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Life lessons

Former homeless student teaching peers to understand true cost of college debt

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It was Christmas 2010, but the Currier & Ives scenes of years past—with a nine-foot tree reaching towards the vaulted ceiling in the holiday-bedecked family room in North Andover—were long gone. Instead, Victoria Ireton sat on a bed in an extended-stay motel room just off Route 128, crammed in with her parents, two dogs, and two cats. It was the toughest moment of her young life. She was 16.

Through no one’s fault, the economic bottom had fallen out on her family, sending them spiraling down.

“For the first 14 years of my life, I would say I had a very good life. I didn’t have to worry about much,” recalled Ireton, now a 21-year-old senior at Suffolk University. “And then reality hit. My mom became ill, she lost her job, and we became a one-income household. We lost our home in 2008.

youngvic7Victoria in her childhood home

“Going through a foreclosure is very traumatizing and it really changed my whole outlook on life,” she continued. She and her parents moved in with other family members for a time, but ultimately ended up homeless and staying at the motel for a year-and-a-half. Ashamed, she hid that fact from her high school classmates and friends.

“The first year at Christmas, I remember my parents crying because that was the first time they couldn’t provide for me, they couldn’t give me that special moment of a little extra special meal, a present,” said Ireton. “It was just me and them in one small room being thankful for each other and, don’t get me wrong, that’s what the holidays are about, but it was so crushing for them.

“I think that was the hardest moment because I realized I had to grow up, I had to help them and I also had to help myself,” she added.

Today, more than five years after her family left the motel, both her parents are working again—her father in operations at a local hospital and her mother as a florist—and they’ve found an apartment in greater Boston. Ireton is juggling her studies, a senior thesis, and internships at MassHousing, a quasi-public agency that provides financing for affordable housing; and at Scholars Strategy Network, a non-profit that seeks to improve public policy and strengthen democracy.

Working to make a difference

Powered by her own personal struggles, Ireton is tackling one of the nation’s most pressing public problems—student debt. At $1.2 trillion, it has climbed past credit card debt and auto loans to become the largest category of non-housing-related consumer debt in the United States. More than one million students—nearly seven in 10 seniors graduating from public and private schools—are now leaving campus in debt.

Ireton said many students have little understanding of what they have borrowed or how it will affect their lives going forward. “The public problem I really want to solve is that college-aged students are financially illiterate when it comes to their student loans and they don’t realize it until they graduate,“ she said.

To tackle the issue, Ireton developed a financial literacy curriculum that zeroes in on student loans and the potentially life-altering obligation young people amass. With support from College of Arts & Sciences faculty and deans, she is teaching that material to her peers through modules within first-year student seminars.

Screen Shot 2016-01-06 at 11.15.44 AMVictoria hopes students learn from her experiences

“My program gives them the opportunity to be informed. Basically, I teach them standard financial literacies,” said Ireton. “They need to understand what they’re doing before they take out their loans so they know what it means to have an interest rate on a loan and a loan fee, and to be aware of their repayment options after graduation. Many students don’t find out about things like income-based repayment until they’ve defaulted.”

Ireton, who is a dual government and philosophy major, credits Suffolk for stepping up to the plate with scholarship funding, which along with some student loans, made college possible for her.

“The scholarships that I received from Suffolk University changed my trajectory,” she said. “Now that I’m approaching graduation in May, I’m considering PhD programs and I even have multiple job offers. If it weren’t for my scholarship, I probably wouldn’t reach the point where I am today.”

Still, she said, students need to be aware of the “nasty cycle” that student debt creates. “The price tag is really just not that repayable for a lot of people,” she said. “I want to help them before they take out that loan.”

StudentLoans_Info5_v4w70There is a growing call to overhaul the current default rate standard and replace it with a repayment metric, according to Inside Higher Education. An analysis it did found 347 colleges and universities where half of federal student loan borrowers had not made a single dollar of progress paying down their loan principal seven years after they became due—an issue not fully captured by default rate.

The societal costs of college debt are far-reaching. Saddled with significant, unrelenting monthly loan payments as they labor to establish careers after school, students can be forced to delay major milestones like marriage, family, and home purchases—all critical drivers of the economy, she said. The problem is most acute for students who take out loans but drop out, losing the economic benefits of a college degree but not the debt they ran up in search of it. On the individual level, young people are potentially facing loan defaults, poor credit scores, and higher borrowing costs, additional factors that can drag down their future success.

Looking back – Looking ahead

She recounts her family struggles with openness and honesty, no trace of bitterness or anger at the unfairness of her family’s situation creeping in. She was a young teen who visited the motel’s TV room to get some alone time and walked her pets and learned to drive in the after-hours parking lots of high-tech firms, her only neighbors. Ireton found solace in school.

“Looking back, those times are probably the driving force of why I want to help students with their loans because college is one of the critical ways to overcome poverty,” said Ireton. “It was really hard, trying to work together with my two parents and working minimum wage jobs, pooling our money to pay the rent. And all these other small things. It’s an extreme stress.”

Victoria_HotelVictoria and her family once called an extended-stay motel home

Ireton speaks of a breakthrough moment in high school. It was her senior year at Arlington Catholic, where she enrolled as a sophomore after leaving her hometown and previous school behind. “I told my classmates in this public speaking course that I had been homeless when I started high school there. It was such a weight lifted off my shoulders because I had always been so ashamed. I didn’t want to tell anybody. I didn’t want anybody’s sympathy. I always considered it a weakness.

“Then, when I told them, it was amazing because they told me how strong I was,” she continued. “Realistically, the only reason I said something was because I was just so tired of lying about it and pretending everything was fine, that I was the same as everybody else when I wasn’t. That was the ultimate turning point of being OK with my story and coming to terms with it.

“Even through all of what happened, I wanted to make a difference for kids like me that didn’t have it easy, kids that really had to overcome the bigger battles. It was heartbreaking at times, but it doesn’t mean it’s over.”

She said professors at Suffolk have inspired her work in taking on the student loan issue and have opened doors for her with legislative organizations and leaders.

“I’ve had amazing mentors that have taken me into meetings with people who can actually make a difference, and they want to hear what I have to say,” she said. “I have been told that I can do it.”

Her horizon now includes graduate school and, she hopes, a Ph.D. in social policy. She wants to pay off her loans and save for retirement. And she wants to own a home.

“The optimism inside me is probably driven by knowing there is more to life. I know that sounds really clichéd, but going through so much, I always told myself there has to be something bigger and better just waiting,” said Ireton. “That’s why I always cared about school—it was the one thing that helped me get through this. And I told myself, ‘When you get over this, you can look back at it, and you can help people like yourself.’ That’s what I kept telling myself day after day.”

This content was produced by Boston GlobeMedia's BG BrandLab in collaboration with the advertiser. The news and editorial departments of The Boston Globe had no role in its production or display.