Two years ago, I graduated with my MBA from Harvard Business School. Even once I had made it to Harvard, I couldn't believe I was there. I come from a small town in rural North Carolina. My mom worked for herself, my grandparents for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the local railroad (Norfolk Southern in those days). No one in my family even knew anyone that had gone to an Ivy League school. Yet there I was, surrounded by classmates from all over the globe.
What surprised me about my time there wasn't how much I learned—I went in expecting to learn a lot. What amazed me was how diverse the student body was and how strongly Harvard emphasized that we were to make a difference in the world.
The Wakeup Call
Inevitably, graduation neared. As it did, I began to hear the same story over and over again. I'd ask my classmates about their plans after business school and they would respond with some form of the same refrain: "Well, I'm very passionate about XYZ, but I plan to spend a few years in <insert high paying job> to first pay off my student debt."
I was dumbfounded.
People who supposedly had so many doors open to them were choosing not to walk through the ones they wanted because of their student debt. These decisions weren't resulting in just a delay of pursuing one's dream: student loans were changing entire life trajectories. After enough of these conversations, those student debt headlines became a reality for me.
Almost on a daily basis we hear that student debt is reaching a crisis level in the United States. The numbers are so big ($1.5 trillion in loans outstanding, impacting some 44 million Americans), they don't seem tangible. But the crisis is real and the effects on people's lives is unmistakable. And it's not just for Harvard MBAs (which, let's be honest, have it pretty good overall)—it's everyone. It's the college student leaving school with a bachelor's degree, the same degree that cost more than 1,120% less in 1978 (yes, you read that right). It's the young professional who went back to school for a graduate degree, only to leave with six-figure debt and no path to home ownership. It's the parent who saved up for their child to go to school, but couldn't cover all the costs and ultimately took out loans against their 401(k).
Taking Action to Reduce Student Debt
The awakening I had through conversations with my classmates is how I came to join CommonBond on its CommonBond for Business team. Upon realizing the extent of the student loan crisis, I wanted to be part of the solution. After hearing David Klein, our CEO, speak at an event, I went up to him, introduced myself, and asked for a job. The rest, as they say, is history.
At CommonBond, I lead the Enterprise Sales team. On a daily basis, I speak with leaders at companies who want to reduce the burden of student debt on their employees. I'm helping companies launch student loan benefit programs so their employees can get out of debt sooner. One aspect of this role is listening to the stories of real people who can now afford to save for their first home, plan their wedding, or visit their families across the country because their employers are helping to relieve their student debt. Just last month, I heard the story of an employee who came to their HR leader crying (normally not a good sign). This person was crying tears of happiness and relief. Their employer had just launched our Employer Contribution program in which the company offers each employee a $100 monthly payment for student loans. That small amount brought someone to tears. It's empowering to be part of this.
I love my job. It's different from what I imagined I'd do after business school, but I believe I'm honoring the intention that was instilled in me at Harvard to do good in the world. I realize what I'm doing is just a small piece in addressing a big problem, but I also know that it makes a difference.