What It’s Like to Be a Child of Immigrants Trying to Figure Out Student Loans

The story of Naima Iqbal, 24, a video producer from D.C.

24-year-old woman with short hair and 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 journalism
Current job: Video producer
Household income: $125,000
Relationship status: Married
Peak student debt: $22,000 in 2017
Current student debt: $18,106

Growing up, my friends had similar monetary experiences. But in college, I was surrounded by a lot of higher-income families. Those people didn’t really have any relationship with student loans. It was kind of trippy because there’d be people not thinking twice about their expenses, just spending freely and traveling. There was a stark difference between their college experience and the experience of students who came from lower-income backgrounds. We were at the whim of the college’s wallet as opposed to people who had unlimited checkbooks. My debt definitely shaped my choices in terms of where I would live, what apartments I could afford, how much I could spend on eating out.

I originally was only considering in-state public schools because I thought Ivy League and more elite colleges were unattainable. But after I realized that you can still get a lot of federal assistance out-of-state, I started considering other stuff. With Northwestern, I was able to get 85 percent scholarship based on my needs. And then the rest still resulted in a little more than $20,000 of loans.

It was really worth it in the end because even though it’s so much money, I was able to get a job right out of school. The loans themselves are kind of daunting to think about—that it’s going to take years of consistent overpayments before I’m debt-free. I’ve paid a few thousand in loans since college. I started paying it off right when I graduated in 2017. I think I had $18,000 on one loan when I graduated and $4,000 on the other one. On the smaller one, my monthly payment is now $65. And then the other one is $350. One of my servicers paused the payments because of the pandemic, but I think I’ll just pay it because if I don’t, I feel like it’ll take me longer to pay off my loan.

My parents emigrated from Pakistan in 2000. I was 4 years old when I got here, and my sister was 8. She ultimately got an amazing score on her ACT, but since she didn’t know anything about the college process, she thought it was a bad score and applied for scholarships with her SAT score, and didn’t get to take advantage of the federal assistance that was available. Inevitably the immigrant experience kind of disadvantages you when it comes to understanding the logistics and the red tape.

When I saw the experience she had, I was like, OK, I can’t let this affect me too. I have to educate myself on how I can take advantage of the American college system. At my high school, there was one adviser for the IB [International Baccalaureate] program, but she didn’t really talk money. I inquired with the Northwestern financial aid department. Several times throughout college I had to appeal for more aid, for grants versus loans. Because they tried to give me absurd loan amounts, and I was like, “Wait, you’re not understanding my level of need.” My expected family contribution was really high, and my family couldn’t cover it, so I had to appeal.

After graduation, we got our diploma, and there was a letter in the manila folder—two, three pages explaining how you start repaying your loan. It was confusing and unclear why everything was divided into different locations for payment. The first one I started paying back once the six-month grace period was up, but then I got emails about past-due payments about another loan from a random website I’d never heard of. They were like, “You owe money.” I thought it was a scam. I had to call the Northwestern financial aid department. They were like, “Yeah, you haven’t been paying your loan.” And I was like, “This is so stupid, but OK, cool. Let me start doing that.”

The career I chose in journalism didn’t really set me up for a high-paying position. It was more of a passion-based choice. When I graduated, someone offered me an unpaid internship. It’s like, what am I going to do with that? I was lucky I got a job right after graduation. Some of my family members were laid off because of the pandemic, so we try to help each other. If I get a pay cut, which is possible, I would definitely stop paying loans.

I think about my debt when I’m discussing future plans with my husband, because $500 a month in payments is not a small number. If I have a big chunk of money from, for example, a tax return, I will probably put that toward loans rather than savings. Before I got married, I told my husband how much debt I have. He told me how much he had. He paid it off much sooner than I did because he was at a public college. His loans were like $8,000, and he paid them off in his first two years out of college. And then when I told him my number, he was like, “OK, we’ll take care of it.” And I was like, “Oh, OK. Thanks for not hating me.”

I would like to celebrate somehow when I finally pay off the loans. I saw there are YouTube influencers who talk about being debt-free and post the moment they made their final payment. I think that’s really cool. So I have a few years until that. But I’d want to have a party or something.

Naima Iqbal is a pseudonym.