9 people who put a human face on the student debt crisis

"I'm chained to something for the rest of my life."

AJ+ recently released a video aimed at showing the face of student debt in America.

It features nine diverse stories from people with degrees ranging from fine arts to law.


$1.2 trillion. That's how much outstanding student loan debt exists in the U.S.

It's an incredible, terrifying number that can sometimes be hard to even conceptualize. I mean, it's larger than the economy of several small countries.

And over the past 10 years, it has more than tripled.


Which is why the video is so important — it helps humanize the problem.

The video — consisting of a short series of interviews — depicts student debt as the burden it can be, not just on short-term finances, but in terms of career goals, personal relationships, and overall outlook on life.

GIF via AJ+.

A college degree is still seen as valuable, but justifying the amount spent these days can be a challenge.

In a recent Gallup poll, 93% of people polled said they believe it's necessary to have a college degree in order to land a good job. Still, in recent years, experts have clashed on the question of whether college is still worth the investment.

Whether it winds up being a good investment or not, more than 40 million Americans currently have outstanding student loans, with the average debt hovering around $30,000 per person.

GIF via AJ+.

People are protesting and pushing back on loans, but that's not exactly a new phenomenon.

The cost of college keeps rising, and borrowers find themselves without much leverage. As long as popular belief tells us that college is necessary to get a decent job, prospective students will more or less be strong-armed into taking out that hefty burden of credit.

So what can they do? They can try to get the government to help out. And so they protest.

These protesters in Los Angeles called for the cancellation of student debt in 2012. Photo by David McNew/Getty Images.

While the government has gotten involved from time to time, the problem hasn't exactly gone away.

In 2010, President Obama pushed for Congress to pass the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act, which made a few tweaks to the recently-passed Affordable Care Act and helped make things a little easier for future student borrowers in terms of Pell Grants and setting a cap on repayment requirements.

"Let's tell another one million students that when they graduate, they will be required to pay only 10 percent of their income on student loans, and all of their debt will be forgiven after 20 years," Obama said in a 2010 speech. "And forgiven after 10 years if they choose a career in public service because in the United States of America, no one should go broke because they chose to go to college."

Last year, the president signed a memorandum designed to help another 5 million existing borrowers.

President Obama signs a memorandum on June 9, 2014. Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images.

Presidents Bush and Clinton also made efforts to help solve the student loan crisis, but it hasn't exactly had the long-term success anyone hoped for.

There may be a solution. But until we figure it out, telling our stories is one way to make a big difference.

Like Sam, who is $81,000 in debt, at one point lived out of his car, and wasn't even able to complete his degree. Or Derrick, who isn't able to find a job in his field, but finds himself saddled with around $180,000 in loans that he guesses won't be paid off for decades.

GIF via AJ+.

These stories are evidence of the true burden that student loans can have on so many of us. They're also evidence that telling your story might be one of the best ways to create change.

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As a child, Dr. Sangeeta Bhatia's parents didn't ask her what she wanted to be when she grew up. Instead, her father would ask, "Are you going to be a doctor? Are you going to be an engineer? Or are you going to be an entrepreneur?"

Little did he know that she would successfully become all three: an award-winning biomedical and mechanical engineer who performs cutting-edge medical research and has started multiple companies.

Bhatia holds an M.D. from Harvard University, an M.S. in mechanical engineering from MIT, and a PhD in biomedical engineering from MIT. Bhatia, a Wilson professor of engineering at MIT, is currently serving as director of the Marble Center for Cancer Nanomedicine, where she's working on nanotechnology targeting enzymes in cancer cells. This would allow cancer screenings to be done with a simple urine test.

Bhatia owes much of her impressive career to her family. Her parents were refugees who met in graduate school in India; in fact, she says her mom was the first woman to earn an MBA in the country. The couple immigrated to the U.S. in the 1960s, started a family, and worked hard to give their two daughters the best opportunities.

"They made enormous sacrifices to pick a town with great public schools and really push us to excel the whole way," Bhatia says. "They really believed in us, but they expected excellence. The story I like to tell about my dad is like, if you brought home a 96 on a math test, the response would be, 'What'd you get wrong?'"

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Someday, future Americans will look back on this era of school shootings in bafflement and disbelief—not only over the fact that it happened, but over how long it took us to enact significant legislation to try to stop it.

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Don't test on animals. That's something we can all agree on, right? No one likes to think of defenseless cats, dogs, hamsters, and birds being exposed to a bunch of things that could make them sick (and the animals aren't happy about it, either). It's no wonder so many people and organizations have fought to stop it. But did you ever think that maybe brands are testing products on us too, they're just not telling us they're doing it?

I know, I know, it sounds like a conspiracy theory, but that's exactly what e-cigarette brands like JUUL (which corners the e-cigarette market) are doing in this country right now, and young people are on the frontlines of the fallout. Most people assume that the government would have looked at devices that allow people to inhale unknown chemicals into their lungs BEFORE they hit the market. You would think that someone in the government would have determined that they are safe. But nope, that hasn't happened. And vape companies are fighting to delay the government's ability to evaluate these products.

So no one really knows the long-term health effects of e-cigarette use, not even JUUL's CEO, nor are they informing the public about the potential risks. On top of that, according to the FDA, there's been a 78% increase in e-cigarette usage among high school and middle school-aged children in just the last two years, prompting the U.S. Surgeon General to officially recognize the trend as an epidemic and urge action against it.

These facts have elicited others to take action, as well.

Truth Initiative, the nonprofit best known for dropping the real facts about smoking and vaping since 2000 through its truth campaign, is now on a mission to confront e-cigarette brands like JUUL about the lack of care they've taken to inform consumers of the potential adverse side effects of their products. And they're doing it with the help of animal protesters who are tired of seeing humans treated like test subjects.

The March Against JUUL | Tested On Humans | truth www.youtube.com

"No one knows the long-term effects of JUULing so any human who uses one is being used as a lab rat," says, appropriately, Mario the Sewer Rat.

"I will never stop fighting JUUL. Or the mailman," notes Doug the Pug, the Instagram-famous dog star.

Truth, the national counter-marketing campaign for youth smoking prevention, hopes this fuzzy, squeaky, snorty animal movement arms humans with the facts about vaping and inspires them to demand transparency from JUUL and other e-cigarette companies. You can get your own fur babies involved too by sharing photos of them wearing protest gear with the hashtag #DontTestOnHumans. Here's some adorable inspo for you:

The dangerous stuff is already out there, but with knowledge on their side, young people will hopefully make the right choices and fight companies making the wrong ones. If you need more convincing, here are the serious facts.

Over the last decade, 127 e-cigarette-related seizures were reported, which prompted the FDA to launch an official investigation in April 2019. Since then, over 215 cases of a new, severe lung illness have sprung up all over the country, with six deaths to date. While scientists aren't yet sure of the root cause, the majority of victims were young adults who regularly vaped and used e-cigarettes. As such, the CDC has launched an official investigation into the potential link.

Sixteen-year-old Luka Kinard, a former frequent e-cigarette-user, is one of the many teens who experienced severe side effects. "Vaping was my biggest addiction," he told NowThis. "It lasted for about 15 months of my high school career." In 2018, Kinard was hospitalized after having a seizure. He also had severe nausea, chest pains, and difficulty breathing.

After the harrowing experience, he quit vaping, and began speaking out about his experience to help inform others and hopefully inspire them to quit and/or take action. "It shouldn't take having a seizure as a result of nicotine addiction like I had for teens to realize that these companies are taking advantage of what we don't know," Kinard said.

Teens are 16 times more likely to use e-cigarettes than adults, and four times more likely to take up traditional smoking as a result, according to truth, and yet the e-cigarette market remains virtually unregulated and untested. In fact, companies like JUUL continue to block and prevent FDA regulations, investing more than $1 million in lawyers and lobbying efforts in the last quarter alone.

Photo by Lindsay Fox/Pixabay

Consumers have a right to know what they're putting in their bodies. If everyone (and their pets) speaks up, the e-cigarette industry will have to make a change. Young people are already taking action across the country. They're hosting rallies nationwide and on October 9 as part of a National Day of Action, young people are urging their friends and classmates to "Ditch JUUL." Will you join them?

For help with quitting e-cigarettes, visit thetruth.com/quit or text DITCHJUUL to 88709 for free, anonymous resources.

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