By Yvonne Dowell
When I got a pile of checks in the mail from FedLoan Servicing, I thought it was a scam. FedLoan is my student loan servicer, and even though I knew it was part of a new debt relief program I didn’t think I’d qualify for relief — and this was more than relief. It was actual checks.
But when I opened one of them — so I could report it as fraud — it said it was a refund for a student loan payment. My student loans had been cancelled as part of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, and FedLoan was admitting it had overcharged me for two years. It was refunding me all those extra payments.
I was floored. FedLoan was canceling almost $40,000 worth of debt. And it was returning about $5,000 in overpayments.
At age 71, I never thought I’d see the day.
I am so grateful. Grateful to the union for urging me to apply for loan relief, and showing me how; grateful to Randi Weingarten for bringing a lawsuit against Betsy DeVos to fix the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program; grateful to everyone involved.
Inspired to learn
I am a late bloomer: I didn’t go to college until I was 53 years old. I’d already worked for 27 years with the Postal Service and my two children had both graduated. I knew going to school would be a challenge for me: I had been out for so long, and my classes would be full of people younger than me. Plus, I had to take out loans to do it. After the graduate degrees, it was about $58,000 total.
But this was something I really, really wanted. I lost my beloved brother to heroin use, and I wanted to do something to prevent somebody else’s family from going through what ours went through. I wanted to become an addiction counselor.
So I started out with an associate degree in addiction. Then I went to Morgan State on a scholarship, and got my bachelor’s degree. I took out loans for graduate school and earned master’s degrees in psychology and in human services supervision and administration. Now I am a licensed addiction counselor and a certified trauma specialist.
I knew that, through PSLF, if I worked for 10 years in public service and made 10 years’ worth of payments — 120 payments in all — I should qualify for loan cancellation.
I love doing what I do. Counseling my clients about their mental illness, substance use and related legal issues has helped them change their lives. Sometimes I run into former clients and they still remember me and thank me. That makes me feel like it’s been worth it.
But paying back those loans was not easy. When the children were still living with me, I had to use multiple credit cards to make the money stretch, and pay just the minimum on each. I remember in the winter there were times I would only pay a portion of the gas and electric bills: I knew they wouldn’t cut off service if I paid at least part of the bill, and I had to make sure I made that student loan payment every month, so in 10 years I’d get that debt erased.
At least that’s what I’d been told. But somehow I didn’t qualify when I applied for cancellation, even after 10 years of payments. FedLoan said I didn’t have the right kind of loans.
A little help from the union
I’d been keeping up with the AFT news about the PSLF lawsuit and the changes to the program — the ones that were supposed to make it easier to get your debt cancelled. I knew the AFT had been a big part of forcing the Department of Education to review all the PSLF applications that had been wrongfully rejected, to make the system less complicated and to go back and make things right. But I didn’t think I’d qualify for loan forgiveness myself. Then at the AFT Public Employees conference, Chris Runge-Chacko, AFT’s Public Employees director, encouraged me to look into it because I was probably eligible.
I looked online and she was right. I was still skeptical, but just days after that conversation, I got my refund.
I’d been expecting to restart my payments on Feb. 1, when the pandemic-related payment pause ends. Instead, my $200 to $300 monthly payment is no longer on my plate at all. I am student debt free. Finally, I can think about retiring.
I want everyone to know about the changes to PSLF. If I qualified, so many other people may qualify, too, even if you were rejected from the program before. The Department of Education has waived the requirement that you must have only a certain type of loan to qualify, and it’s counting payments from the past. Plus, the department is repaying the money borrowers kept sending in when their loan servicers should already have forgiven their debt.
As the president of AFT Healthcare Maryland, I’m making sure our members know about the changes to PSLF and how they could qualify for loan relief, too. I’ve shared it in our member email update, and I gave my testimony last week at our membership meeting.
I’m spreading the word as much as I can. Student loans are a terrible burden to carry. Now, that burden is being lifted for many.
To learn more about your student loan relief, read this AFT article. Loan relief assistance is also available through an AFT member benefit called Summer: It guides you through whether you qualify for relief and can set you on a path to reduced student debt.
Yvonne Dowell is a licensed addiction counselor and a certified trauma specialist who works with the state of Maryland. She is president of AFT Healthcare-Maryland.
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