When President Joe Biden said that people who owe on college loans can get relief, my mom, 92, called and asked if I was going to get $5,000 back. Maybe I should ask for a refund.
I had graduated from college with a degree in sociology and minors in math and chemistry and been accepted into medical school for the following fall.
Until medical school, I had no debt because I had received a merit scholarship that paid for everything for my first year of college.
I earned additional scholarships and performed work study to help pay for my final three years. And I had worked every summer to save money for college, starting at 12 with babysitting.
My parents, schoolteachers, with six children did not have any extra money for college. My grandparents were farmers, which meant they had no extra, either.
Going to medical school would mean taking out a $5,000 loan, which was a lot of money in 1976. There was no other way to attend, but I assumed that with a medical degree I would be able to eventually pay it back.
The summer before medical school, I had a job at a restaurant/club on the Reservation.
American Indian Movement (AIM) leaders came into place around 5 p.m. that afternoon. There had been numerous disturbances that summer. The manager, when she saw them called the police.
I was waiting on an elderly couple, the Dowds, who came out every day for supper.
The AIM members started wielding guns, and I helped the two out a side door. The police arrived and I felt some relief.
Suddenly, Mrs. Dowd turned to go back inside. “I forgot my purse,” she said, and when I couldn’t persuade her to turn around, I ran in to get it.
I crawled under a table and found the purse. The two police and five AIM members were fighting. The police were being hit with “blackjacks.” One policeman’s face was bloody he couldn’t see and tried to escape and by crawling to a window.
I managed to run outside with the purse – and was closely followed by the two police who ran and hid over a small hill. I handed the woman her purse and told them to get out of there. They drove off.
One of the AIM members was on top of the police car, kicking in the “cherry” the light, when a gun fired. The man on top of the car crumbled. A woman came up to me with a gun and pointed it at my face.
She said, “If you ever tell anyone about this, you’re dead.”
Then someone picked up the injured man, and the AIM members drove off in a car. I later learned they had taken the man to the BIA hospital in Rosebud and his spleen had to be removed. Several of the AIM people had been firing handguns when a bullet ricocheted and hit him.
I was glad when school started, and I was safe back in a classroom and off the reservation.
That was short-lived because I was served a subpoena during one of my classes in the spring and told I needed to testify in court.
The trial was awful. One policeman, who had most of his teeth knocked out, had gone to another job off the reservation, but there was no way he could pay to have his mouth fixed. As I tried to focus on my genetics lesson, he saw a picture of a child with Down’s syndrome and said, “That looks like my daughter.”
I was put on the stand. First, I was questioned by the prosecutor, then I was questioned by the defense. My story never changed. Then the AIM member decided to fire his defense lawyer and started questioning me himself, which the judge allowed.
Do you tell the truth, even if you worry by doing so, you may put you or your family in jeopardy?
I told the truth. The leader got jail time, his followers did not.
I might have made it through the spring semester with mostly Bs and Cs, but then the physiology professor decided that we should cut open live dogs that he secured from the pound, so we could see how their hearts worked.
A student could opt out, but their grade would be dropped—which would have meant I would have gone from a C to a D. I can’t describe how awful it was to see the dogs cut open with their hearts pumping and the blood and the smell – and I was done. I stumbled through the rest of the semester, receiving a D in physiology.
I fled to New York City, and found a place on 181st street, near the George Washington Bridge. I felt safer there then on the reservation.
I was numb, I had trouble sleeping, anytime I heard a car backfire, I froze, and the adrenaline started.
Now I realize I probably had PTSD, which is defined as a mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event. They say the symptoms can last months or years and include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety.
I knew I wasn’t going back to medical school or South Dakota. I eked out an existence in New York, with a bunch of low paying jobs, working in a bookstore, at an off-Broadway theatre, a failing language school.
I eventually moved from Washington Heights to a five-floor walkup, with a bathtub in the kitchen, on the Eastside, that I shared with another person, so I could afford the rent.
Then, I received a notice in the mail that I had to pay off the $5,000 that I had borrowed. There was no forgiveness, but they would allow me to pay what I could, but it had to be something.
A sociology degree does not provide you with a job that allows you to pay down that kind of debt, so I started waitressing.
Tip, by tip, over five years, I paid the money back.
I’m sure I’m the kind of student that President Biden wants to help – not those who graduated from Harvard law school or medical school, who also have sizeable debts, but most likely will get a high-paying job.
So even if its 30 years late, Mr. President I would like $5,000. Even though I signed the loan . . . .please refund it—and with interest if possible.