By Ken Ilgunas
I thought of student debt like I thought of death: I didn’t think of it all. As a 21-year-old college student, I had a long life and bright future ahead of me. Why should I worry myself sick over gloomy inevitabilities? Best to shove worries of my $32,000 debt to the back of my mind alongside other yet-to-be-grown-up concerns, like paying a mortgage, finding good day care, and growing skin tags.
I had little desire to leave college. As a history student, I loved the thrill of a stimulating lecture, the long, caffeinated nights writing papers and outrageous columns for my campus newspaper, the pretty girls, and, above all, the feeling that I was “growing,” which reassured me that, whether my degree was marketable or not, college was where I needed to be. I resented having to leave academe and toil in Career World while my fellow students would continue to thrive in graduate school.
Despite having been an editor at my college newspaper, all 25 of my applications to paid journalism internships were rejected. I began to feel desperate: It struck me that maybe I wasn’t going to be able to pay off my debt after all. I’d heard of students who’d spent years, decades, lifetimes (!) paying off their student loans, and I’d heard of others who couldn’t make their payments, afflicted with scary-sounding things like forbearance, deferment, and default.
Without a better idea, I wound up calling a friend, who hooked me up with a $9-an-hour job as a tour guide in Coldfoot, Alaska, 60 miles north of the Arctic Circle and 250 miles from the nearest stoplight. Coldfoot, the world’s northernmost truck stop, has a winter population of 12 that triples during the summer, when buses drop off their cargo of tourists at Coldfoot’s 52-room motel. I would be one of three guides who’d take the tourists on daylong tours in a 14-passenger van up the Dalton Highway or in a big blue raft down the sleepy Koyukuk River.
The job was repetitive and the hours grueling, but I knew I wasn’t the only college graduate who’d had to sacrifice to pay bills. Plus, I was happy just to have a job. Yet I’d never hated my debt more. I was working for a pittance, often for as many as 70 hours a week. After work, I rarely had any energy to read or write, and the mental muscles I’d worked so hard to strengthen in college were atrophying from disuse.
Coldfoot offered free room and board, and I had no expenses to speak of, but I was paying off my debt at a troublingly slow rate. I’d have to live like this for years, I thought. For the foreseeable future, my life would be little more than punch cards and jobs in places with prisonlike male-to-female ratios. The student debt was a ball and chain, restraining me from experiencing what I wanted more than anything: unfettered freedom, which I hoped to use to go to graduate school.
Toward the end of the season, I’d gotten the hang of guiding, and each night I brought back to my dorm handfuls of tips, stashing the bills under my mattress. By summer’s end, I was sleeping on top of $3,000.
It was then that I began to realize that I was getting a very different education than I’d gotten in college. Jeffrey Williams, in his illuminating essay “The Pedagogy of Debt,” says the university experience teaches students that debt is not something to be avoided, but normal and expected; it’s how things are done. To buy something, we learn to swipe our credit or college ID card and worry about the bill later. Policies like compulsory campus housing and ridiculously priced dining plans force students to go deeply into debt. And, most tragically, the university experience influences how we think about and handle money for the rest of our lives. College does not teach us to save, live frugally, or work our way through school. It teaches us how to be debtors.
Now that I was on my own, in a precarious financial situation, far removed from my old consumer-driven lifestyle, I was learning how to save, how to radically cut back on expenses, and that it didn’t make sense to pay tens of thousands of dollars for something I couldn’t afford—things I wished I’d known before enrolling in college.
Over the course of the summer, between my tips and paycheck, I managed to save $8,000. Not eager to give up my steady wage, I decided to spend the rest of the year in Coldfoot, now as a line cook at the trucker’s café. The winter work crew was largely made up of desperate, carnie-like drifters, who brought to mind a mostly fun-loving, sometimes sinister, and always sketchy gang of thieves. Among them were a schizophrenic dishwasher, a compulsive liar, a “cutter,” a pair of alcoholic carpenters, and a trio of grunts, who, when on some undisclosed narcotic, found satisfaction in surreptitiously defecating on the roofs of coworkers’ cars.
Gone were the days of lectures and seminars, of leafy campus lawns and elbow-patched professors. I was now daily exposed to alcoholism and drug addiction, beer-bellied truckers, and steel-toe boots in 30-below weather.
One night a week, I got to lead an “aurora tour,” on which I’d drive Japanese guests up the road to a spot where we could get a clean view of the northern lights. With the tourists, I’d stand beneath a sky lit up with spumes of reds, pinks, and greens that swooped, twisted, and curled into each other, a glowing, throbbing curtain of color.
When gazing into the aurora, or standing alone on a mountaintop, or even working alongside my deranged, possibly homicidal coworkers, I’d feel the jolt of a direct, raw encounter with the world—a wild richness of being—and I was happy I wasn’t embalmed in some stuffy Ph.D. program somewhere. The embarrassment of being a burger-flipper with a college degree at a far-flung truck stop turned into, well, pride. And I began to think that striving for a degree, a career, or a big wage ought to be secondary to striving for something as simple as a story to tell.
I left Coldfoot in the spring, having paid off more than half my student debt. From there, I hitchhiked more than 8,000 miles across the country, taking jobs wherever the wind blew me. I worked on an AmeriCorps trail crew in Mississippi, delivered packages alongside a homophobic UPS truck driver in Denver, and moved back up to Coldfoot to work as a back-country ranger for the Park Service, where, after two and a half years of work, I finally paid off my debt.
Over the course of my journey, I realized that it was only half an education to have the university without the universe—or the universe without the university. And while I’d at first resented having to leave school to work, I came to believe that a true student would greet any situation as a discipline worthy of study, and that, whether in the classroom or on the open road, as Seneca said, “there is only one really liberal study—that which gives a man his liberty.”