Ali Tomashek represented students from across Minnesota's community and technical colleges at the 2022 D.C. Summit.
They say college is a rite of passage; it’s advertised as the beginning of your adult life. It’s a chance for freedom, reinvention, and discovering yourself. For me, the story wasn’t so straight-forward. In 2013, I first enrolled at Minnesota State University, Mankato, but unfortunately, due to circumstances involving basic needs and mental health, I had to drop out after a year.
My challenge wasn’t getting good grades. It was staying enrolled in school while paying rent and worrying if I could afford to put food in my fridge. While I was enrolled, my outstanding tuition balance prevented me from using campus resources such as the food court or the bus system. I struggled to pay my rent, pay for groceries, or pay for medical expenses with a job that only paid minimum wage. I remember staring blankly in my kitchen, calculating how I would survive on only frozen food. Tacking on the extra expense of tuition, that I could never truly afford, was overwhelming. My mental health was deteriorating as I continued to rack up debt. Before my third semester, I reached my breaking point and was forced to drop out.
"While I was enrolled, my outstanding tuition balance prevented me from using campus resources such as the food court or the bus system. I struggled to pay my rent, pay for groceries, or pay for medical expenses with a job that only paid minimum wage. I remember staring blankly in my kitchen, calculating how I would survive on only frozen food."
I desperately tried to get a full-time job, but despite my prior work experience, I had trouble getting hired without a college degree. But, I couldn’t get a degree until I had more money to pay rising tuition costs. It felt like an impossible situation. I defaulted on my student loans, which sunk my credit score. I thought about returning to school, but the outstanding balance with my previous institution prevented me from being able to apply to other, smaller colleges that may have offered a two-year program. I felt like my college experience was hopeless, insurmountably expensive, and over.
I’ve spent many years hiding behind the shame of dropping out of college, running from it, and pretending I never had to make that decision. But now, after seven years, and conquering battles with collections agencies, I finally re-enrolled in college. And, I’ve found LeadMN, which has given me the opportunity to connect with other students and hear their stories and struggles. I’ve realized I am not alone. Many other students struggle to afford college, and are saddled with tens of thousands of dollars in debt even if they aren’t able to finish their degree. College is packaged as a guaranteed pathway to the middle class, but rising costs have turned it into a pipe dream for too many. I am continually advocating for college affordability, because everyone deserves the opportunity to get an education.
See Ali talk about LeadMN's Free College Initiative below.