bunnies + cooking + arts management + los angeles + married lady + theatre nerd + country girl

The Marathon & the Monster

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I live along the LA Marathon route and love running.  When family members and friends asked if I’d considered running the marathon, I told them sure, I’d thought about it, but didn’t think I had the time to train.

That wasn’t the whole truth.  I was nervous that setting a fitness goal as ambitious as a marathon would trigger my old eating disorder.

From ages sixteen through twenty-two, I struggled with anorexia, compulsive over-exercising, and bulimia, roughly in that order.  This was such a big part of my life that when someone mentions college, my mind immediately flashes to images of disordered eating: microwaving a giant bowl of sweet potatoes and ketchup for dinner in my lonely apartment, eating three pieces of cake at a graduation party and desperately searching for a place on campus where I could purge, lacing up my running shoes not because I wanted to but because my brain told me I had to.

The night before college graduation.  I was miserable and had driven myself to the ER earlier that day because I thought I was having a heart attack (it was a panic attack).

The night before college graduation. I was miserable, stuck in a cycle of restricting and purging, and had driven myself to the ER earlier that day because I thought I was having a heart attack (it was a panic attack).

My preoccupation with food and exercise were so all-consuming that I feel like my other memories from these six years are gray, faded.  I was too busy with my compulsions to pay attention to the rest of my life.

As you can imagine, this sucked.  I have no words to describe the suckiness.  Have you seen that commercial for anti-anxiety medication where the woman is followed around by a little black cloud?

It was like that, except I was inside the cloud.

Books and movies portray eating disorders as all about control—striving for it, maintaining it, losing it, a cycle of willpower and excess.  Yes, that’s true, but to me, the struggle for control wasn’t the worst part of eating disorders.  It’s the time I lost.  They took up so much time and energy.  You’re never away from them: it’s like a parasite takes over your brain and convinces you that it is you and this life is normal.

When I opened up about my problems with bulimia and over-exercising to my then-boyfriend (now husband), he said, very matter-of-factly, “You should never do that again.”  And he helped me find a remarkable therapist, and supported me while I essentially sobered up from my disordered eating.

First came the recovery period, where I was as into being in recovery as I’d been involved in the disorder itself.  I contemplated getting a recovery tattoo.  I read lots of books about eating disorders, recovery, etc.  I started writing a book about it.

And then… I sort of forgot about it.

I’d started developing a palate again and discovered I hated foods I’d regularly eaten because they were on my ‘safe’ list (red onions are disgusting, FYI).  That led to interest in cooking, and soon my kitchen was filled with things like coconut milk, flavored oil, dark chocolate with cayenne, and basically every kind of sauce, oil, vinegar, and spice I could get my hands on.  I thought about food when I was cooking and eating it, and thought about lots of other things during the rest of my day.

Meanwhile, I came back to running and re-discovered the joy of running fast, the moments when I felt like I was inside a video game, hurtling through pathways and over obstacles.  I did yoga and hiked and took spinning class with my best friend.  Or I skipped the gym and slept in instead.

I was free.  It was awesome.

Because no pancake should be left uneaten.

Because no pancake should be left uneaten.

I stopped talking or thinking about eating disorders because they’re boring and I had other stuff going on.  When old friends asked if I was still doing okay, it felt like such an irrelevant question—like someone asking if I was still sad about a high school breakup.  I was no longer in recovery.  I had too much else to do.

As a sidenote—especially for anyone reading this who has disordered eating issues—I weigh less now than when I was restricting, binging & over-exercising.  I treat my body with respect, and that means when it wants chocolate (which is every night, by the way), it gets some fucking chocolate.

I’m not tempted to binge, because I know that I can have anything I want without guilt, at any time.  When I’m hungry, I eat.  I eat the food that sounds good to me at the moment, so I’m satisfied and happy.  Then I move on with my life and can think about other things.

This post-recovery me was still scared my disordered eating would return.  It was like the killer in a horror franchise.  Is it dead?  Or is it waiting for me to trigger some switch, say some combination of words that’ll bring the monster back from the netherworld, throw me back into the cloud?

And that is why I’ve been scared to train for and run the LA Marathon.

Running a marathon is a big commitment.  You need to follow a training program, eat in a specific way, push yourself physically.  When I made the decision to run the 2014 marathon and started training, I was all too aware of the similarities between training and my past disordered eating.  I was writing numbers on a calendar (but miles, not calories), working out nearly every day, and paying more attention to nutrition, although my changes were mostly about increasing complex carbohydrates so I could power through long-mileage runs.

How would a recovering alcoholic feel if they needed to re-enact their ritual of coming home, putting ice in a glass, pouring liquid in the glass and sitting in a specific armchair to drink it?  Doesn’t matter if it’s iced tea—would the pattern alone cause a relapse?

Even as I felt myself getting stronger and more confident in myself as a runner, I kept looking over my shoulder, wondering if the monster was waiting, about to attack.  Do you really need to eat that chocolate?  It might say. You’re running so much.  Think of the weight you could lose if you just… cut… a few… calories…

But the monster never arrived.

Overlooking Mulholland.

Last Saturday, I did the longest training run of my beginner marathon program.  It didn’t go smoothly.

I was supposed to do 20 miles, but my MapMyRun app lead me into a gated Beverly Hills community, from which I was promptly ejected by security.  I had to backtrack about two miles, and then ran up Coldwater Canyon to reconnect to the route I’d carefully planned.

When I looked back at MapMyRun, I realized sticking with the route at this point would result in a thirty mile run—way too much for a beginner.  Around this time I realized I’d forgotten to wear my FitBit tracker and hadn’t brought money to buy a second Gatorade when mine ran out.  My run was not working out the way it was supposed to.  For a moment, I felt frustrated.  I felt out-of-control.

And suddenly, as I crested Mulholland and looked down at the city sparkling below me, everything made sense.

This run was supposed to remind me to let go.

So I did.  I coasted down through Coldwater Canyon park, filling my bottle at a water fountain along the trail.  I enjoyed the adventure of running through unfamiliar neighborhoods and discovering new parts of the city – my favorite part of my marathon training.  And as I wound my way back toward my apartment and realized I would come in right around 22 miles, I felt strong, happy, and calm.

Running a charity 5K in October 2013.

Running a charity 5K in October 2013.

The monster was not running behind me, or hanging out somewhere in the back of my brain, ready to pounce.

The monster is dead.

I’ll run my first marathon on March 9 and am hopeful that I’ll be able to finish.  For me, running is meditative, and the long hours I’ve put into my training have given me a lot of time to reflect and dream.  Although the six years I spent in the fog of disordered eating certainly influenced the person I’ve become, it no longer defines me.

I’m a wife, an arts manager, and a runner who likes to cook.

I am not “in recovery” from an eating disorder.

I just don’t have time for that.

I wrote this blog post to contribute to the Purple Project: Eating Disorder Awareness Month.  You can learn more about the project, eating disorders and recovery at Where I Stand.

Several people have asked for my thoughts on the LeanIn.org unpaid internship controversy.  I love Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, a compelling look at ambitious women in the workforce and the factors that have traditionally kept us out of the highest-paid and most senior-level positions.

I also run the internship program at the nonprofit Center Theatre Group, where all of our internships must be taken for credit or are compensated with a stipend.

Here’s what Rachel Thomas, LeanIn.org’s President, had to say via Facebook after a job posting for an ‘unpaid internship’ at the organization started making the rounds:

Like many nonprofits, LeanIn.Org has attracted volunteers who are passionate about our mission. We’ve had four students ask to volunteer with us. They worked flexibly when they could, and often remotely.

These volunteers helped support our message and community, and gained valuable experience doing so. They did not displace or delay the hiring of paid employees. The posting that prompted this discussion was for a position that doesn’t fall within LeanIn.Org’s definition of a “volunteer.”

This non-apology is so strangely written that it’s hard for me to know where to start.

Here’s the main thing I take from it, and it’s actually pretty disturbing:

LeanIn.org is using ‘intern’ and ‘volunteer’ interchangeably.  Thomas, speaking on behalf of her organization, is confusing two distinct categories.

This comes immediately after this patronizing intro:

“We recognize there is an ongoing public debate on the appropriate use of unpaid interns. So we want to share the facts with you and our community.” 

This word, “fact?”  And “intern?”  And “volunteer?”

You keep using these words.

I do not think they mean what you think they mean.

Ms. Thomas, nonprofit volunteers do not need to “gain valuable experience,” and they can and often do “displace or delay hiring of employees.”

That language refers to the Fair Labor Standards Act’s (FLSA’s) criteria for internships. 

Here are some basic differences between the two categories:

  • Internships are training programs, and the “training must be for the benefit of the trainee,” to quote the FLSA. In fact, “The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees, and on occasion the employer’s operations may actually be impeded.”  Read: they are not cheap or free labor.
  • Internship learning experiences must include close observation (mentorship), so working remotely is not a good indication that you have provided a rewarding internship experience.
  • Volunteers, conversely, usually do work that directly benefits the nonprofit.  They do not need to be mentored, do not need to be trained, and can be utilized in lieu of paid, regular employees.

There are many blog posts and web resources that go into the differences between volunteers and interns at length.  For example, this excellent Blue Avocado article spells out additional best practices and quotes relevant parts of the FLSA.

In a nonprofit setting, it can be difficult to ensure internships are crafted to not only fulfill legal requirements, but also to serve the best interests of each intern.

Much of my job running CTG’s internship program involves saying no.  I say no to supervisors who want their interns to work “as much as possible,” and to interns who are so happy to be involved that they try to expand their 10 hour/week stipend position into 20 or 30 hours.

Here’s what I say to them:

The internship is for the benefit of the intern.  It is a learning experience, not free labor.  If your department needs help with basic tasks such as stuffing envelopes, filing, or data entry, I empathize and suggest you think about getting a regular volunteer to help.

Because volunteers are different. Outside of CTG, I am on the staff of an all-volunteer small theatre company, Circle X Theatre Co.  As a volunteer, I can do whatever I want, and whatever is needed, for as many hours a week as I care to give.  I clean bathrooms.  I stuff envelopes.  I do hours of data entry.  It’s my choice as a volunteer, and I’m doing it to help the nonprofit organization, not for a learning or career benefit.  Right now, Circle X has a (paid) summer intern, and she will not be cleaning toilets.  The internship.  Is for the benefit.  Of the intern.

And to the interns: this is bigger than you, so no, I will not make an exception and let you work full-time.  Up until a few years ago, CTG almost exclusively took interns from a large, local private university with very high tuition.  As the program has opened up, we’re starting to see more people from public schools, including the two-year community colleges near our organization.  The reason our positions are designed to be super part-time (10 to 16 hours a week for undergraduates, with the schedule built around the intern’s) is the stipend amounts we have available are quite low ($500 – $700 for ten weeks).  They’re designed to allow a student to also hold a part-time job that pays the bills.

I do not want lack of economic privilege to be a barrier to participation in this workforce development program.  When we raise the stipends for these time-bound educational opportunities to a living wage, we can increase weekly hours.  Programs such as the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s FAIR pay interns $1,000/month and provide housing.  When CTG is able to do that, we will absolutely create additional opportunities, likely full-time, 10-week summer internships.

I don’t foresee a time when we would extend those opportunities beyond 13 or 14 weeks, though; the point of an internship is to train & release, allowing the intern to ‘lean in’ to the next career opportunity.

The more I think about LeanIn.org’s posting and strange response, the more it seems indicative of the widespread misunderstanding of the role of interns in the nonprofit sector.  We have a pressing need for workforce development, especially career training opportunities accessible to young people of color (research suggests that executive nonprofit leaders AND current students in nonprofit management Masters programs are 80-90% white) and people without economic privilege.

Unpaid internships and the increasing number of low-paying nonprofit management jobs that require Masters degrees can price people out of nonprofit management careers.  Humane, student-focused, and compensated internships introduce emerging professionals to the field and can provide a leg up in the competitive nonprofit landscape.

Lean In talks about the importance of equity– and of recognizing when systems are inherently inequitable.  The best thing for Thomas, Sandberg and the LeanIn.org organization to do would be to use this opportunity to clarify the roles of interns vs. volunteers, apologize, and vow to do better.

Unfortunately, it looks like they’re trying to justify their bias by manipulating language, defending their actions, and refusing to admit fault.

Which sounds a lot like the tactics that keep women out of top-level, high-paying positions.

I’ll end with some quotations from Lean In:

“We cannot change what we are not aware of, and once we are aware, we cannot help but change.”

“The promise of equality is not the same as true equality.”

“Larry implored us to exert more control over our careers. He said McKinsey would never stop making demands on our time, so it was up to us to decide what we were willing to do. It was our responsibility to draw the line.”

“I feel really grateful to the people who encouraged me and helped me develop. Nobody can succeed on their own.”

Here’s hoping Sandberg will take her advice, and provide equal and accessible opportunities for training and mentorship within her own organization.

Ashton Kutcher’s 2013 Teen Choice Awards acceptance speech is making the rounds on Facebook, and for good reason: Kutcher takes the opportunity to talk about the value of hard work, creating your own opportunities, and acknowledging your power to shape your life.

It made me think about my experiences working with teens and young adults.  I love it.  I love them.  They make me proud and give me hope that the future will be better than the present.

But there’s one thing that makes me cringe: their tendency to ask other people to help pay for what they want to do.

This is especially prevalent among theatre and arts students, as summer programs, arts schools, and classes can be extremely expensive.  I remember feeling that combination of excitement (I got into this amazing program!) and dread (how the heck am I going to pay for this?).  Had Kickstarter or IndieGoGo existed when I was a teenager, I would have jumped on the bandwagon and asked friends and family to help pay for my education, my travel, even my move to LA after graduation.

I am so glad these options didn’t exist.

Now, a lot more has changed since the early 2000s than the availability of online fundraising platforms.  The economy has tanked while the cost of education continues to rise.  In the arts and arts management fields, having a Masters degree has become more and more of a necessity for many jobs.  I would argue it’s more difficult to be a young adult in 2013 than it was in 2002.

That said, here’s what always comes to mind when I see these Kickstarter requests.  First, I picture myself at 17 or 18, big with the sense of my own talent and intelligence.  And I think:

There is only one person in the world in charge of your success.

Your parents do not owe you anything, nor do your relatives (even if they have money).

Your friends love you, but they do not need to help pay for your cat’s surgery, for your trip to Europe, or for the summer arts program that will change your life.  And it will change your life.  Your life.

See, the difference between a charity asking for money to bring joy or reduce pain, or an artist asking for money to create an art product that will be enjoyed by others, is that your ask is fundamentally about you: your growth and development as a person, an artist, a citizen.

Asking for people to fund your life makes you a product.  It crowd-funds you away from the driver’s seat.

If you are waiting for other people to make your dreams come true, doesn’t that feel just a little scary?  It takes away the certainty– I will succeed, no matter what– and adds a conditional– I will succeed, if other people come through and help me do so.

It also– and here I’m really speaking to 17-year-old-me– presumes that you are worthy of being funded, just for being you.

Millennials already have to fight against our “Trophy Generation” perception and older generations’ complaints about our overdeveloped sense of entitlement.  Just Google “millennial entitlement” or “Trophy Generation” and you’ll see litany after get-off-my-lawn litany about people born in the past 30 years.

You are entitled to a damn good life and a successful career.  You get those things by believing in yourself and fighting for them.  Even if you do get people to pay for your education, your travel, your unexpected expenses, eventually those opportunities will fall away and you will be standing alone on the merits of your accomplishments.  If your college resume shows no work experience or volunteer service, every accolade in the world won’t get you a job.

Before you set up that Kickstarter, ask:

1. Am I doing everything in my power to make this opportunity happen? I see many students fundraising for opportunities while also posting about how boring their summer is.  Are you working?  First jobs suck.  Second jobs suck.  But they can make a little money, and show you’re serious about getting what you want.  This summer, I saw nearly a dozen young people post Kickstarters.  I saw one person post about needing a job to raise money for college.  Guess which person I helped?  Also: guess which one was most successful?  That student is on his way to an excellent school, with two flexible jobs, and will not need to take out loans for his first year.

2. Does this experience benefit others, or only me?  If you’re creating art, doing volunteer work or community service, or generally helping others, please ask your network to support you.  If the experience solely benefits you, see #1.  If you are doing everything you can and are trying to close the gap, make that clear.

PS: You, as a person, are not art.  Even if you’re planning to write about your trip or become a better actor through the experience, solely being you is not a reason for people to pay for you to do so.  I don’t care how talented you are. Here’s the beautiful and terrible part about being an artist: someone is always better at it than you are.  If they’re working harder, you’re fucked.

So work harder, be kinder, embrace humility, and know that the power to be successful is in your– and only your– hands.

And paradoxically, that’s when people will go out of their way to help you succeed.

Random Bunneh Photo

Snuggle-bun.

(Originally posted on ARTSblog, accessible here.)

Rambling ten-page resumes. Headshots submitted for management positions. Cover letters written in one big, messy paragraph in the body of an email. And one resume that was somehow, inexplicably, saved as a series of stream-of-consciousness bullet points in an .RTF file.

I coordinate the internship program at Los Angeles’ Center Theatre Group (CTG), one of the largest—and most prestigious—theatres in the country. These are just a few of the bizarre, sad, and shockingly common application faux pas I saw in our last application cycle.

Most undergraduates aren’t introduced to career options in arts administration within an academic context. An internship can provide an excellent introduction to the field. Many of the applicants I see are undergraduate theatre or acting majors, curious about career options in the discipline they love.

And many of them are woefully unequipped to apply for any job.

It’s tempting to fault schools for this lack of preparation. However, nearly every two-year and four-year college or university has a career center with free services. I’m also a big fan of personal responsibility.

So hey, arts major. Here are five tips for applying to internships or entry-level jobs in arts management.

Assume the position is extremely competitive. Actors, have you ever walked into an audition and seen 40 people waiting to try out for the same role? That’s what’s happening virtually when you apply for an internship. In my experience both at CTG and for very small arts organizations, it’s common to receive dozens of strong applications for a single paid internship. Hot entry-level jobs in arts management can attract hundreds of applicants. I say this not to discourage you from applying, but to discourage you from applying with sub-par materials. Which brings me to…

Write a new cover letter for each application. Talk about why you’re interested in the position, why you would be a good fit, and, if it’s an internship, what you hope to learn that will benefit your career. Research the organization, the supervisor, and the position. I can’t tell you how many applicants for development (i.e., fundraising) internships talk about how much they love script development. Cool, man. I love avocados.

Formatting matters, both for your resume and your cover letter. Visit a career center, or look at examples of resumes and cover letters online. I don’t care if your letter is block or semi-block. Here’s what I’m looking for: Does it look professional? Can I find your basic information? Does it reflect you, or did you plug your name into a template you bought online? Am I confident you will be able to write an email to a patron or send a thank-you letter to a donor without embarrassing my organization?

Follow the instructions. Our internships require a cover letter, resume, and a PDF application, all emailed to me as attachments. This is clearly stated on our materials. Almost 25% of applicants do not do this correctly. The most common errors are letters written in the body of the email, blank PDFs, and applications from people who are ineligible. The first two look sloppy. The third—the “will you make an exception?” application—is worse.

Look, internships and entry-level positions are designed for people without a lot of experience. Let’s say I were to let someone who’s been out of school for four years and has held several marketing positions have an undergraduate-level marketing internship. To quote South Park, you’re gonna have a bad time. I understand it’s rough out there, but when I see someone grossly overqualified I assume they’re either going to be miserable, or they’ll quit after two months when they find a full-time position. Think about whether you’re going to be happy in a position before wasting time applying.

Be honest about your goals and experience. The cover letter says: “I have always been passionate about theatre.” The resume lists internships in galleries, involvement with mural organizations, and a pending BA in Fine Arts, with no mention of theatre. Regardless of the applicant’s intent, she looks like a liar. We’re going to notice discrepancies between past experience and the focus of your application. This also goes for unexplained gaps on your resume, no work experience, or academic issues. We’re going to see it, so make it a part of your story.

She could have said: “I’m currently pursuing a career in visual arts marketing. However, this semester I helped with a friend’s theatre production, and realized I was interested in performing arts marketing as well.” If that’s true, that moves her out of the “not a good fit” pile to the “makes a good case for herself” pile. If it’s not true and we hire her based on it, well…she’s gonna have a bad time.

There’s a common thread in these five tips. Submit targeted, professional materials and think critically about whether you’re passionate about the position and a good fit before applying.

These tips come solely from my experience overseeing application processes for about forty internships and entry-level positions, and reading approximately eight hundred applications in the process. I welcome additional thoughts or disagreement in the comments.

And I look forward to receiving your application.

(Originally posted on RAWartists’ I am Indie blog, accessible here.)

I love my career. At 28, I have a job I love as the Educational Programs Manager at Center Theatre Group. I also serve as the volunteer Director of Development for Circle X Theatre Co. In late 2010, I joined the national Emerging Leader Council through Americans for the Arts, and have Co-Chaired the council for the past year.

Everything is great, but then I try to balance one– more– spinning– plate– like agreeing to help with a friend’s really cool art project, or assisting with the coordination of a local conference.

And all of those things are great too. That’s the hard part. Because as much as I want to do them, sometimes taking on one additional project is what pushes my life from awesomely fulfilling to overwhelming and stressful.

I am a strong proponent of volunteering for events or projects within the community where you want to work, whether that’s geographic or discipline-based. In 2005, I started volunteering within the Los Angeles theatre community, and it helped me find my creative home and hone the management skills I’d use to build my career. Hours spent behind check-in tables continue to pay dividends; at a recent Los Angeles County Arts Commission grantee event, the Circle X board member I’d arrived with was impressed that I seemed to know everyone in the room. Becoming this kind of ‘known quantity’ did not happen overnight. I have been successful as an arts manager because I say yes to things, and then do them. (That last part is the important bit.) I like being someone my colleagues reach out to when they need a reliable, organized person who gets stuff done.

To say no to an opportunity seems anathema to how I’ve carved a niche for myself in the LA theatre management scene. Eventually, though, I need to become more strategic about saying yes to things.

How do you know when you’ve reached the point in your career when it’s okay to politely decline a high-profile, but potentially high-stress, request?

I think the key lies in selfishness. This can be a dirty word for artists and arts managers used to valuing collaboration, putting the group above the individual, and ensemble creation– all hallmarks of theatre and many other disciplines, too. But each member of an ensemble is still an individual, and that individual’s physical and emotional health has a major impact on the success of the group.

I love cooking, and curating a career and artistic life seems much like improvising a new recipe. I know I want to include family, my job at CTG and my volunteer gig at Circle X. That leaves room for perhaps one or two more flavors each month. One month maybe it’s a mentorship opportunity; the next, helping a colleague produce an event.

Just as in cooking, though, adding everything to that recipe spoils the balance and detracts from the quality of the individual elements.

We emerging artists and arts leaders need to honor that balance by saying no, even when our gut reaction is yes. It’s a skill that will become increasingly important as we become leaders of our field. We– I– need to trust that opportunities will continue to come, and giving 100% to the projects we take on is more important than spreading ourselves too thin by trying to take on the world.

Masters graduation, or, the day repayment began.

The Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program is a giant carrot for those of us stressing about the discrepancy between low nonprofit salaries and high student debt from Masters programs.

Unfortunately, a small mistake cost me a year’s worth of payments toward this program.  Hopefully my post will prevent others from making the same mistake.

The PSLF, in brief: if you prepare your loans a certain way and make 120 on-time, in-full payments after graduation while employed full-time at a qualifying nonprofit organization, the remainder of your student loan debt is forgiven.

120 on-time payments translates to 10 years.  If you take a break from nonprofits and then come back to the field, your eligible payments pick back up at the time you go back to full-time employment at a 501(c)(3).  There are quite a few other areas of employment that are eligible, such as public education, government and military service.

I’ve told many interns and young professionals about PSLF when they express doubts about whether a Masters degree is ‘worth it’ in a field where any job with health insurance is considered a sweet gig.

Now that I’m in my late 20s, I’m starting to see friends leaving the field because they don’t feel like they will ever have the quality of life they want while still working in the nonprofit sector.  And these are friends with Masters degrees!  It’s a field you go into because you love it, but if your monthly loan payment tops $500 and you know you can do the same job and double your salary just by switching from 501(c)(3) to for-profit, well… it’s tempting.  I’m grateful for the program, which is allowing me to stay in a field where my salary isn’t anywhere near my student loan debt (and I have a GREAT job).

So THANK YOU for the PSLF.  Now let me try to explain how I messed it up so other people won’t do it too.

I graduated in May 2011, and immediately did what I thought I had to do to make myself eligible for the program.

I followed the steps outlined in sites such as FinAid and IBRinfo.  First, I consolidated my loans.  When you come out of an undergraduate or graduate program, you usually have separate loans for each semester.  If you have both subsidized and unsubsidized loans, you could have multiple loans even within a single semester.

To make things more complicated, loans can be sold to various entities, so if you were to pay them separately without consolidation you could be sending money to a laundry list of banks, private lenders, and other institutions.

So I read the directions multiple times and consolidated my loans into a Federal Direct Consolidation Loan.  This part was correct.

In January of 2012, the Federal government released an employment certification form, instructions and a Dear Borrower Letter.  This was the first time you could officially sign up for PSLF, although qualifying payments made as early as October 2007 would count toward a borrower’s 120-payment term.  It’s recommended that you file them annually and/or when you switch jobs, just to be sure everything’s in order.  However, you don’t technically need to file until you’re ready to get the rest of your money back.

However, I saw the forms as insurance against any mistakes, and filed them in March.  In June, I got a letter that confirmed I was eligible for PSLF.  My employer counted, my consolidated loans counted, and I had 0 payments toward my 120.

Hold up.

I’d been paying into this for a year.  Why zero?  How did I lose a year’s worth of payments (which totaled over $5,400)?

My mistake: I put myself on the wrong repayment plan.  Since I discovered this, three friends have found out they did exactly the same thing.  Because it’s freaking confusing.

Here’s the explanation I discovered after multiple phone calls to FedLoan Servicing, who seem to be still wrapping their heads around this as well.

The repayment plans that count toward PSLF are income-based repayment (IBR), income contingent repayment, (ICR), and Standard repayment– only if the Standard repayment plan you’re on is the ten-year plan.

Catch that?  The ONLY Standard plan that counts is the one where you pay off your loans in ten years.

Well… yeah, no shit.  That means you’d be done paying them off at exactly the time when the PSLF kicks in.  Actually, FinAid clarifies why they even mention Standard loans:

If a borrower were to use only standard repayment for repaying their loans there would be no balance remaining after 10 years and so no debt to cancel. Standard repayment is only provided as an option to address situations when a borrower is unable to continue under income-based repayment because they no longer have a partial financial hardship and the payments under income-contingent repayment exceed standard repayment. In such a situation the borrower would use standard repayment for the remaining payments and obtain some loan forgiveness at the end of the ten years of payments.  (Click here to read more)

Okay, fair enough.  So Standard repayment plans only apply to people who have been paying into the IBR or ICR, get a great gig (still in an eligible organization), and no longer qualify for IBR or ICR.  They finish out their ten years on the Standard plan and still, hopefully, get a little back.

But I– and at least three of my friends– signed up for a different Standard repayment plan, one that’s on a 25-year time frame, and therefore have not made any eligible payments since graduation.

I feel lucky that I caught this after only a year.  One friend had been making his on-time, in-full payments for four and a half years, and thus thought he was almost halfway to forgiveness.  Unfortunately, you can’t do anything to make up for time lost.

My next step is to apply for Income-Based Repayment, which you also have to apply for every year to remain eligible (the more you know!).  It looks like this may actually lower my payments, as my husband is now a full-time student so our household income is pretty low.

I highly recommend that anyone interested in this program submit that employment certification form and make sure you’re doing everything right.

If you have more tips or advice, please leave it in the comments!

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