Education and Choices

The talk about forgiving student loan debt has got me thinking about the choices that I have made in my own educational journey. I have done a lot of school - I hold a terminal degree (PhD) in political science. I have been fortunate to have secured permanent academic employment since I completed my PhD in 2013. I first worked on a one year visiting position at UNLV, spent six years on two contracts teaching at Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan, and since August 2020 have had a tenure track appointment at Stephen F. Austin State University. If all works out, then I will be promoted and receive tenure within the next three years. I may not be at the top of the academic prestige hierarchy, but I have carved out a career in an industry that is increasingly competitive and tenuous.

I had zero education debt from my undergraduate or graduate education. I started graduate school as a married person with four daughters ranging in age from 3 to 4 months. The reason for that is the choices that I made. I will acknowledge that I have some advantages in life. I was fortunate to be born into a family that valued learning and education. I was born with a good intellect and a natural curiosity and desire to make sense of the world. Reading was valued and modeled in my home. I grew up in a two-parent household where we had structure, safety, and a clear set of expectations. One of those expectations was that we were responsible for ourselves and our lives from an early age.

You see, one thing that we didn’t always have a lot of was money. My dad was a registered nurse (Associates degree) by training and an entrepreneur by temperament. When I was three years old we sold all that we had and moved to Texas for him to have the opportunity to “get in on the ground floor” of a financial services company. A misstep by some partners in Arizona at a time when the Savings and Loan crisis was hitting the US shut down the opportunity. We returned to Utah six months later. We had what fit in a U-haul truck, my Dad’s Volkswagon Rabbit and a credit card with a $1000 dollar limit. We moved into a converted garage (now a one-bedroom 400 square foot apartment) behind my grandparent’s home. My parents and us five kids. My two older brothers slept in surplus army bunk beds in my grandparent’s basement. Dad went back to nursing for a couple of years and got us back on our feet. He also started a vending business in central Utah so we could return to live in our ancestral home1.

We lived in Ephraim, Utah for about seven years. For a time we were pretty well off. My dad’s business was successful with strong accounts at a power plant in Delta, the Brush Wellman Beryllium mine at Lyman, some high schools, and the Snow College Campus with some other machines scattered around in other areas. My dad was a pilot and we had a six seater Cherokee six that he added a seventh seat to. We flew to visit relatives in Northern Utah and Southern Idaho. One year we flew to Guaymus, Mexico for a vacation during Thanksgiving. The problem with his business is that it took all of his time. His days started at 2:00 a.m. and sometimes ended at 5:00 p.m. and sometimes not until 8:00 or 9:00. He wanted to do something else. Some family finance issues, and the closing of some of the places he had vending machines forced his hand. He sold off what he could and we moved to Payson, Utah.

The problem was that we had a large amount of debt from the vending business as well as some personal debt (like the garage we had built at the house we were living in). We couldn’t afford a house, so we used cash to buy a single wide trailer. We moved into that trailer in the Spring of 1991. My older brothers were Juniors in high school, my sister a sophomore. I was in sixth grade and my younger sister was in fifth. We were living in a 600 square foot two-bedroom trailer. My parents sat us down as we were moving - a move that entailed selling off nearly everything that we owned. We would, from this time forward, be responsible for all of our spending money, including school clothes, school fees, and any extra curricular activities we wanted to do. My parents would provide food and shelter and a vehicle (we were responsible for our portion of the insurance cost, maintenance, and gas if we wanted to drive the 1966 Dodge Truck that was the kid’s vehicle), but otherwise we were on our own.

This means that I have worked meaningful jobs since I was fourteen. I had a pretty lean year my first year, but was able to earn enough money working for an aunt on her ranch in Idaho to get me through the school year. I worked full time through the summer from the age of 14 at a local mink farm. I rode my bike 3.5 miles each way to work, worked for eight hours, and then rode home. I worked from April through September, so when I had school, I would get home, ride to work, work 2 hours and ride home. I began at less than minimum wage as a 14 year old. From age 16 through the end of high school I worked at McDonald’s. During the school year I worked 25-35 hours a week. In the summer I worked as much as I could - usually 40 hours is what they capped me out at. That job began at minimum wage and ended at minimum wage because the federal minimum wage increased and the 50 cents in raises I’d earned in the two years I worked there weren’t added to the new amount.

Choice 1 - Taking High School Seriously

So these were things that I didn’t have control over. What choices did I make. I decided to take the most challenging courses that I could during high school. We had some AP classes at my high school so as a Junior I took AP US History, AP Biology, and AP Chemistry. As a senior I took AP English. I also did concurrent enrollment as a Junior and senior in College Algebra and Trigonometry and Calculus. I paid the fees for these classes out of my own pocket, including the testing fees for each of my AP courses. I passed all my AP exams and worked hard and had a 4.0 GPA after my junior year. I also signed up for and paid for and took the ACT exam in the spring of my Junior year2. In my Junior year I also saw a pamphlet in the counselor’s office about “Engineering State” at Utah State University. I took the form, filled it out, and mailed it to USU and was accepted (as one of two students from my school) to attend the week long program at the campus. It cost $150 or something to attend, so I wrote a check and sent that in as well.

Choice 2 - Attending State School where I could live with family

The decision to apply to engineering state was fortuitous, because it led to me being offered a full tuition scholarship to USU the summer before my senior year. My 4.0 GPA and ACT score were just high enough to merit their “Presidential Scholarship.” It was the only college I applied to. USU was a good choice. It was my mom’s alma mater and my grandparents lived in Logan. I could attend USU tuition-free, live with my grandparents, and afford school. I still had to pay fees ($300 or $400 a semester) and books, but that was doable. I started at USU during the Fall 1997 quarter and took four classes to try to figure out what I wanted to be. I took the required 200 level English class, an introduction to business class, Human Physiology (medicine), and a conflict in International Relations course (political science). After half a quarter I was sure what I wanted to do was spend two years as a missionary for my church, so I finished the quarter, took a leave of absence (common in Utah) appealed to have my scholarship held, and spent six weeks working and getting ready to learn Russian and go to Ukraine.

Choice 3 - Joining the National Guard

I returned from Ukraine in February 2000. I spent the next six months working for Novell as a customer service rep fulfilling orders for software upgrades from corporate clients. Over the summer my now wife and I began corresponding and decided that we would get married. Now I was going to go to school and be married. And I was marrying a girl from Russia (she was also a missionary in Ukraine) and needed to navigate the paperwork and bureaucracy to get her a visa and get her to the US. My older brother had joined the California National Guard while I was in Ukraine to help support his young family. He was beginning work as a full-time recruiter and suggested that I look into the National Guard as a way to help me get through school and support my family.

I took his suggestion, looked into it, and joined the Utah Army National Guard in September 2000 as Russian Linguist and Counterintelligence Agent. Utah is the headquarters of the 300th Military Intelligence Brigade which is the military’s linguistic brigade. Logan had a company of the 141st MI Battalion, so after joining I could drill really close to home and the university.

I still didn’t know what I wanted to be in my life, so I decided I’d study engineering. I got a job at a transportation lab on campus where my oldest brother was working on his Master’s degree in engineering. I didn’t really love engineering, but I wanted to do something that was challenging since I didn’t know what I wanted to do anyway. I took another leave of absence in May 2001since I was scheduled to attend Basic training (9 weeks) and then my advanced military training in Arizona for 16 weeks. My fiancee (now wife) got her visa in June while I was at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, at Basic Training.

The National Guard and marriage changed my life in lots of ways. I had to miss Spring 2002 semester because my unit was called up to support the Winter Olympics in Utah after the 9/11 attacks. I missed 3 weeks of advanced math (differential equations), engineering (materials and statics), and statistics classes and I couldn’t stay up. I got married instead and changed jobs to a customer service job (35 hours a week) that would help pay the bills. My wife convinced me to switch my major to business because I was ill-suited to engineering and business was easier to schedule the needed classes around my work schedule.

I was deployed to Iraq in 2003 and so I had to drop out of school yet again. When I returned, I transitioned to a full-time job with the National Guard doing translation work. I finished school in December 2005. My business degree was one I designed myself. I got some good general skills out of it. My favorite business class was international economics. I took that my second to last semester. During my final semester I took a class - the History of Central and Eastern Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries. That class got me into the library reading all kinds of interesting books. I had always been a reader, but it got me into reading history and political science books and really piqued my interest. I also took a course in the economic history of Russia and the Soviet Union that helped me see how history, economics, and politics intersected. My own Russian interest and experience drew me to the class, but the material broadened my horizons.

Choice 4 Take advantage and Keep Learning

My fourth choice involved taking advantage of a program through the military to pay for tuition. One of the other full timers told me about a Master’s program in Intelligence Studies that was the same as the one that career officers took when they were up for promotion to Lt. Colonel. The program was through American Military University and had many of the same instructors as the JMIC (Joint Military Intelligence College) course had and a very similar, but expanded, curriculum. Each course was priced at the exact limit that the military capped for its tuition assistance program. I signed up for classes during my final semester of my B.S. degree. I had 140 credits, so I qualified even though I wouldn’t have degree in hand for another four months. There was still money in the budget and it needed to be used (you’ve got to love use it or lose it budget mentality), so I was approved for the tuition assistance. For the cost of books and a lot of early morning and weekend study, I was able to earn a Master’s degree in the field that I was working in for the military.

Choice 5 - Graduate School Criteria

I decided to go for a PhD because I was not sure I wanted to stay in as an enlisted soldier in the military. It was late to transition to an officer, and the military life was less attractive after our second daughter was born. I looked at the CIA analyst positions and it seemed that having a PhD would be an advantage, so I applied. It’s a longer story than that, since it was too late to apply when I decided to go and I still had two years left on my military commitment and I knew I would need to go on one more deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan in that time. I volunteered to go on a one-year deployment with the local artillery battalion because it would put me back in time to start graduate studies the following year. That meant that I applied to graduate schools from Fort Bliss, Texas in July 2007 as I was preparing to deploy to Camp Bucca as part of the surge. I applied to graduate schools in areas where the cost of living was lower. That meant that I mostly applied to Big 10 schools, along with a couple of others. I had only taken one political science class - in my first quarter at USU in fall 1997, and I had not enjoyed it at all. However, I decided to do political science rather than history because the quantitative methods would be something I wouldn’t be likely to pick up on my own.

I was rejected from all but one of the seven programs I applied to. The faculty at the University of Iowa took a chance on me and I was accepted. I wasn’t given funding in my initial offer, but after I committed, some funding was found, and so I was funded as a TA for my five years of graduate school. My Guard pay and last three months of GI Bill helped make up the difference (I was making around $17,000 a year as a TA) for my first year. I took a job teaching online courses for DeVry University in the summer before my 2nd year. Between that and my stipend, we were able to get through graduate school with no debt. Our savings was gone (we had saved a good nest egg during my first deployment when we didn’t have kids or expenses and my wife worked full time and put my pay in the bank), but we had no debt.

What does all this mean? Well, my education came at a great cost. I made choices that minimized cost. If I had no financial constraints or consequences, I would likely have studied something different in my undergraduate education. The choices I made to pay for my B.S. degree led me into a career that I never would have pictured for myself. My choices for graduate school were limited by my own ignorance, but in the end I ended up okay. I like my job and my career, but if I wasn’t able to be a professor, I’d do something else to feed and provide for my family. That’s been my driving motivation since I was a teen doing most of the providing for myself.

I learned from all of this. I had agency in the choices that I made. That agency was constrained by my circumstances and the circumstances of my family, but I am happy with the life I have built. I worry that too much of the discourse around student loan forgiveness is about the lack of choices faced by those with crushing debt, and I sympathize, but choices have consequences and it’s not sustainable to try to take away the consequences for people’s choices.

  1. My great-great-great grandfather had been one of the first settlers in Ephraim, Utah. He converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Denmark and emigrated to Utah in the early 1850s. He set up a flour mill. My grandfather ended up leaving Ephraim after he graduated from Snow College, but my Dad always wanted to raise his family in the area where he had spent his childhood visiting his grandparents. ↩︎

  2. I worked the closing shift at McDonald’s the night before. That meant that I got home from work at around 1:30 a.m. The exam was at 8:00 a.m. in Provo at the Brigham Young University Campus. I slept about five hours before the exam. I didn’t have any test prep, classes, or idea what I was doing. ↩︎