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Alisha L. Gordon, M.Ed.

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Occupy Any Street: The Deferment of the American Dream

Posted: 10/19/11 07:41 PM ET

$89,263.66.

That's how much it cost for me to achieve the "American dream."

You know that dream, right? The one that says "if you work hard, go to school, and get a degree, you'll find a good job that you can work for 30 years, retire and live comfortably with fond memories of your 'heyday,' telling exaggerated stories of your younger years to your grandchildren."

That dream.

I was one of the first people in my family to go to college. My parents wanted me to acquire more of that American dream than they could. My dad was a factory worker and my mom was a banker by trade but spent most of her career as a clerk at the U.S. Post Office. Going to college was the ideal step towards achieving more than they could.

My parents couldn't afford to send me to my dream school, Spelman College, so Sallie Mae sold me a dream that would make college affordable and provide the resources to cover the expenses that my mom couldn't cover. They sold me "the dream." They took this slang-talking, gum poppin', girl from Decatur and made entering into college easy.

Fast forward 11 years and $89,263.66: I am unemployed and scraping every month to provide Mustang Sallie her monthly feeding of greenbacks. Between the time I acquired my student loans and today (over the course of 9 years), I've been unemployed for nearly three of those years. During the times I worked, I made from about $24K-$42K a year as a rental car associate to a high school English teacher. I've cleaned out my 401K and my exhaustive search for employment has kept me and millions of others hungry for more than just a good meal.

Occupy Wall Street, which marked its one-month anniversary October 17, has spawned #OccupyAnyStreet movements all over the U.S. from Atlanta, to Boston, to D.C. People all over the U.S. have grown tired of the hypocrisy, the blatant disregard for American citizens, and the broken dreams, shattered hopes, and trampled promises for a better life.

Today, a Sallie Mae representative told me it would take the next 24 years to pay off my student loans. It will be the year 2035. I will be 53 years old. My daughter will be celebrating her 30th birthday.

Sallie Mae, who accrues interest daily on their loans, has absorbed $25,227.50 in interest from me. That number will increase tomorrow.

According to Sallie Mae, I'm supposed to make a monthly payment of $733.82. When I was working as an educator, and at the height of my earning potential, that was a fourth of my take-home monthly salary.

For the last 20 months or so, I've been making interest only payments of $243.58. It's all I could afford.

For Sallie Mae customers who have taken out private loans with them, they have NO repayment options for beyond the basic 48-month in-school deferment, (enough time to get your graduate degree, which I did) and they only offer a 24-month forbearance for unemployment, hardship, etc.

I've had my loans with them for 9 years. I will have them for another 24 years. I currently have them during one of the greatest economic crisis of my generation's lifetime and Sallie Mae has provided no options, no programs, no assistance for the thousands, maybe millions of customers who need help paying their student loans.

Who is here to help us? Who will aid the American people who chased the American Dream, went to college, started a business or pursued a passion only to get to the end of the road of "promise and prosperity" and have no job or capital to help fund their way from dream to reality? Occupy Any Street is exactly that. It is an occupation, a takeover for the American Dream. Reclaiming the promise made through the blood, sweat, and tears of the people before us. It is not subject to race, nationality, or religion. It is, in fact, a universal promise made to those who call themselves American citizens.

I posed this question to Sarah, my Sallie Mae representative today: "If one of your customers can't pay their student loan bills, what adverse affects does that have on me and on you?"

Sarah: "Well, if you don't pay, you go into default and your credit could be adversely affected. If we don't get payment then it's a bad debt and we have to figure out a way to collect it or write it off."

Me: "So, in a lot of ways, if one customer doesn't pay their loan, it can affect Sallie Mae's bottom line in regards to assets, liabilities, etc, much like banks who lent to home owners who skipped out or couldn't pay their mortgages, yes?"

Sarah: "Yes, that's right."

Me: "So what happens when 100 people can't pay? 1,000? 5,000? Nine percent of the U.S. population is unemployed. That number is higher in minority communities, the same communities that Sallie Mae "prowls" after in your marketing and lending tactics. (Don't believe me? Click here.)"

Sarah: "Ma'am, I just work here."

Me: "Good answer, Sarah! You're just a peon like me."

I don't know if I'll ever get free of these student loans. They hang over my head like a cloud of death. I pray to God every day for a supernatural miracle of some sort to free me, not from responsibility, but from the burden of pursuing the American Dream. When I'm working, the loans tie up all of my disposable income. They keep me from obtaining a loan for a home. They have bound me from my American right to "the dream." They, in turn, add to the economic crisis of people who don't have the extra money to spend to boost our economy.

In 1931, author and historian James Truslow Adams coined the term "American Dream" in his book Epic of America. His definition of the American Dream expresses some of the core values of what the Occupy Wall Street movement is all about:

But there has been also the American dream that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement... It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.

The American dream that has lured tens of millions of all nations to our shores in the past century has not been a dream of merely material plenty, though that has doubtlessly counted heavily. It has been much more than that. It has been a dream of being able to grow to fullest development as man and woman, unhampered by the barriers which had slowly been erected in the older civilizations, unrepressed by social orders which had developed for the benefit of classes rather than for the simple human being of any and every class.

32 years later, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. expressed his own desires for people to reach the figment of the American Dream from a Birmingham jail:

We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands... When these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

"What happens to a dream deferred?"asked poet laureate Langston Hughes. He listed some strong images of rotting meat, festering sores, explosions. Every day people, like Dr. Nikea Hurt, who has a doctorate in educational leadership (and is a Sallie Mae customer) answered Hughes' question from her own experiences pursuing the American Dream: "What happens to a dream deferred? It gets pushed back along with those student loan payments once we realize the American dream is only for those who can afford to dream in the first place."

 

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