By Joseph Golvineaux

“Student loans are like a little rain cloud that follows you around,” says Rochelle Garza, a bodyworker with $20,000 in student loan debt, “It definitely weighs heavy on the mind.”

The connection between student debt and shame is huge, and it’s invisible, says Sheila Rubin, but talking about it helps. Rubin is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Adjunct Faculty at John F. Kennedy University and co-director of the Center for Healing Shame in Berkeley.

With student loan debt topping $1.5 trillion, according to personal finance website Make Lemonade, it’s time to talk about the deeper costs of sending the next generation into the workforce with a financial and emotional handicap. According to Rubin, shame caused by student loan debt affects the body and the mind. “The amazing thing about shame is that when somebody is in shame, they might not be able to think clearly. So they might lose 30-40 intelligence points,” said Rubin. “Shame is a freeze state, the active tendency of which is to disappear.”

Pilar Pumar is an artist with a BFA in Sculpture and $50,000 in student loan debt. She says it’s hard to dream a future with the weight of debt hanging over her. Her original loan balance was $28,000, but has increased with interest over the last 13 years. Her relationship with her loans is one of anxiety, disappointment, depression and anger. At times it has been the first thing she thinks about in the morning and nags at her all day. When asked how it feels to live with debt, she scrunches up her body and says, “It hurts my stomach just hearing the word debt.” For Pumar, her student loan debt can trigger shame. “The cost of shame is that you are less likely to ever reach an authentic life.”

Pumar is not alone. Rochelle Garza has $20,000 in student loans from two community colleges and a barber school. She is currently on an income-based repayment plan with a $0 payment. “I pay as little attention to how much I owe as possible. I open the envelope, make sure I don’t owe anything and put the envelope away,” says Garza, “It’s like here’s a little reminder of what you’re not doing, and here’s a reminder of what you owe now.”

Pumar and Garza are part of the 44.2 million borrowers in the U.S that owe a combined $1.52 trillion, according to the Federal Reserve. Over half of students who attended college took on debt.

Because shame thrives on secrecy, nobody talks about it, says Rubin. They don’t talk about the emotional weight of the debt in the student loan offices. Pumar echoes this point, “It’s shameful to talk about debt and to express that you don’t understand how money works. Although we share a common story, the debt can cause isolation and increased shame. Talking about it can make us feel less alone.”

According to Rubin, talking about debt and the associated shame is part of the solution. “It’s only recently in the past year that people are talking about student loan debt. So, this conversation in itself is counter-shaming. This article is going to help people.” Since secrecy feeds shame, coming out of isolation and expanding the dialogue helps.

Student loan debt is a hot topic in the media right now: California recently joined three other states filing a lawsuit against the nation’s largest student loan servicer Navient Solutions. In August 2018, the man responsible for protecting borrowers, Seth Frotman, Student Loan Ombudsmen of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, resigned from his post saying that the organization has, “turned its back on young people” and is “going above and beyond to protect the interests of the biggest financial companies in America,” according to a letter obtained by NPR. The conversations about student debt are happening.

Rubin urges borrowers suffering from debt to find someone they can talk to about it: a counselor, a friend or someone else who has gone through it, and to try to be kind to themselves by seeing the big picture and saying, “No wonder I feel terrible, this is real.” Garza reminds students to only borrow what they need in order to keep the debt low. “I blew my whole first loan on stupid shit I didn’t need,” she says, “I wish I had known then.”

When asked how she would feel to be debt-free, Pumar laughed and said, “I’d feel like I was standing on level ground instead of having my feet buried a foot in the earth.” Although difficult to hear, the resilience in the borrowers’ stories comes through. When asked about her financial worth, Garza straightens and says “Financially I’m not worth a whole lot, but I have a lot of self-worth, and its not defined by the amount of money I owe the government.”

As our nation’s focus turns to student loan debt, it’s important to include the narratives of the borrowers. From their stories, we begin to see the true costs of sending our children into the world indebted emotionally and financially — and according to Rubin, talking about it helps.

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