In Absentia

I should be on my way to Washington right now, to take part in the AIA’s Grassroots Leadership and Advocacy Conference. Unfortunately, between client meetings for two different projects, a deadline for a third, and several other commitments, the trip to the capital just wasn’t in the cards this year. I’ve always said that family comes first, work comes second, and volunteer efforts come third, but I’m still a little disappointed that I have to miss it.

This would have been my third Grassroots — longtime fans of my blog (both of you!) might remember my post from last year’s event, and I had also shared my experience from 2012’s conference on AIA Pittsburgh’s website. This year, I was really looking forward to reconnecting with my fellow facilitators from the Emerging Professionals Summit (by the way, check out the excellent recaps in the current issue of CONNECTION!)… and the opportunity to formally endorse the National Design Services Act by lobbying my congressmen to support the bill. Support for the NDSA is one of the major talking points for the Capitol Hill visits this year, so I will leave this in the more than capable hands of the other 700+ architects that will be attending the conference. I’ll rely on Twitter to keep getting the word out.

For the record, I’m not a fan of the concept of student loan forgiveness, but I wholeheartedly support the idea of the NDSA, and hope that it sees its way into legislation.  What I like the most about the Act is that it isn’t offering a free ride — by trading design services for loan assistance, it places value on design while offering graduates a chance to provide humanitarian aid through their skill set.  Having recently paid off my student loans, I can appreciate how difficult it can be starting out on your own with so much debt to repay… but the fact that I worked every day to pay off my lender makes me completely against the idea of a scot-free bailout for anyone.  The NDSA seems like a perfect solution to an increasingly difficult problem facing our profession… the very thing that Grassroots is meant for.

Not going to Grassroots?  For more information about the NDSA, including ways you or your chapter can assist with legislation in your area, click here.

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Liberation

It’s the 16th of the month, which means it’s time for my mid-month round of bill paying. This time around, however, there’s one less to worry about. One of my New Year’s Resolutions was to start off 2014 with a (relatively) clean slate — and with the help of a small monetary gift from Santa Claus, I have successfully paid off my student loans. It only took 13 years and one month… or, in other words, 157 easy installments, plus one big push at the end. Nothing to it. (Ha.)

Shawshank-Redemption-scriptI didn’t think that this day would ever come (when I started paying the loan, six months after I had graduated, the total amount was so large that it was difficult to fathom)… and now that it has, to be perfectly honest, it actually feels a little strange. (The curse of being anal-retentive and perpetually anxious, not paying that bill is actually making me uneasy, as if I’ve forgotten something… I suppose it will feel a little more real on the 16th of next month…?) The payment has been part of my monthly routine for my entire adult life. Many things have changed in that time — I’ve owned three different vehicles, moved several times (my varied rent payments eventually giving way to a mortgage), each living arrangment with a different type of utilities and set of providers, and somehow managed to finance an engagement ring and a wedding band — and all along the way, my loan payments have always been there, ever vigilant. The monthly payment amount might as well have been tattooed into my forehead; it’s only changed twice in that thirteen year period — once, when I consolidated my five separate loans into one, under a new loan carrier (which reduced the monthly payment by half), and a second time, when that carrier rewarded my repayment with a reduction in my interest rate (a whopping half-percent, but hey, it was something). Paying off the loan balance came with little fanfare — not that I was expecting streamers and confetti when I clicked “Submit Payment,” but a congratulatory email, maybe? Farewell and thank you for your business? Remember us when your kids start college? (Update: I did indeed receive a simple yet sincere letter of congratulations from my loan provider, just over one month after making that final payment… so apparently it took at least that long for it to become “real” for them, too?)

Along the way, I’ve read countless articles about managing your debt, including some very sound advice for paying off your loans faster; some of my favorites, such as “Just pay more against the principal!” (Thank you, faceless financial adviser — you do realize that a college graduate is reading this, right? I’ll cut back on the ramen noodles this month…) and “Skip the daily Starbucks run!” (Hello?! I can’t afford to buy coffee at Starbucks, BECAUSE I’M PAYING OFF MY SCHOOL LOANS!! Sheesh…), make the issue seem somewhat trivial, as if the problem were the fault of the student, not the system. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal last year, the country’s total student loan debt currently surpasses $1 trillion, and about 9% of all consumer debt is student loans (which is an increase of 3% from a decade ago). In December, CNN reported that the average student loan debt, per person, was $29,400 in 2012. I realize that I’ve been very fortunate to have been gainfully employed since I graduated, giving me the ability to continue to make those monthly payments consistently. The economy, particularly in recent years, hasn’t been as kind to many others. It’s no mystery why student loans have become our country’s latest debt crisis — it’s relatively easy to get a loan as an 18-year-old, but nearly impossible to pay it off when you’re 23 and unemployed.

Last year, I came across an article about lobbying efforts by the AIA and AIAS for student debt assistance, allowing graduates the opportunity to exchange pro-bono design services for loan forgiveness, very similar to established programs (like the Peace Corps and Doctors Without Borders) for other professions. The proposed National Design Services Act would promote the work of community design centers and collaboratives in underserved areas, allowing architectural graduates the opportunity to do meaningful work and receive some consideration for their debt in return. To say that this is an incredible idea would be a severe understatement — this is just the sort of humanitarian effort that would appeal to many graduates from architectural programs, who could use their skills to make a difference in communities in need, and help with the debt issue certainly wouldn’t be anything to sneeze at.

For more information about the NDSA, including ways you or your chapter can assist with legislation in your area, click here. Or consider joining the AIA for lobbying efforts at the state or national level, where you can help by speaking directly to your elected representatives, putting a very real face to a very real issue.