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While English still would like to pursue marketing, his passion lies in comedy. He's performed stand-up for two years now, which brings in some extra cash, and he recently taped an episode for a show that aired on the Black Family Channel. Sometimes he feels college -- and the vast amount of money he owes -- might not have been worth it. "I didn't learn how to be funny at school," English says. "Part of me says I shouldn't have even gone."
He now earns $9 an hour plus commission as a telemarketer. It's better than working at IKEA, he says, but it still doesn't come close to helping him really make headway on his college loan and his $2,000 in credit card debt. "I'd like to point a finger and say nobody told me it was going to be like this," he says. "But I knew. I won't say it's messed up, but when I was in school I didn't think I'd really have to pay back the loans."
Juandalyn Coffen has a firm grip on reality.
She crawls out of bed at 6 a.m. and throws on pants and a sweatshirt. She grabs a banana for breakfast and leaves her Stone Mountain house by 6:30. She walks a quarter-mile to the MARTA stop, hops on the 111 or 116 bus and swipes her $60-a-month MARTA card. She gets off at Indian Creek Station and then takes the subway to the Decatur Station where an Emory shuttle bus brings her to her $7.50-an-hour job as a receptionist in Emory's dermatology department. The hour-long commute gives the 19-year-old Spelman environmental studies sophomore time to finish up homework or review note cards. She's tired this morning, as she is most mornings. She didn't get home until 9 last night, after a full day of classes and a three-hour work shift in the lab.
Some days, she doesn't have time for lunch and just grabs a bag of potato chips on her way to class. Other days, she feels alone when she has to decline invitations to hang out with friends or go to a party. It's hard for her to find time to socialize, let alone sleep, with her full academic load and 24 hours of work each week.
But Coffen is determined to be one of the fortunate few who will leave college with little debt. She's highly cognizant of what it takes to afford college. "Most students don't really know what they're getting into," she says. "It really hits them afterward."
When Coffen was 16, she had to start working. Her father's type 1 diabetes escalated to kidney failure and landed him in the hospital. She and her sister found jobs to help their mother pay the rent and utility bills. In 2003, Coffen's sister, who is a year older, received a full scholarship to Spelman. Coffen wanted to go there, too, but also looked at other historically black colleges in Florida and North Carolina because of Spelman's expensive $17,000 annual tuition. She understood, unlike many young people, that going to a private college wasn't going to be without debt.
"Everything came for [my sister]," Coffen says. "So my parents expected everything to come for me also. But it didn't flow like that."
She decided Spelman would be worth the financial burden because she'd be able to cut costs by living at home. And she took on a second job during the second semester of her freshman year and snagged an annual $2,500 scholarship. So far, Coffen has taken out $8,000 in loans to foot her education bill. She'd like to hold her debt there by applying for more scholarships. But she's been shut out of some grants because they're for students who study specific subjects such as engineering or math. She wants to become an environmental consultant or teach, like her father, but isn't sure if finances will allow her to pursue that career.
"It's just becoming really stressful because you can't do what you want to do anymore," Coffen says. "You can't make a living off it."
On a crisp Monday in September, Coffen sits in the Manley College Center before her 11 a.m. class and watches several Spelman students walk by in designer jeans and brand-name shirts. She's a bit bleary-eyed, and adjusts the black glasses that rest on her smooth, dark nose.
"It's a fantasy world that we're living in," Coffen says. "We really don't need that purse or those shoes, but we get them anyway because we feel like if we don't get them then we won't be accepted. And to be accepted is how we live our lives."
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