My name is Paul Aaron Link, I am 28 years old, I am a college graduate, and I am hopelessly in debt. I, like many, graduated from college with student loan debt, but unlike most, I have $150,000 in student debt. The reason for this is that I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life when I graduated from High School and entered college. I enrolled in Southeast Missouri State University in the fall of 2001 to begin my degree in music education, but it was clear to me that I wasn’t going to be a music teacher; so after two years I transferred to Southern Illinois University – Edwarsville to pursue a degree in jazz performance. That was an extremely influential and shaping decision for me, for although I ultimately chose to go a different direction, the four years that I spent as a jazz student helped to shape the person that I would become. Perhaps the most important thing that I learned there was that I wasn’t going to be a professinal jazz musician. I love the music, and I loved to play my horn, but it just wasn’t going to happen for me. I take full responsibility for this. So it was that in the summer of 2007 I uprooted myself from the Midwest and moved to Vermont to pursue a degree in culinary arts from the New England Culinary Institute, from whom I received my BA.
This is where I began to realize that I was going to be in a deep hole after graduation, as attending NECI at a cost of approximately $30 grand a year added nearly $100 grand to my debt load. I take responsibility for this as well, I knew what I was doing when I sign those promissory notes, but it was just too easy to do. I did receive federal pell grants and a small scholarship to attend NECI, but the lion’s share of the cost was covered by student loans. I could go on about how deceptive the loan providers are, and how easy they make it to simply sign on the line and have school costs covered, but I know that I was going to have to pay this money back at some point, all the information was there, even if it was fine print. I could have read the fine print.
I spent a lot of money to get a degree in a field that you don’t need a degree to get into. All you need is a willingness to work hard, ask questions, and keep it together under stress. I have those things, but I believed that getting the degree would be helpful; and it has been to a degree. The reality is that the restaurant industry doesn’t pay well unless you are incredibly motivated, hugely self sacrificing, and, above all, very, very lucky. The first two are in my hands, the third, not so much, couple that with the volatile nature of industry and you begin to understand my position.
Right out of school I got a job working the grill (and paying my dues) at a well respected Burlington Vermont area restaurant, and my crash course in what they didn’t teach me in school began. I learned to manage my time, my prep work, and I learned to really cook on the line, when the opportunity to become the sous-chef (under a new head chef) became available, I jumped at it. It seemed that I was in a position to really cut my teeth as a working chef. Then we got the news from the owner that the restaurant was being sold, we would all be out of a job by the end of October of this year. everyone in the restaurant took this differently, but no one seemed to take it as hard or as personally as the head chef, who, it was decided would be let go a week before the restaurant was due to close. The responsibility of holding the crew together and making the restaurant happen during one of its busiest and most emotional times fell onto my shoulders. Only the people that I answered to can tell you how well I did, though I’ll say on my behalf that most people I talked to were pleased and impressed with the job that I did.
Now, I’m unemployed, receiving unemployment benefits and, though I continue to look, without many prospects. None of that matters to my creditors, and that brings me to the point of this letter. I know that I could be successful, and I am more than willing to pay the dues necessary to achieve that success, but I am faced with a choice. Do I do everything in my power to pay off my loans, always taking the highest paying job regardless of whether or not it’s the right job? Or do I remain in financial oblivion (and probably destroy my credit) in order to do the jobs that I need to do? I know that success does not come overnight. I always anticipated years of low paying jobs and long hours until I earned the position that allowed me a few of the comforts of life. In fact, that is what I want. I want to work. Hard. I want to earn my success and respect; the only thing in my way is my debt, which insists at every turn that I work my way way into reasonably well payed mediocrity for the next 15 – 30 years before I even get the chance to start paying myself for my own work.
With all due respect and gratefulness,
Paul Aaron Link
December 15, 2010