After graduating from Brown University in 2007, I dreamed of standing in front of bright little faces and filling their fertile minds with information that would help push their young lives forward. I wanted to become a teacher, following in the footsteps of childhood heroes of mine who were active participants in my own growth and development.
With youthful enthusiasm I applied to the New York City Teaching Fellows program, whose mission is to decrease the teacher shortage within high-poverty neighborhoods like East Harlem, where I'm from. After completing the rigorous application process I was selected to be interviewed then instructed to send along a copy of my academic records. I immediately called my school's registrar's office, only to be denied.
The woman on the phone said matter of factly, "I'm sorry but we're unable to provide an official or unofficial copy of your transcript due to the $313.64 balance you currently have at the bookstore." I also owed $40,000 in federal student loans and was unemployed. Every attempt at appealing my case was rebuffed and without a student transcript I was no longer able to become a teaching fellow or even apply to graduate school to pursue my goal on my own. My future was being held hostage by institutional bureaucracy.
President Obama wants to encourage more young people to go into the teaching profession by making college more affordable. He returned to the age-old discussion about college costs recently, by proposing a new system aimed at graduating well-educated adults who aren't saddled with so much debt that it distorts their path in life. His plan would help a new generation of would-be educators avoid student debt and its pernicious result, transcript extortion.
As a black male who grew up economically disadvantaged, I benefited greatly from teachers throughout my academic life. I've always known the value of being an educator.
My kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Burger, consoled me on my first day of school when I grew homesick and cried. My middle school teacher, Mr. Arthur, taught me about bravery and being myself (he was my first gay role model). My high school teacher, Ms. Conway, filled me with all kinds of confidence and encouraged me to apply to Ivy League schools. I wanted to use my degree to assist others from my community in similar ways.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, colleges are permitted -- and even encouraged -- to withhold academic transcripts when students have balances on their accounts. What they fail to realize is that with exorbitant college fees and the burden of the ever-present economic crisis, many well-intentioned students are left in debt for months, even years, beyond the loan repayment grace period. As a result of such inequitable policies they are wrongfully punished and left behind.
Disillusioned from my experience, I took an eraser to my pride and worked at a local movie theatre as an usher, earning $8.25/hour. From there I worked as a cashier making $8.50/hour and an assistant for an independent recording artist at the same rate. Struggling to balance the expenses of independent living, monthly bills and low wages left me without the ability or resources to chart my future or repay my past.
It's taken me two years since applying for the NYC Teaching Fellows program to pay off my bookstore debt. I've recently begun repaying my student loans. I'm now a training coordinator for a non-profit employment program with a rewarding position helping public housing residents to become job ready.
My story is all-too-common, especially for black students. Twenty-seven percent of all pupils of color graduate with at least $30,500 in student-loan debt compared with a range of nine percent to 16 percent for other races. That fact is particularly troubling when, according to the U.S. Department of Education, fewer than two percent of the nation's teachers are black males. That means that fewer students who wish to serve impoverished neighborhoods and expand the diversity of the educational workforce get the opportunity to do so.
As President Obama noted, we need more qualified teachers, especially in my hometown where this year's test scores, released by the New York State Department of Education, revealed that just 26.4 percent of the city's third-through-eighth-grade students passed the English Language Arts test. To deliver high quality instruction to the underserved, we cannot allow arbitrary college debt policies to fail prospective teachers.