Archive | March, 2010

Student loan debt fear made me skip fancy schools for a free one

21 Mar

I can remember being 17, sitting in our Michigan farmhouse, across the kitchen table from my mother. “You don’t have to go there just because you got a scholarship,” she said. “You can go to any other college you want. We’ll make it work.”

A feeling of utter practicality took over my brain. Paying thousands of dollars in student loan debt or going to school for free?

I chose free.

Thinking back, I’m still surprised by my decision. Even though I came from a podunk town in rural Michigan, and my advanced-placement classmates chose prestigious universities like Brandeis, University of Michigan, MIT, Yale, and Northwestern, I chose a mid-sized, not-particularly-academic state school because it offered me four years tuition and room and board. I never looked back.

Now I’m in my 20s, and my colleagues have prestigious diplomas and mountains of student loan debt. Me? I only have the debt that I manage to rack up on my credit card each month. But didn’t I get an inferior education? I don’t think so.

My alma mater, Central Michigan University, has about 20,000 students in a mid-sized town in the middle of the state. In 1987, the school was number 16 on Playboy’s list of top party schools. Not exactly the mark of academic distinction.

Granted, a lot has changed since I graduated, but no one looks at my resume and says “Ah, Central Michigan – That’s a great school.” So why do I think I still made the right choice?

All of my professors knew my name by the second week of class. Why? Well, frankly, I was one of the only students in the room who cared about my education, and my professors responded to that. I got hours of one-on-one attention, invitations to attend conferences and help with their research. So many professors wanted me to study in their department that it’s no wonder I changed my major eight times.

My friends at better schools spent most of their four years in large lecture halls crammed with students. The professors didn’t know their names. They were lucky if they got an attentive T.A.

I’ve also learned that money may buy you a first-class education, but it can’t buy you a work ethic. My first summer internship in Washington D.C., I was paired with two interns from prestigious colleges – Bryn Mawr and Duke. I was intimidated by them at first, but soon realized they were two of the laziest people I had ever met. Within weeks, I was planning everything we were in charge of and making sure it ran smoothly. They only thing they seemed to plan for was happy hour.

My lack of a prestigious education may mean I have to work harder to prove myself, but working hard is something I do anyway.

To those critics who say my education may keep me from even getting in the door – I doubt it. I applied to one of the most selective post-undergrad programs in the United States – Teach for America, which accepts about 15% of its applicants, most of them Ivy League – and got in without a single question about my educational background.

I’ve lived my post-college life without the threat of student loan debt. While friends of mine had to pass on jobs they wanted for a job that would pay off their loans, I was able to do things I wanted to do: start a non-profit arts organization, move to a big city, and nurture myself as a writer.

But what about the numbers? Don’t students who go to more selective institutions end up making more?

Well, yes and no. If you take the whole of the student body of a lower school and compare it to a higher ranking school, yes – the students from the higher ranking school will out-earn the others by tens of thousands.

But when you take a closer look – if you compare students of the same aptitude that went to either school – that disparity goes away, according to studies from the National Bureau of Economics Research. If you’re a good student at one school, you’ll be a good student at another. The only group that doesn’t fit that pattern is very low-income students, who seem to see a large income boost by attending a more selective school.

I’m not knocking those who choose to take on student loan debt to get a great education. I’m sure that Harvard would have been a different kind of stimulating environment, and it’s one that I definitely didn’t experience.

Going to college is about growing up, taking charge of your life and making your own decisions. Whether you decide to spend more money on a selective education or not, take the time to educate yourself so you know exactly what you’re getting into, and exactly what you’ll be paying out in the end.

In the mean time, I’m college-educated and debt free, and I don’t regret that decision one bit.

This essay was originally published in March 2007 on


Poetry and memories: From the West Side, a former Cabrini-Green resident remembers what was

19 Mar
Doreen Ambrose’s first memories of Cabrini-Green are as wholesome as any young child. Going to preschool, visiting her grandmother, playing with the neighbor kids — these are the fond, sunny memories she recalls from her early days.

It wasn’t until she was 14, in 1983, that she realized her neighborhood had changed.

“My mother and I were sitting in the living room, just talking and stuff, and we heard shooting. We looked out the window, and we saw people running and screaming,” she said.

A boy she knew — Derrick Savage — had been shot, murdered in cold blood blocks away.

“I just froze,” Ambrose recalled. “I just remember not feeling like a kid anymore.”

Although it was the only home Ambrose had ever known, the day Derrick Savage was killed was the first day she realized she wanted to leave Cabrini-Green. When gang members started threatening and chasing her older brother home from school, she and her family packed up and moved from the building at 365 W. Oak on the West Side of Chicago, where she still lives today.

Bradford Hunt, a Roosevelt University historian who has studied Chicago’s public housing said Cabrini experienced a major shift in the kinds of families that lived there while Doreen was a child.

“In the mid-1960s, the median CHA family was working-class and two-parent. By 1974, over 80 percent of family residents were dependent upon state aid in one form or another,” he said.

The Cabrini-Green that Doreen knew as a child — the good times and the scary ones — is almost gone now, razed by Chicago’s Plan for Transformation. Only four of the more than 30 high-rises that once towered over Chicago’s Near North Side remain today. It is likely the rest won’t be around much longer.

The Chicago Housing Authority has planned to close the last four buildings — 364 and 365 W. Oak, 1230 N. Burling and 1230 N. Larrabee — for the past several years, listing them in its annual plans. In the last year, CHA has closed two buildings, at 660 W. Division and 420 W. Chicago, moving residents out and slowly demolishing each site.

How long the remaining buildings will last isn’t just up to CHA.

A group of residents sued the housing authority in 2001 alleging that the rapid destruction of their home was a discriminatory act against the primarily African-American women and children who lived there. They won their case, and since then, every decision at Cabrini is carefully negotiated between the residents, their lawyers and the housing authority.

CHA spokesperson Matt Aguilar says they haven’t yet determined when the final buildings will be closed.

“Discussions are currently underway with the Cabrini LAC and its counsel regarding the timing of the closure of the four buildings,” Aguilar said. “As of this date, no specific timeline has been determined.”

Lawyer Richard Wheelock, who represents the residents, says they have recommended consolidating the remaining buildings, either by grouping residents together on lower floors or cutting down to two buildings instead of four.

“They’re all largely vacant, so our best argument is to consolidate them,” says Wheelock.

Wheelock says he and Cabrini president Carole Steele have been concerned about the process of relocating residents. The housing authority has been holding voluntary relocation fairs, giving residents the option of using a Section 8 voucher to move out of Cabrini.

“It seems like CHA is hoping that at the end of the day, there will be a handful of families left to relocate,” Wheelock said.Aguilar said the relocation fairs at Cabrini are not unique.

“CHA is offering voluntary relocation to Cabrini residents just as it has offered voluntary relocation to residents at other properties,” he said.

Ambrose will be sad to see her old building, at 365 W. Oak, be torn down, even though she knows it’s inevitable.

“As a mature adult, I know it has to go. I know I don’t want to see anybody else die here,” she said. “But I will be sad. I will cry, for sure. I’ll be sad to see it go.”

Ambrose still has family that lives in the remaining buildings, and her memories of her first home are very much alive.

Doreen remembers Cabrini as the place she discovered poetry, sitting in her third grade classroom at nearby Byrd Elementary School. She was captivated as her teacher read Dudley Randall’s “The Ballad of Birmingham,” and says she knew then that she wanted to write poetry. “I just loved the way poetry made me feel. You could just say exactly what you were feeling, and that was beautiful to me,” said Ambrose.

She went on to write two books of poetry. The Diary of a Midwestern Ghetto Girl and Raised in Da Sun are published, and a third is coming out soon. But no matter how much she writes, anytime she picks up the pen, she’s carried back in time to her home in Cabrini-Green.

“When I write, I feel like I’m 9 years old again,” says Doreen. “I feel like my mother’s cooking some pot roast. I can hear her talking to my grandmother. I can see my father watching TV, my sister toddling around. When I write, I write from here.”

Will it be harder to write once her old building is no more? “A little,” Ambrose said wistfully. “A little.”

This story was first published in Skyline Newspaper on March 31, 2010.

Payday roulette

15 Mar

Workers’ paychecks withheld more often than not at local nonprofit.

Maria Ortiz held the crying newborn in her arms, rocking her back and forth to try to get her to sleep. But the baby wouldn’t quiet down; she was hungry.

Ortiz kept rocking, knowing there was no formula in the house to feed her granddaughter.
“I didn’t have any money,” she said, her voice trembling as her eyes filled with tears.

Ortiz should have had money. She worked full-time as a home health care aide for ASI, a nonprofit on Chicago’s North Side. But that day, as her first grandchild begged for food, Ortiz didn’t get her paycheck. She didn’t get one two weeks earlier, either. Or two weeks before that.

Ortiz and her co-workers at ASI have been getting late paychecks for the past two years. In some cases, management held lotteries to determine who got paid or made workers beg for their checks, employees said.

Management blames the delays on late payments from the state. But a Chicago Reporter investigation found that’s not necessarily the case.

The Reporter obtained the state’s payment records from the comptroller’s office and compared them to records kept by one ASI employee from October 2008 to November 2010 about when they received their checks. A letter reportedly sent to employees was posted on a blog that indicated that each payroll for the company’s 400-person workforce costs about $225,500.

The Reporter’s analysis found that ASI paid its workers late 75 percent of the time during the past two years for which the Reporter had data. Even when the state paid ASI enough money to make payroll, its workers still didn’t get their money on time 75 percent of the time.

ASI Executive Director Rebecca Cruz said the company only pays its workers late when the state doesn’t pay on time. She said the company is just now being reimbursed for invoices submitted four months ago.

“We are a not-for-profit,” Cruz said. “The majority of our clients are paid for by the state. We have to wait for the state to pay us.”

Cruz’s employees have tried to get help from the state itself. Illinois law says that financial hardship is not a valid basis for late payments, and employers must follow the payroll schedule it sets with employees.

Currently, the only recourse for workers is to file a claim with the Illinois Department of Labor. But Kassie Beyer, advocate for ASI’s employees at the Service Employees International Union, said the process is “slow and rarely effective.”

“Each missing check ends up being filed separately, and as soon as ASI pays up, the claim disappears,” Beyer said. “There is no penalty to the company,”

As of January, 12 complaints have been filed with the Illinois Department of Labor concerning ASI. All have been about late pay, with the majority resolved before the state had to intervene.

A new law, which went into effect Jan. 1, allows the state to fine companies that pay their workers late and also allows workers to collect interest on their late pay. But because workers often receive their late pay before the state has time to process their claim, it won’t likely have an effect, Beyer said.

But the problem is that people chronically receive late paychecks, not that they’re not getting paid at all. Rep. Harry Osterman said he tried to arrange for ASI to be put on an expedited payment system with the state. In addition, Adam Kader, a labor organizer for ARISE Chicago, said Osterman’s office arranged a conference call with ASI and the state, but Cruz didn’t participate.

Cruz denies that she was ever invited to such a meeting, and she said she would attend any meeting or conference call that would help her pay her employees. Osterman confirms that he has tried to help ASI employees get their paychecks on time.

Cruz said complaints about late pay are coming from a small minority of workers who are being pressured by SEIU and ARISE Chicago to unionize.

Late paychecks also have created divisions between employees, said Edna Jackson, who has worked for ASI for six years. Jackson said Cruz cut checks for employees that she knows.

“[Cruz is] picking and choosing who she wants to pay–”her favorites,” she said. “If she felt your situation was bad enough, she felt so sorry for you, she would give you your check.”
Cruz said she has never cut impromptu checks.

The uncertainty has caused some employees to find other work. Ortiz was fired from her job at ASI in late December. She said it was difficult to have her position taken away. She worries about her clients and is concerned about finding another job in the current economy. But she couldn’t take the stress of never knowing if she was going to receive a paycheck.

“It was too much,” Ortiz said. “I work, and I should get paid. If they won’t pay me, I can’t work there.”

This story was originally published in the March 2010 issue of the Chicago Reporter.