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Education

The student loan pause brought one Hillsborough resident stability. Now it's ending

A woman uses a sewing machine to create a floral tapestry piece.
Bailey LeFever
/
WUSF
Ericka Leigh works on a tapestry in her Seminole Heights apartment.

WUSF is bringing you the stories of Tampa Bay area residents who have been saddled with student loan debt.

Come August 31, the pause on student loan repayment will end and millions of Americans once again be on the hook for thousands of dollars each.

WUSF is introducing you to three Tampa Bay area residents who are trying to figure out how they'll handle that change.

When Wall Street crashed and the recession hit in 2008, Ericka Leigh was a comedian and a server working to pay the bills in New York City.

She didn't want to work in food service forever. So she moved back to Tampa and enrolled in a master's program in sustainability at the University of South Florida to get more financial stability.

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"I had 11 years of restaurant experience and a bachelors of arts degree and I felt like on paper I didn't really look that great," she said.
Leigh took out $40,000 in loans for the program on top of the more than $20,000 she already had in undergrad loans.

Part of the high price tag was due to Leigh's decision to borrow more during her second year of grad school to take advantage of internships she hoped would boost her resume.

"I thought after I graduated, within a year, I would have a decent paying job," she said. "I would be using my education, using my network from the university. And they gave me my diploma, and then I really felt like I was on my own."

After graduating from the program in 2015, Leigh says she applied for around one hundred jobs to no avail.

While she did receive support and letters of recommendation from her advisor, Leigh said she wanted more help being placed in a job.

"I feel like at the master's level you should have more support from the staff and from the faculty at that college," she said. "Because you just invested so much time and energy and money into getting a degree from this institution, they should help you make sure that you can afford the degree you just paid for."

Ericka Leigh
Bailey LeFever
/
WUSF
Leigh works for both Meals on Wheels of Tampa and an Oregon education technology startup from her apartment.

Leigh is still working three jobs to pull together enough money to pay rent on her Seminole Heights apartment: graphic design for a Oregon education startup, communications for Meals on Wheels of Tampa, and sewing her own bowties, pennants and tapestries for her small business, Sewn Apart.

Before the pandemic, Leigh wasn't earning enough to make payments on her loans — but the interest was still accruing. Even though she's still living paycheck to paycheck, the repayment pause has changed her life.

"It put my anxiety on pause," she said. "I still don't actually feel like I'm making a living, but this is the most financially stable I've ever been. So it's given me an opportunity to build my life now in a way that works best for me."

Dominique Baker is an assistant professor of education policy at Southern Methodist University.

While not speaking to Leigh's debt specifically, she said deciding how much education you need — and how much cost you can handle —is challenging.

"We create this difficult dynamic where we sort of structure our society and tell people that the way that they can have financial security is by pursuing more higher education," said Baker. "But then we set it up so that for certain people, the only way they can get more education is to heavily leverage the paying for it."

Even though income has increased slightly, Leigh, 36, remains worried about making the payments come August 31. She just wants to keep the first apartment she's ever lived in alone, and maybe save for a house one day.

"I just want to cry," said Leigh. "My heart, my chest gets tight thinking about paying the loans back. It literally keeps me up at night.

"And then, at the same time, I don't really care because it's the one thing you can't take away from me, I have my education."