Kelly Finlaw remembers clearly the devastation she felt upon opening the rejection letter. 

For 10 years, Finlaw had dutifully paid her student loans with the expectation that she would finally qualify for a federal debt forgiveness program for public service workers. For nearly 14 years, she has worked as an art teacher in New York City public schools, a career path that had put her about $120,000 in debt. 

But one day about two years ago, Finlaw opened a perfunctory letter from her loan servicer and learned that she had the wrong type of loan to qualify for a reprieve. The only way to wipe out her remaining debt was to start paying a different kind of loan — for yet another decade.

Kelly Finlaw

“The whole program was just a political scam,” she said. 

This month, Finlaw joined a lawsuit, filed by the American Federation of Teachers, that claims Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and the U.S. Department of Education have mismanaged the program. The union is seeking immediate loan forgiveness as well as improvements in the system. 

The suit says more than 32 million borrowers are estimated to potentially qualify for the federal program, which promises to erase student debt after a decade of service work. But nationally, less than 1 percent of applicants — about 500 borrowers — have had their debt forgiven. 

Finlaw teaches at I.S. 528 in Washington Heights, a tiny middle school where every student takes her class. Here’s what Finlaw had to say about why she became a teacher, how much of her paycheck is gobbled up by debt payments, and what she hopes will change both in the loan industry and in higher education.  

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.   

Why did you become a teacher?

I had an art teacher in high school, and there was a small group of us who would spend every minute in the art room. We would go down and eat our lunch with him. He always had his door open. Just having that space in high school, which can be a rocky time, transformed me. 

My love of art was already there, but I realized what it can do for a kid, to have a positive, sustained, and meaningful relationship with a teacher who acts more like a mentor. I learned a lot about art, history, and the foundations of what I do now in the classroom. 

I couldn’t think of a better way to live my own life. 

Did you go through a traditional teacher training program?

I have my degree in art education. It’s a double major — one in art and one in education. It was a five year program. I graduated in May of 2006, and I started teaching that school year. 

I got a job at P.S. 218. I was still living with my mom. She lived in Princeton, New Jersey at the time, so I was commuting every day. Then I lived in Brooklyn a little bit, and then I lived in Riverdale. And then I got my apartment in Washington Heights. 

I moved to this community because I knew I wanted to stay here; I didn’t just want to come and teach and leave. I fell in love with Washington Heights. 

How did you pay for school? 

I come from a family where I’m the only person who has graduated from college. My mom could not pay for my schooling. There was also no option not to go to college. My mom made that very clear. So the only option I had was to get loans. 

I had a couple of scholarships. My grades were above average, and I was able to subsidize a little, but I did not get a full ride. About 95 percent of the cost was loans. 

Did you realize the effect that would have? 

I couldn’t have imagined how much of an impact that would have, but it really wouldn’t have mattered. I wouldn’t have dropped out and I wouldn’t have changed my course. I knew I wanted to be an art teacher, and I knew I needed those loans to do it.

How long have you been paying your loans, and how much do you still owe, if you don’t mind saying? 

I think there’s a lot of shame in having student loans. I’ve never been ashamed of it. I’m kind of proud — not that I have loans, but that I made it through college and that I graduated. Loans allowed me to have a life that I can’t believe I have. I allows me to be in a classroom everyday with kids whom I love. 

I think that I started at $120,000, and I’m at $88,000 right now. I’ve been paying since January of 2007 because I started teaching in the 2006 – 2007 school year. Another teacher didn’t show up for work one day. She decided she was done, and that’s when they hired me as an art teacher. As soon as I got my job, I started paying my loans back. 

Why did you miss out on the opportunity for loan forgiveness? 

Nelnet [the student loan conglomerate] actually wrote me and said, ‘You’re eligible to apply for this loan forgiveness program.’ So I applied. And then they transferred all of my loans over to FedLoans. 

Then FedLoans said, ‘You’ve been denied. One of your loans doesn’t qualify.’ So I called them and said, ‘What am I supposed to do?’ And they said, ‘You have to reconsolidate so that they’re all direct loans.’ 

I reconsolidated, and then they kicked me back to Nelnet. I called Nelnet and I said, ‘Ok. Now I have all direct loans. What do I do?’ And then they said, ‘Now you start at zero and you owe 120 more payments, and it’s income based, so it’s going to be $600 a month, and every time you get a pay increase it’s going to go up.’ 

If you’re a loan servicer and you are servicing a teacher, and you know that they’re working toward this program, and you’re not looking at their loans from day one and saying, ‘Fix this so you qualify,’ then this program was just lip service. You were not looking out for us. No one was. 

So you were told you could qualify, then told you didn’t have the right type of loan, and by the time you settled that issue, you were told you would have to pay another 10 years before being eligible for forgiveness. You had already been paying for a decade at that point. 

Yeah. And then they said, ‘Now you’re all set. You’ll qualify. But you have to start over.’ 

What was it like when you first realized you didn’t qualify for loan forgiveness? 

I hadn’t heard about other people being denied, so when I got my letter, I didn’t have a baseline of, ‘You’re not going to get accepted.’ I felt a sense of hope that soon I wasn’t going to have to pay back on those loans every month. 

Then I remember when the letter came, and I opened it, I was standing by my table, and it did not say what I wanted it to say. I remember saying words that I won’t repeat. My roommate was like, ‘What? What happened?’ And I showed him the letter and he was like, ‘Man. I’m sorry.’ 

It felt really demoralizing. Like, why did you say you were going to help people out, and then not help people out? 

How has carrying this debt impacted your life? 

Earlier this year, or the end of last year, I contacted a realtor and I said, ‘I want to live in Washington Heights. I’m here. I’m settled. I’m not going anywhere. I have a secure job. I want to buy a place. What does that look like?’ He looked at all my financials. He looked at what I had in savings, and he said: ‘There’s no way you can buy an apartment. I’m sorry. You don’t have a chance.’

I can’t buy a place. That’s not on the table anytime soon. 

I had a roommate for a while, but not anymore. Now, one of my checks every month is for rent. And the other is split with one-third going to repay my student loans, and two thirds covering all my other bills. So I’m not in a place where I can save. I’m having to make things work month to month. 

How and why did you become a part of this lawsuit? 

I am the union delegate at my school, and every Friday they send out a United Federation of Teachers newsletter. It was just a rundown of what’s going on in the week. At the bottom of one, there was a little sentence that said, ‘If you were denied for your public service loan forgiveness program, fill out this survey.’ I filled out the survey, and an attorney called me. I told her everything. She said, ‘You qualify to be in a lawsuit against the department of education and Betsy DeVos. Are you interested?’ 

The next couple of months, we were on the phone. I was emailing all the paperwork I could find. Still, up until that point, I thought, ‘No one is ever going to care about this.’ I just had to manage my expectations because when you put hope in something, it’s dangerous. 

Then, July 9th, she texted me and said, ‘We’re filing this on July 11. Can you spend some time in D.C.?’ From that point on, my life has not been the same. 

Before, no one had cared. I had no power. I had no voice. It was me, and it was Nelnet on the phone. Then it was me paying $600 a month without any hope of anything changing. And then, people started calling me and saying, ‘Tell us what happened. We would like to share your story.’ 

What do you hope to ultimately accomplish for yourself and for other teachers?

The lawsuit is asking for forgiveness on behalf of the plaintiffs. Obviously, I hope that happens. But, beyond that, the whole program needs to be reformed. There needs to be accountability for the government to follow through on what they say. The whole higher education system in America needs to be reformed. I would like to hear that teachers who are in their early years of teaching don’t face this when they’ve reached their 10th year. I would like this to set a precedent for everyone else. 

Based on your own experiences, what advice do you have for young people who are heading to college and are considering a career in the classroom? 

If you’re heading into college thinking about being a teacher, do not continue on the path you’re on if you are doing it for loan forgiveness — and not because there’s a high likelihood that your loans might not be forgiven — but because, if you’re going into education for your loans to be forgiven, then you don’t belong in the classroom.

Bottom line: If you’re not doing it because you love children, then don’t do it. If you love children and you are willing to figure them out, individually, and want them to succeed, and nurture them, then everything you’re doing to get there will be worth it.