Alejandra Owens

AARP Director

Location: Washington, DC

"I can’t remember how many essays I wrote, how many dreams I put onto paper, but hard work eventually paid off."

My parents had told me college was mandatory, so it wasn’t a surprise to anyone when, at five years old, I was walking around the house carrying a dictionary telling my mother I was “going to class." Class was at Harvard, of course, since that was the only school I’d ever heard of.

Childhood dreams later gave way to glossy college recruitment brochures and I fell deeply in love with Wake Forest University. But a conversation with my mother my junior year taught me my first lesson in tough financial choices. Lacking a college fund of any sort, and coming from a solidly middle class family meant, like most young Americans, I was about to be saddled with massive student loan debt.

Growing up in Arizona afforded me the opportunity to not just take advantage of reasonably priced in-state tuition, but tuition waver programs based on GPA, standardized test scores and class ranking. Thanks to my parents’ dedication to my education, not only was I in the International Baccalaureate program, but my studies were paramount to a career. I easily qualified for a tuition waver to all three of Arizona’s in-state schools, leaving just housing and books (and some fun!) to fund.

I was faced with a decision. I could follow those glossy brochures and attend an out of state school, taking on somewhere in the vicinity of $100,000 of debt, or attend the University of Arizona, receive a great education and stay as debt free as possible. My 17-year-old self had no interest in falling deep into debt so early in life, so I opted for the latter of my options.

My senior year of high school I downgraded from the International Baccalaureate’s diploma program to the certificate program, affording me the luxury of only a half-day of classes. Instead of spending my time sleeping in, I was at school each morning with the rest of my peers. Unlike my peers, I headed straight to the library where I diligently researched and applied for somewhere around 200 scholarships.

I can’t remember how many essays I wrote, how many dreams I put onto paper, but hard work eventually paid off. Small and medium-sized scholarships started to trickle in. I attended luncheons and award ceremonies, shaking hands and smiling and nodding when people lauded my potential. All I could think was, thank goodness you’re willing to invest in that potential, because this sure makes things more manageable.

Ultimately, my first two years of college were completely paid for through those scholarships. The remaining two years I became a Resident Assistant, which not only paid for my housing and meals, but introduced me to one of my very best friends. Each summer I worked retail jobs or paid internships to cover the cost of books. During the school year I worked as a desk assistant in various dormitories to cover the cost of frappucino laden study sessions and late night pizza orders.

I could have leaned back in the face of fear and uncertainty, given in and paid for school with student loans - or worse, not attended school at all, frozen with financial fear—but I had a clear vision of what I wanted to get out of school and debt was not on that list. I leaned in and learned early on that I would need to rely on myself if I wanted to succeed in anything I did—and proved to myself that I could.