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STUDENT PROFILE: KRISTY BLEICHNERBy Kathy Witkowsky
Kristy Bleichner saw the famous Postojna caverns, visited the picturesque city of Bled, and saw a couple of castles when she went to Slovenia this past summer with her social welfare class. But what really impressed her? The fact that higher education there is free.
"I thought it was incredibly cool," said Kristy, 21, a senior at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, where annual tuition runs $17,438, and housing costs her another $4,306. The notion of a free education was nearly unimaginable to Kristy, who has been working since she was 14 to pay for college.
She currently juggles three jobs, three classes, an unpaid internship, and a volunteer position-not to mention practicing her French horn, which she plays in the Augsburg concert band-in an attempt to get her degree in social work without sinking into deep debt. Her schedule is so full that her daybook calendar looks more like something you'd expect from a top-ranked executive than from a college student.
On a typical Tuesday, for instance, Kristy is in class from 8:00 to 11:10 AM, when she drives to her senior internship at Eastside Neighborhood Services, a non-profit organization where she's helping set up a youth group for Somali teens. She works there until 5 or 6 PM, then heads to her job as a personal care attendant for a fellow Augsburg student who suffers from short-term memory loss and a lack of fine-motor skills. She stays at his apartment for a couple of hours, then goes back to the college to practice her French Horn for half an hour. She gets home about 10 PM, when she hits the books until midnight or beyond.
It's the sort of budget and schedule that has turned Kristy into a fast-food junkie. "The lady at McDonald's knows me on a first-name basis," Kristy admitted with a laugh.
Her financial aid information is so complicated-and there's so much of it-that she keeps the thick stack of papers organized in a three-ring binder.
Fall semester, her financial aid package was a combination of scholarships and grants from six different sources: a federal Pell Grant of $200; a federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant of $2,000; a Minnesota State Grant of $2,443; an Augsburg Legacy Scholarship (her sister is an alumna) of $2,000; an Augsburg Performing Arts Scholarship (for her participation in band) of $750; and a $157 Edwin Yattaw Memorial Scholarship awarded through the social work program.
That added up to an impressive $7,550 in aid, but it still left Kristy responsible for coming up with $3,000 to cover the remainder of her tuition and her housing, plus another two thousand or so to pay for books, groceries, clothes, car insurance and other expenses. Her parents, who have a combined income of about $40,000, have given her a thousand dollars each semester for most of her college career; Kristy earns the rest, or borrows it.
The pressure is not likely to ease up after graduation. Already, Kristy owes $10,000: a thousand dollars each to her sister and mother, and $8,000 in federal Perkins Student Loans that she hopes to pay back within nine months of graduating, before the government starts charging five percent interest. As a new graduate with a bachelor's degree in social work, Kristy can hope to earn only about $19,000 at Eastside Neighborhood Services, the nonprofit organization where she currently interns, and which has offered her a job.
But she doesn't have any second thoughts. "It's worth it-it's just stressful. Really stressful," said Kristy, who maintains a 3.2 grade point average.
On the other hand, she said, the fact that she is paying for her education makes her appreciate it. "I've seen friends whose parents are footing the entire bill, and they don't take it seriously," she said. "Because I have to pay for it, I want to show up. If I don't come to class, that was a good chunk of money I just threw out the window."
After a year or two of working, Kristy would like to get a master's degree in social work from the University of Minnesota so she can work with youth suffering from disabilities.
She is convinced that, despite the notoriously low pay, social work is the right field for her. Making money is secondary. "I think if I budget my money wisely, a low-paying job is fine. It'll be doing what I want to do, reaching people who need the help," said Kristy. "In a lot of ways, I think it'll help me relate to clients who have financial struggles."
Kristy always knew that she wanted to go to college. But when she was 12, her father, Steve, lost his eyesight to diabetes, and consequently had to resign from his job as a street maintenance worker. His income was reduced to a disability payment and a Social Security check. At that point, Kristy's mother, Susan, a preschool teacher, earned about $14,000 a year, and as Steve's health deteriorated (he eventually received a successful kidney-pancreas transplant), the family faced between $8,000 and $10,000 a year in health insurance costs and medical bills.
From an early age, Kristy knew that she would have to pay for most of her college education. She started saving at 14, and by the time she graduated with a B+ average from Rosemount High School in suburban Minneapolis, she had managed to stash away about $4,000 from the money she earned as a clerk at a nearby store and as a teacher's aide at the preschool where her mother worked.
Meanwhile, Kristy had watched her older sister, Melissa, now 23, save her after-school job earnings and wend her way through the bewildering college-application and scholarship process. In 1996, Melissa matriculated at Augsburg and encouraged Kristy to begin investigating schools and scholarship possibilities. "Her eye was always on me," recalled Kristy.
All three of the Bleichner children-Melissa, Kristy, and their younger sister, Katie, now 19 and a freshman at University of Wisconsin-River Falls-learned early on how to make their way in the world. Kristy's parents encouraged their daughters to take responsibility for themselves, so they didn't become afflicted with what Steve called "affluenza"--a sense of entitlement he saw in some other kids.
Steve and Susan have always emphasized personal fulfillment over money. Which is not to say that they don't wish they could contribute more than the $2,000 a year they generally provide for Kristy's education. But they just don't have much disposable income-especially because family health costs continue to run about $8,000 annually, and they are trying to help their third daughter with her education as well.
Not surprisingly, money was one of the main reasons Kristy chose Augsburg. Of the three schools she considered, Augsburg gave her the best scholarship package. Augsburg also had a strong social-work program, and Kristy already knew that was going to be her field. She had been deeply touched by the support her family received from the community when her father had gotten ill. "I think it gave me an idea of how to be supportive for people and help them in a crisis situation," said Kristy.
Nearly all of Kristy's time outside of class is spent helping other people. She works an average of 11 hours a week in her work-study job as an office assistant at Augsburg's Center for Learning and Adaptive Student Services. She also puts in five hours a week at the school's Tutor Center. She works another five to ten hours a week at her personal-care attendant job. But that's not all: Kristy spends ten hours a week at her internship at Eastside Neighborhood Services, and continues to volunteer another 13 hours a week there facilitating a men's anger management group. Even at home in her campus apartment, Kristy often plays the role of helpmate: One of her three roommates is confined to a wheelchair, the result of cerebral palsy. Meanwhile, she attends-and studies for-three classes and keeps up with her French horn.
No wonder she's looking forward to graduating. For Kristy, the so-called "real world" will mean a relatively lax schedule: no homework, and just one job. She and her friends fantasize about taking a post-graduation Caribbean cruise together, but first, Kristy says, she needs to earn some money and pay off her loans.
Kathy Witkowsky is a freelance writer who lives in Missoula, Montana.