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Hallmark Institute | Occupied Stories

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InDEBTed to Education

We’re all told when we’re in High School that going to college is what we have to do. You can’t get a better job if you don’t get higher schooling. That you don’t want to be a garbage man for the rest of your life. You can’t make money if you don’t go to school. So, we find a college, take out a loan, and go to school.

I was not so sure I wanted to go to school though. I had (and technically still do have) a lot of issues I needed to sort though. Trying to manage my IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), clinical depression, manic states, anxiety, and any other number of things. School was the last thing on my mind. It didn’t help that I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do. All I knew was I loved my art classes.

So at some point I came to the conclusion I needed to go to art school. My parents were wary, but my art teacher and I assured them that there were ways to make money as an artist. This was before the Great Recession, as the economists call it.

Originally I was going to go to a local college, and just generalize in all sorts of art. Until I found Hallmark. It was, at the time, the number one photography school in the country. It has nothing to do with the cards though, bummer.

But I applied to go to the Hallmark Institute of Photography. What a mouthful. And I listened with rapt ears to everything they told me. That there was no such thing as a degree in photography, so what they could offer (a certificate of completion) was the best I could hope for. That $50,000 for ten months of schooling was worth it because it was like cramming two years into that ten months. That they were state-of-the-art (perhaps the only thing they didn’t lie about), and they would always help their alumni to find work.

Well, being the naive 17 year old I was at the time, I was sold. I signed the papers as soon as my portfolio was approved. That’s right, only 300 people at the time were accepted to attend each year. They were elitists, and I was on cloud nine for having been chosen.

Hallmark killed everything in me. Creativity meant nothing when it came to being a Hallmark Photographer. They were looking for a certain high-city look with the photographs their students produced, and I was not producing. Of course, this wasn’t all the teachers; just the ones that mattered. I am not a city girl. I live in the middle of nowhere out where the buses don’t run, and I prefer it that way

So even though I passed all my classes, and even though I went through hell to make it to the end, it was for nothing. I failed my initial portfolio review in which my artistic sense was torn apart by well-known photographers from outside the school brought in for that very purpose. But not to worry, there was always re-review! Which, I was told, was impossible to fail so long as you completed the list of corrections given to you.

So, I had three days to fix half of my portfolio. I don’t remember those three days at all, as it was murder on the depression, and between that and the meds I killed my memory.

What I do know is regardless of the efforts I put in, I still failed. The day before graduation, with no explanation, I was told I failed and I was to sign the papers saying I quit.

I told the dean of the college through tears that this wasn’t the end, I would be a photographer anyway. He agreed to meet with me a week later to review my portfolio in depth. He would later reveal that I probably should have passed, but he couldn’t reverse the decision.

In two years’ time I would find out that this dean had been cooking the books. All the money spent during my year at Hallmark, he had been swindling away our money to pay for things he wanted and possibly bribing people. He was being sued for two million dollars. As if I weren’t already upset that I couldn’t get a photography job because of the economy, and I could hardly pay the students loan when I DID have a job, now I learned that much of my student loan money had gone to lining the pockets of this man who couldn’t allow me to at least be considered a success and not a failure of the school.

I thought about starting a class-action lawsuit, but in the end I didn’t. I didn’t have the time, nor the energy. After all, I’m over $50,000 in debt, and working to pay it back is all I can do. And in this economy, in my area, that means you do your damnedest not to lose your job.

I was in and out of work from 2008 to 2010, enough so that my parents had to pay my loans for a while. I felt like a failure of a child, because they weren’t exactly swimming in money either. But even when I could get a job, it was usually in retail and all I could manage was the car loan I had. It was a horrible feeling.

I did finally manage to secure a job that allowed me to pay my own bills by myself, but I was later laid off. Thankfully rehired. But regardless of that, I’m still buried in debt. I’ve managed to bring it down by maybe $3,000, but under the 6% interest rates it’s not much. I’ll be paying them off until I’m about to retire at this rate.

I’d like to move out, get my own place. Go back to living on my own, being independent, and stop relying so much on my parents. But the only way I can survive with this debt is by living at home. And as I’ve gotten older (I’m 23 now), I’ve accumulated more and more stuff. And it doesn’t all fit in my one little bedroom very well. It’s a cramped lifestyle. But with this debt I’m fairly stuck.

I’d also like to have my own photo studio. Regardless of what Hallmark told me, I have continued to pursue photography. Even though I have to freelance, I do fairly well for myself. And I always pay my assistants well for their time, because it’s the right thing to do. But photography is a luxury and I don’t have enough of a client base yet for it to sustain its own studio.

Sad to say I’m thinking of going back to school, because these days you can’t get a job without the piece of paper I don’t have. It’d mean more debt, and a longer life sentence to it.

If I didn’t have educational debt, I might have a mortgage. Or a studio, and perhaps I’d be employing a couple other people to help. Or heck, I’d just plain have spending money to put back into the economy to help fix it. But I don’t. I pay over $400 a month to a bank for a loan that hasn’t gotten me very far at all. Over $400 that could be propelling me to a much more promising future.

I am the future of America, and my future says that I will be struggling to survive right up until the end. At this rate, I will pay off my loans just in time to retire and lack a nest egg, and probably lack social security. It’s not a pretty picture.

-S. Genier-

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