HSTA, NEA hold first workshop to help teachers tackle college debt

About 80 teachers and education students from across the state participated in the Hawaii State Teachers Association and National Education Association’s first-ever Degrees Not Debt workshop on Nov. 16 to learn about federal student loan forgiveness programs. While 30 people participated in person, another 50 connected online to attend the workshop virtually.

Jordyn McKnight, an Aiea High special education teacher, was one of the in-person attendees. She has about $90,000 in student loan debt.

“It affects our daily life. Both my husband and I are teachers so we live with my mother in law to help pay it off. We have to budget really closely. It’s a lot of budgeting,” McKnight said.

HSTA Instruction and Professional Development Specialist James Lynch-Urbaniak said, “A lot of our educators have really no idea about some of these federal loan forgiveness programs that are out there. Whether they take advantage of a 25-year, longer repayment plan or if they decide to do something like I did, where after five years, to have your debt forgiven, depending on what area you are located in and what subject you teach.”

Lynch-Urbaniak, a former English teacher at Ilima Intermediate in Ewa Beach, knows the debt problem first hand. He had about $50,000 in debt when he started his teaching career.

At the workshop, educators learned about several federal programs.

“The public service loan forgiveness program is a program where if you work at a public institution, a public 501(c)3, after 120 qualifying payments, you’ll be eligible to have the remainder of your student debt forgiven by the government,” Lynch-Urbaniak said. “We also have the teacher loan forgiveness program, which essentially offers $5,000 or $17,500 canceled from your student debt. There are different requirements for who gets five and who gets 17,500, but that’s where you work in a Title One school, which we have many in Hawaii, and also work there five consecutive years.”

Christy Keaunui, a Mililani High social studies teacher, said she still has about $20,000 in student loan debt. She called the workshop “awesome.”

“I learned about different benefits that are out there, different opportunities. Not just for myself but also for my husband, who also has a lot of debt, student loan debt. This was very enlightening because I’ve heard a lot of things from other people. I get things in the mail, I get phone calls about student loan forgiveness, but I had no idea how it worked,” Keaunui said.

“I think what’s really scary right now in our society is that we get these random phone calls and they could be phishing phone calls, we have no idea. So at least we know with the HSTA, we’re getting legitimate, good information that we can use for ourselves and share with others,” Keaunui added.

Chaminade University education student Danny Acidera was one of several college students at the workshop.

“There are concerns for me and many of my classmates, so we’re all going to be teachers and already to begin with, teachers start off with a really low salary. A bunch of us are in debt and how are we going to pay this debt if we’re already starting off on a low scale. And it’s kind of frightening,” Acidera said.

“Learning about all the different programs at the workshop really gives me hope and I think it would put a lot of my classmates’ minds at ease, especially going into education professions. Because these loan programs, they target specifically teachers. And so I think that’s a huge help,” said Acidera, a college senior who has racked up $20,000 to $30,000 in student loan debt.

“We saw such a tremendous turnout to our events that we’re planning lots of face-to-face workshops in the spring on our neighbor islands as well here on Oahu,” said HSTA’s instructional specialist Lynch-Urbaniak.

“After the meeting, we had a large response from individuals saying, ‘Hey, can you come onto our college campus and talk to our cohorts, future educators, so you can talk to them about the different opportunities for loan forgiveness?’ So we’re going to be taking the show on the road,” he added.

In a survey of new HSTA members this school year, 47 percent said they were interested in learning about loan forgiveness programs, so the Association and its parent organization, NEA, are planning more workshops to meet their needs.

To schedule a Degrees Not Debt workshop at your school, contact James Lynch-Urbaniak at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).