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The world as classroom

Alternatives to college and its debt

I’m 24 and in great health. I’m a college graduate, culturally enriched and politically interested. I’m an ambitious woman who loves to volunteer and all I’ve ever planned to do for a career is help people by doing some form of social work.

But I probably won’t ever be able to.

You might wonder what’s holding me back. And if you know anyone of my generation, you might be already assuming the answer. It’s our student loans, of course.

Surely it makes sense that I’d have them. College isn’t cheap and most of us expect to graduate with thousands to pay back. What we didn’t expect, however, was that we wouldn’t have jobs when we graduated. I also didn’t expect the amount to increase so rapidly with interest capitalizing and rates constantly climbing. At this point, it’s nearly impossible for me to find a job in the social work field that covers my payments, unless I’m living at home with a parent and without any other expenses. My only other option is to go back to school for my master’s degree, which just means more student loans.

Our entire high school careers were centered around getting into college. It was “join this club or participate in that community service project” — not because you’re interested in it or because you’d like to do something to help — but because it’ll look good on your college application. We were told to get good grades, otherwise we wouldn’t get accepted. We should start studying for the SAT; it’s a requisite to even be considered. Save our money, we would need it for the next few years in college.

No one gave us an opportunity to think of anything else. College was supposed to be our gateway to a successful career and financially comfortable future. The reality is that it’s just not that simple.

I challenge you, mentors, educators and parents with upcoming college-age students, to reconsider the options.

There are so many fabulous options out there that don’t seem to be encouraged, yet should be. Picture this: a year away living with a family in Europe and teaching English while learning another language and indulging in an entirely new culture. There are thousands of families searching for native-speaking au-pairs throughout various countries across the world. While generally the idea of being a nanny is geared toward young women, there are plenty of opportunities for young men, as well. Most often the position is for a year, but many families are open to more or less time depending on their unique situation. Life’s classroom at its best, learning independence and a new world at a much lower cost than higher education at home. And guess what? College is still here in America when he or she decides to come back.

Living abroad opens new doors, births new ideas. One will meet people from all over the world. Why not pay a small fee for an ESL or TEFL certificate, and teach English for a year or two in another country. The pay is decent, the immersion into a different culture is priceless and guess what? If it’s not your cup of tea, college is still here in America when you get back.

It’s understandable to want to continue education straight away, but that doesn’t mean one has to be swamped by debt. There are international schools (offering courses in English) throughout European cities at significantly lower costs than American institutions and, perhaps, even a better education. Study two years in Madrid, learn to speak Spanish fluently and get a degree at the same time ... why not? We all know how valuable another language can be in the job market. And guess what? If you try it for a semester and find it impossible to be away from home, all the same old colleges and universities will still be here in America when you get back.

If I’d known about the hundreds of safe, reputable programs to find such placements, I question whether I’d be swamped by the loans I have now. I might still have some, but I doubt they’d have 15.9 percent interest rates and payments equal in size to a mortgage. And maybe, I’d also have a better shot at doing what I set out to do in the first place — help people.

The aforementioned are only a few ideas. There are countless more. There’s volunteering in South America or coaching basketball in Thailand. The world is so much bigger than western Mass.

The world is so much bigger than the United States. It’s important to encourage our youth to think about what they really want to do, which might not necessarily mean college.

The money-hungry educational institutions here aren’t going anywhere. With hope, there will be more job openings in the near future and perhaps legislation to limit the outrageous interest rates I face. In time, the thought of college might become enticing again. But until then, I sincerely urge you to think outside the box.

Connie Russell lives in Bernardston.

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