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Grad says degree worth debt

As a 20-year-old college dropout, New Hampshire native Kelsey O’Neil moved to Washington, D.C., five years ago to be an emergency medical technician.

She lived in a rough neighborhood, where drugs were sold right out on the street. It was all she could afford on an EMT’s salary. Her apartment had four dead bolts, but she rarely felt safe walking from her car to the building.

‘’You go into the house, lock the door, lock the porch door, check the alarm system - it wasn’t anything like New Hampshire,’’ said O’Neil, of Meredith.

After graduating from high school in 2005, O’Neil jumped right into the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md. She left after one semester after an injury, and immediately enrolled at the University of New Hampshire in January 2006.

Three semesters later, she

left for the nation’s capital and went to school ‘’on and off’’ at George Washington University, while working as an EMT.

‘’Taking the time off I did . . . it made me realize how important education was,’’ O’Neil said. ‘’Being 21 and 22, when most people are seniors in college, I was making good money but it wasn’t going to get me anywhere. My apartment was right across from a crackhouse.’’

She returned to UNH in 2011 and graduated this spring with a bachelor’s degree in English and a minor in psychology.

O’Neil, now 25, is proud of her education and the long road to achieve it. After the graduation celebration was over, she started to feel the pressure.

Her parents, Jerry and Donna, helped to pay for the first two years of college, but eventually she needed to take out student loans to finish school. O’Neil accrued about $25,000 in federal debt, on top of a $13,000 private loan that she signed with her father, who works as an attorney in Laconia. She also has some credit card debt, which she has paid down from $5,000 to about $1,000.

‘’It feels like you’re digging yourself out of a hole, but I don’t know how I got in the hole,’’ O’Neil said. ‘’What happened?’’

To save money, O’Neil moved back in with her parents and two sisters in Meredith. Her older sister, Kaitlin, is 26 and living at home before she starts law school at Rutgers University, while her younger sister, Mikaela, 16, is starting to look at colleges, including UNH.

O’Neil spent the summer checking classified ads, swimming in Lake Winnipesaukee and debating her job options. She began searching in February and visited the UNH career center for help.

‘’It’s been hard,’’ she said. ‘’Do I want to get a job at a local restaurant while I’m looking for other jobs? Or will that prevent me from having the motivation to look for other jobs? ‘’

She has exhausted most of her savings, buying gas to travel to job interviews in Manchester and Massachusetts. Finally, the hard work paid off in late July.

She beat out several other candidates and was awarded a graduate assistant position in the Diversity Initiative Office at Southern New Hampshire University, with a focus on the gay, transgender and questioning community. The job pays a stipend, and it also includes free tuition to the school’s master’s degree program in community and mental health.

But even with the newfound job security, O’Neil needs to save every dollar she can.

She can’t yet afford to rent her own place, and she plans to live with her aunt in Nashua and work a part-time restaurant job on the side.

She’ll put any money she gets toward her private loan payments, which start in November and won’t be deferred like her federal loans. O’Neil’s parents want to help any way they can, and she’s grateful for that, but she also wants to take responsibility for the money.

‘’I really feel like I should be paying,’’ O’Neil said. ‘’They’re looking to put my younger sister in college soon, too, as much as they can.’’

Even if her younger sister picks UNH - the most affordable option on her early list of schools - it won’t be easy for her family to afford. This fall, the cost of attendance for in-state students is $26,186, and tuition has only grown since O’Neil started college. She still can’t believe the tuition amounts shown in her online account from 2006, when she first enrolled at UNH, and how the costs steadily increased to her final bill in 2012. In-state tuition rose 77 percent from 2006 to 2012 at UNH.

‘’It’s just nuts,’’ she said. ‘’I remember looking at it and thinking, ‘What the hell?’

‘’I feel really close to UNH and so many good people who work there, and I feel like they want the best for us as individual students, but I know that UNH is one of the highest state universities in tuition. . . . I have no idea what to do, but it’s getting to the point where nothing is stopping it.’’

While she hopes for change across the higher education spectrum, O’Neil said her degree is absolutely worth it. She feels lucky to only have about $38,000 in debt, and she said the experience at UNH has prepared her for a successful future.

‘’I’ve bettered my situation by getting a college degree, even though I’m in debt,’’ she said. ‘’I feel really grateful to UNH.’’’

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