It’s National Student Loan Savings month.  How could I miss this?

Maybe because I’m not saving for Declan’s college–I’m still paying for my own.

The phone rang.  I knew the area code.  It was the area code from my undergraduate university.  I only ever get a call from that area code during fundraising campaigns.

I always politely decline to give.  I never hang up.  I tell the caller I have a rule that I must pay off my own student loans before I give to the university.  I promised a favorite dean of mine–of everyone’s–I would give when I’m paid off.  I’m not yet.  If you know my age or my year of graduation, you’re probably saying, “Wow!” or “Damn.” The long “Daaaaaammmmmm!” like my students say.

I sometimes show my student loan account balance to students when I ask them to evaluate the cost of college.  I teach that college is not an ego purchase, it’s something to evaluate and decide about, no different from buying anything else.  I bought a pair of shoes that cost too much recently, and I hope I’ll wear them a lot, that they won’t sit in my closet and collect dust like so many people’s degrees.

Is college worth it? I enjoyed my time.  I’m not working in my degree field, but I am working in a field because of connections I made during college, so you could argue it was.  Would a less expensive experience have done something similar?  Probably.  I wonder where I’d be…

I’ll never know.

Still, I evaluate my purchases wisely, and college is a purchase.  I teach my students to consider the return on their investment carefully and to let someone else pay for their college.  Academic scholarship?  ROTC?  Go to school part-time while paying cash and working?  There are tons of options to avoid having to have student loans to show their students and grandchildren.

When the college calls during fundraising time, the student on the other end always tells an amazing story and asks me about my time at the university.  I say I was broke and I waitressed a lot.

I tell this caller my promise.  She’s a med student–about to bury herself in student loans.  I tell her my dream is to send a big check to the university administrator who inspired me to get through even though I didn’t “have a rich uncle.” I want him to secretly give my money to starving students who are doing more waitressing than studying. like I did.

Usually, when I don’t give to the fund drive, the student asks again in a different way.  I’m convinced they’ve all been trained at National Public Radio’s pledge week camp.

They ask again and again, “If you can commit at the five-dollar level…” which is never the five-dollar level because once you say yes, they’ve got you forever.  They refuse to take no for an answer.  After all, alumni from prestigious universities cannot be in student loan debt.  Aren’t we all at country clubs playing polo?  And don’t we love our alma matter? The only way to show that love is through a recurring pledge.

Still, I never hang up because this is a real student and this is her job.  I’m sure people are pretty rude even to a medical student who might save their life one day. It’s a hard job.  Cold calling gives me anxiety.  It’s why I’m always nice.

“I respect your thoughts on this,” the med student said.  “You should take care of yourself first.  I am impressed by an alumna like you who will still wants to talk to me and give to the university after you have paid so many of your own loans.”  Is my loan amount in the file, or is she just smart enough to calculate my year of graduation and say “Wow!” and “Daaaammmmmnnn!” like everyone else?

I waited for the second round of the NPR fundraising pitch.  I was ready.

“And I also wanted to tell you I am so grateful to be speaking with you tonight.” she said.  “I appreciate talking to alumni.  So many people don’t talk to students.”  Translation: People hang up on me all day.

No fundraising employee has ever thanked me for saying “no” before.

“I think it’s great you’re going to be a doctor,” I said, “I’m teaching now.  I tell students not to get in so much debt.  I really hope you get a scholarship and get through medical school easily, because we need more good doctors.”

Just like I’d never been thanked for not hanging up, she’d never been given well wishes during a pledge drive.  There’s a first time for everything.

Kindness should never be a “first time” thing.  It should be the norm for everyone, every day.

I hope to pay off my student loans.  I hope to save something for Declan, though I already told him to start a company or pay for college himself.  I hope the pre-med student I talked to will get a full scholarship and cure people like me who need to be cured.

It’s National Student Loan Savings Month.

May the interest rates be always in your favor.