counterparts.
Though I work three on-campus jobs — including as a managing editor for the OGB, a student-athlete tutor and a fitness attendant at the gym — I have struggled to keep up with all of the graduation requirements in the past few weeks. First, I was notified that I had a hold on my graduation until I paid off a $100 parking ticket and a $35 fee for replacing a student ID after studying abroad. For someone working minimum wage, on-campus jobs, $135 exceeds more than my weekly salary. This was an extremely stressful, burdensome email to receive. The second financial burden related to graduation caught me more by surprise: ordering a cap and gown. Just the basic, black cap and black gown, is $50 plus $15 for standard shipping to my home in Illinois. $75, again, for a minimum-wage paid student in debt is not a small fee. Again, to fit in with my peers at graduation I am required to wear a cap and gown during the commencement ceremony. This requirement was difficult for me to fulfill.
While these are direct financial burdens upon me, my family is also facing similar strains. Flying three people from Chicago to North Carolina and staying in a price-inflated hotel for three nights is not cheap. Including meals and activities during the day, this will be an expensive weekend. Though I am beyond thankful for my family coming to support me, I simultaneously understand the trouble this puts on them. Graduation weekend is celebrated differently by all families, and some have much harder times dealing with the non-celebratory moments.
My experience with debt has been a frightening, stressful one, but is in no way unique. Students at Wake Forest and around the country increasingly struggle with student loans as the price of a college education increases relative to minimum wage jobs. My working three jobs on campus allows me to get a few meals off campus and fill my car with gas; 50 years ago three jobs made a substantial dent in one’s college tuition. While I recognize that this is in no way unique to my experience, I also recognize that my relationship with debt is better than many of my peers, as my parents helped cover some of my tuition over the past three years and lent me money when I really needed it. I am graduating from college with an overwhelming amount of debt, but am not alone in this position.
Though this piece is in part a way for me to express my overwhelming stress about my financial situation of graduating in three years and being financially independent, it also acts as a call for awareness for the university and other students. While graduation is a time of celebrating achievements, some students have more difficult experiences at this point in the semester due to financial imbalances in the student body. The university must work to make graduation a more fair, accessible process for economically disadvantaged students to be able to celebrate as easily as their peers.