“We’re Not Taking This Lying Down” Jen’s Student Loan Truth | Blog
December 21, 2020
As a first generation Latina and the first in her family to go to college, Jennifer Lezan thought she was working toward a better future when she attended the Art Institute in Chicago in 2006. She never imagined that nearly 15 years later, she’d be fighting back against a massive student debt burden after attending the notorious predatory for-profit school. After having her borrower defense claim denied this summer, she became more motivated than ever to speak up, educate others and change the system.
Here’s what Jen had to say.
What attracted you to the Art Institute?
I come from a very humble background. We were poor, my mom didn’t have money to save for school. I couldn’t even take the SAT exam because we couldn’t afford it. The Art Institute sent recruiters to my high school, so I thought if my school was letting these people in, it had to be a good option. My family didn’t know that there were other options, like community college or state schools.
I knew I was interested in doing something creative, so I went to a meeting. It’s frustrating to look back, because I wish my mom had gone with me to meet these people. It’s crazy that they would rush a high school kid through this process alone. They had me fill out a FAFSA and everything by myself and really pushed me through the process, when I obviously had no idea what I was doing. I certainly didn’t realize how tremendous the cost was going to be when all was said and done.
What was the turning point when you realized something was wrong here?
I slowly started to realize that these “experts” who were meant to help me didn’t know what they were doing. Their attitude was just “we need to get as much out of these students as possible.” I had to argue with them all the time if I felt like something was off – like if they were overcharging – and I would try to tell them and they could never really explain what’s happening. Now looking back, there were clearly issues, but I just didn’t know enough at the time.
How has the debt impacted your life?
I was making minimum wage when I graduated and there was no way I was going to be able to pay off this debt. The first few years I went through a lot of mental health issues because of the debt. I still struggle to make ends meet. I can’t buy a house with my debt to income ratio. I had these big dreams of the things I wanted to do in the world, and they were crushed.
You’ve been outspoken about your debt experience and telling your story, even doing a youtube series about it. What motivated you to put yourself out there like that?
It took me a long time to stop feeling sorry for myself and then I got pissed off. The system is broken and no matter what I try to do I’m not going to be able to fix it myself and that’s why I’m so adamant about sharing my story and making sure people know that this was corruption and these schools took advantage of us. I don’t need to be forgiven for a school’s bad decision in putting profit in front of people and I’m going to keep fighting for that.
So it helps me to help and inform others. That’s why I joined the Debt Collective and I try to help others as an organizer and an activist. People aren’t going to know unless we put it out there.
What was it like listening in on the recent borrower defense hearing with so many other students in the same position?
Honestly it was amazing. I was amazed how many people were on that call. We’re not taking this lying down. The fact that all these people were able to talk and it felt like we could get our voices heard, I was crying hearing these stories. It was cathartic to hear these people who were speaking on our behalf, saying exactly what I was feeling. If that’s not a sign of the bigger issues, I don’t know what is.
What would it mean to have your denial thrown out and your loans finally cancelled?
It would be a huge relief. I wouldn’t be carrying that amount of money over my head, keeping me from buying a home, getting married without worrying about the debt I owe, being able to save for my kids if they want to pursue college or a business.
I don’t think a lot of people realize the impact money can have on every aspect of your health – mental health, physical health. When I look at that debt number, it’s incomprehensible.
My kids deserve better, and I want them to have that opportunity and go to college, and this would give them a chance to not carry this tremendous debt.