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Student debt weighs down on graduate’s freedom

As graduate students shake hands with administration and walk off stage in their cap and gown with their degree in hand some may feel a sense of freedom. All of the deadlines, late nights, and constant onslaught of stressors are behind them. Now it is time to start the American dream, a nice house with a white picket fence, but along with that, the new mailbox begins to fill with bills demanding repayment of student loans.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau said that student loan debt has reached a new high of $1.2 trillion. Of that amount, $1 trillion is in federal student loan debt. According to Forbes, this debt amount doesn’t include other types of debt such as credit card debt or borrowing from a parent. Forbes said student loan debt is now the second highest type of consumer debt, topped only by mortgages.

Students attending Central Michigan University (CMU) are feeling the tightening of their purse strings, well before graduation.

Heather Childs, 23, is graduating after five and a half years at Central Michigan University. During her time at CMU Childs has accumulated just under $129,000 in debt.

“I have $120,000 in student loans and a credit card debt amount of $9,000 but that is due to my personal, work, and school expenses combined,” Childs said.

She plans on having the credit card debt paid off by May and the loans paid off by 2025.

Childs said she wished that universities would require seniors to take a class where they learn about debt and student loans so they can balance their debt and still be able to make a living.

“That is what I’m scared of the most,” Childs said.  “I have had to figure out most of this stuff on my own because my parents never went to college. They don’t know about the process and I think the university should take it upon itself to educate its students about what the world holds after graduation.”

The Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS) Project on Student Debt said that the average student attending a four-year institution will graduate with $26,600 in debt.

For Central Michigan University, it currently ranks 19th in the United States for having the largest proportion of students with debt, and eighth in the country for the average amount of debt. 75 percent of the 2013 graduating class at CMU graduated with debt, leaving with an average of $32,000 in debt.

Jason Delisle is the director of the Federal Education Budget Project at New America, an organization that invests in new ideas to face the next generation of challenges to the United States. Delisle said about 40 percent of the $1 trillion went toward funding graduate and professional degrees, rather than associate and bachelors. He said that in the 75th and 90th percentiles of graduate borrowers, 25 percent of those graduate students borrow nearly $100,000.

Aaron Lechner, 23, has tried to tame his student loan debt by paying off the interest every summer.

“It always leaves me pretty broke come the beginning of every school year, but that is all I have done,” Lechner said. “I will be leaving here with about 24,000 dollars in debt. Wow, I just said that number out loud for the first time. That is not the best feeling.”

Amanda Pestridge, 24, is also trying to plan ahead. Pestridge said that she plans to work over the summer to ensure she will be able to cover medical bills and emergency expenses.

“All of my debt is from student loans,” said Pestridge. “I’ve been fortunate enough to have support from my parents, but from CMU alone, I will owe around $44,000, not including interest.”

Christian McGeachy, 23, started his education with community college to save money then transferred to CMU three years ago. McGeachy said he has tried to plan ahead for when he starts repaying his loans after he graduates in May, but said there were many other unexpected expenses beyond tuition that he was unable to plan for.

“I don’t know how much I will have to pay off, but I’m not excited about it,” McGeachy said. “Most people don’t think about the extra expenses that students have to spend to go through school that includes supplies, books, rent for an apartment, paying for food, and other little things that add up.”

McGeachy said that he has seen students who were not able to continue their education at CMU because of financial issues and being overwhelmed with debt.

“Some students just don’t figure out their financial responsibilities before it’s too late,” McGeachy said.

In an article by USA Today, suggestions on how students can avoid accruing massive amounts of student loan debt in various ways such as applying for scholarships, graduating faster to avoid semester fees, comparing loans and paying as much out of pocket as possible.


Central Michigan University graduate living the picturesque life

Photojournalist Jeffrey Smith is making waves in the nautical city of Port Huron, Michigan.

The Central Michigan University graduate received his photojournalism degree in 2013.

Smith worked for CMU’s student newspaper, the CM-Life, for four years as a staff photographer, and one semester as the photo editor. He was also active with the Central Press Photographer’s Association, what he calls his CMU photo family.

He said a defining experience in his approach to journalism was his CMU visual storytelling class. Students were required to do five in-depth photo stories that took them two weeks, each, to complete.

“I don’t think I ever made any meaningful images before I took that class,” Smith said. “It really was life changing.”

After graduating Smith wanted to stay in Michigan and looked for job postings. He was interning at The Toledo Blade when he heard about a job opening at The Times Herald, the daily newspaper in Port Huron.

“When I heard about the opportunity, I jumped on it,” said Smith. His editor at The Toledo Blade was supportive of Smith cutting the internship short to leave for full-time work.

“My internships were really crucial to developing my skills as a journalist, as well as just becoming prepared for working full time,” said Smith. “I learned a lot and honed my skills while interning at The Blade, and I’m sure it’s one of the reasons I was able to get a job.”

The business news reporter for The Times Herald Nicole Hayden said that Smith’s work has had a positive impact on the newspaper.

“Most photographers are really under appreciated in the business,” said Hayden. “Despite the fact that Jeffrey takes a long time with his photos, what he produces is amazing and really strengthens our newspaper.”

Smith said it’s a struggle to get all of his work done in an eight hour work day.

“Things often end up being something other than what you expected. Ideas fall through, but I still have to come back to the office with something fit to print,” he said.

Smith particularly enjoys stories that allow him to do documentary photography.

“I dislike stories that are set up because the news is there, or taking a photo of an official while they are talking,” said Smith. “I like to call those ‘local man points at shit’ or ‘local man grudgingly cross arms’ stories. Regardless of how terrible a situation or assignment is, I always try to leave with a photo that tells a story.”

Smith believes that a good quality newspaper is vital for a community, and said he wished people read and discussed more news.

“Good journalism can lay the foundation for a community to be strong, informed, understanding and accepting of all the different types of people that form it,” said Smith.

He shared that he has been working on a few stories over the months he feels passionate about. Among these are a veteran getting a mortgage-free house, a family with three adopted children, domestic violence survivors, and a 7-year-old with cancer.

“I wish the bulk of my work was these types of stories,” said Smith who shared that he enjoys photographing people in their own environment and sharing those moments.

A typical work day according to Smith includes on average three or four assignments a day.

“I drive all over the thumb, about 400 miles a week or more,” said Smith. “Some days can be pretty strange. It can be an emotional roller coaster starting off with a trial about a gruesome murder with crying family members, followed by a more lighthearted story in an elementary school classroom, and finishing with high school sports.”

Smith is the only full-time photographer working at The Times Herald and said his workload can be overwhelming at times.

“The Times Herald, like many newspapers, has seen a lot of cuts over the past six to seven years,” said Smith. “I believe there used to be three full-time photographers.”

Smith said the uncertain future of Gannett, the company who owns The Times Herald, is often in the back of his mind.

“As long as I am able to make images that are important, tell a story and promote understanding, I will be happy,” said Smith.

Rare as it is, he tries to stay active in his spare time. He enjoys biking swimming in the summer, visiting friends and family around the state, and going to Detroit for shows and cultural events.

“But usually it’s sitting around at home with my girlfriend and two cats, listening to music, watching Netflix, baking and cooking, and drinking too much coffee and craft beer,” said Smith. “I’m not ashamed.”

He maintains his own website and blog, jeffreysmithphoto.com, and does freelance work as often as he can, photographing for various organizations such as the Detroit Free Press, Rolling Stone, and even Google.

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