December 17, 2020

Opinion: Is Hoping for Student Loan Assistance... Selfish?

By Nnenna Ejesieme, DO
YPS Councillor

With more than $1.5 trillion in student loan debt, the American people and most of the world have been struck by the economic downturn of COVID-19. As a country, we armored up with scientists, politicians, lobbyists, and activists against the pandemic. But in the midst of this, behind the echoes of “healthcare heroes,” I couldn’t help but turn my eyes to a fellow physician’s online opinion.

“It’s truly selfish of physicians to think their loans should just be forgiven.”

Ah, yes. Selfish. That was my favorite word in the entire sentence. I’ve been called a lot in my life – from teammate to leader, from daughter to doctor. But selfish? THAT was new. It was different from being called “c**t” by a delirious 80-year old bedbound patient. Trust me, he knew not what he said as I swiftly started him on antibiotics, grabbed him some new sheets, and politely turned off the lights so he could try to muster some sleep. It was different from hearing “nigger” spoken by my acutely psychotic 32-year old patient who needed medical sedation to help buffer her catastrophic heart rhythm after meth use.

This word was chosen by a colleague, a peer. Selfish.

I graduated from high school after the dot com crash during which thousands were laid off and even more went bankrupt. Soon after, the housing bubble crash of 2008 seemed to have many too scared to take on mortgages. But wait, you have to remember we are the generation with less liquid cash for a down payment, so we became the renting generation. And as this past year has proven, these are unpredictable times and there is no guarantee of graduation for this generation struggling through all-time high tuition and interest rates. The generation who, as medical professionals, graduates with an average net negative asset valuation. This stays with them for years post-graduation due to decreases in reimbursement combined with increases in graduate study education and cost of living.

Did you know the average annual income for U.S. medical student is $63,400 with an average debt load of $241,600? Shout-out to our predecessors who in 1998 had an average of $85,200 in student debt (according to educationdata.org). Go you! The generation with 84% of low-income students using Pell Grants (that’s me!) graduates with debt, and two-thirds of all outstanding loan payments are held by women.

But let me tell you the icing on the cake. (Or salt in the wound?) I was told that with my net value at a rocking NEGATIVE $200k, I must accept whatever contract is available because the job market is tight. And we were told we were lucky enough to even have a job. And then: So sorry, but we have to cut your shifts. And if you don’t mind, we also need to cut your pay.

I know I’m not alone in these circumstances: At the beginning of this pandemic, I was a new mom who couldn’t find childcare assistance at the beginning of the pandemic (thank God that changed). We had plans to build our dream home or own a property, but we had to push that dream back again. And I’m still the family member who at any point could unintentionally infect my loved ones, so I periodically isolate for 10+ days from my baby and hoped he will still reach for me when I get home.

But still, they tell us: Yes, we know you’re only a few years out of training, but it is so selfish of you to even think that you could possibly need assistance with your loans.

As young physicians, we are many things. Hard-working. Dedicated. Tough. Determined. Strained. But selfish?

Many of us who launched our medical careers into these challenging circumstances and are grinding through this pandemic see student loan assistance as a bright spot, a potential gift. I would say we are not selfish; we are hopeful. And during a year like we’re having, I’ll take all the hope I can get.