What It’s Like to Train as a Mental Health Counselor While Stressing Over $286,331 in Student Debt

The story of Mimi Nakamura, age 29, from Brooklyn, New York.

29-year-old Asian American woman wearing glasses
Olivia Fields

This is part of Debt Nation, a series of interviews with people about how student loans have shaped their lives. Read the rest here.

Education: Bachelor’s in psychology; master’s in mental health counseling, licensed in the state of New York as a mental health counselor; now getting a Ph.D. in counseling psychology
Current job: Mental health counselor
Household income: $22,500
Relationship status: Engaged
Peak student debt: $286,331
Current student debt: $286,331

One reason my family came to the U.S. was no one would really take us, and my parents wanted to stay together. My dad’s from Japan, and my mother’s from Malaysia. My mom couldn’t get citizenship in Japan. My dad couldn’t get it in Malaysia. They also really didn’t want to stay in Malaysia. My mother is South Indian and we’re Hindu, but Malaysia is a Muslim-dominated country. My mom was worried about racial discrimination, and she didn’t want to raise half-Indian, half-Japanese kids in Japan.

We ended up in some funny places, like Lancaster, Pennsylvania. My parents had no idea what our college admissions process is or what a Common App was. I had no idea that families paid out of pocket or they’d been saving all this time. As immigrants, we were sending money back to my grandparents. I currently owe $286,331; $27,000 of that is from my undergrad, and the rest from graduate school.

I got into my dream graduate school, which was Columbia’s Teachers College. At the time, microaggressions research was funneling out of that school, and I was really excited. I want to do research on multiracial people, especially within the Asian diaspora. I know people treat my mother and my father differently. But I remember learning that there were virtually no scholarships or funding for master’s-level students.

I applied to almost every work-study job under the sun. I didn’t get any of them—there are so many people who qualify for work-study but not enough positions. So I did retail. I did nannying. My master’s program, you get two master’s degrees and a licensure within the state of New York. So, there’s a lot of coursework. It also starts the never-ending cycle in psychology of working for free. You have to do 600 hours of field experience, which is just working at clinic or hospital, or somewhere providing mental health counseling services. But you pay for it because it’s a class. I worked at the LGBTQ community clinic. I worked with couples and families. Which I loved. But every day, you go negative. [And] you’re not becoming a doctor. You’re becoming a mental health counselor. It’s just really … exhausting and emotionally draining.

I think at the end of that, it was already at least $175,000. I remember going to the financial aid office, because I had to take summer classes to finish on time, and they told me I had to take out this Direct PLUS loan, which has a much higher interest rate than Stafford loans, and I just started crying because I knew I had so much debt. How can you expect someone to show up and be their best counseling self when you have all this financial stress?

As a part-time therapist, I was seeing 30 clients a week. It’s as if your week was just 30 45-minute meetings, where you have to be the most intense listener. I would make $30 an hour. It’s a pretty common rate for a lot of master’s-level clinicians, which is why I wanted to go back to get my doctorate. For my Ph.D., the clinical component was at Bellevue Hospital, but because of the coronavirus, Bellevue removed all their psychology externs. That’s a big problem for the students in my field because not getting those hours means that on paper, we’re not ready to apply for our version of residency. If my degree were postponed, I would personally be paying for an extra year where I’m not really doing anything.

I don’t see a lot of people like myself in higher academia, and I don’t see a lot of research that’s coming out, especially within mental health, regarding Asians or Asian Americans. That’s why I got back into graduate school, to do research and to advocate and to have more power. But when you look at the rates of unemployment right now, it makes you really sit and think about all of the decisions you made for school and for your career.

I live with my partner, which is helpful. But he also doesn’t come from anything, so we pay for the whole of everything. We canceled our wedding that was supposed to happen. The first three weeks of the pandemic was a fever dream of figuring out, what do we do with this thing we’ve been saving for four or five years? That was supposed to be May 30. We canceled it just a couple days shy of April 1. We were really lucky in that we were able to transfer almost all of our vendors and the venue to next year.

I know I am not socioeconomically disadvantaged by virtue of the fact that I have a master’s degree. I’m aware of that. But I still feel so much shame and so much financial burden because of this skeleton in my closet. But I don’t ever talk about it because I’m so worried—I don’t want people to think my family didn’t care about me or that I had no financial responsibility or knowhow.

I remember I had exit loan counseling at college. We all had to sit in a ballroom, and we had folders. We opened it up and it had my loan debt and I owed around $80,000 from the two years I spent there, after I’d transferred from another school. I remember thinking, “There are people who aren’t here. There are friends of mine who are totally not here.” And that’s when I started learning that people pay for this out of pocket. But I sat there with the realization of, “Oh, you need me to pay this back and I just signed up to do a very expensive master’s program in one of the most expensive cities in the world. Cool. But everyone’s telling me to do this. And I don’t have another plan. The other plan is to just go back to Lancaster and do what?”

Mimi Nakamura is a pseudonym.