July 1, 2022
  • July 1, 2022

South Dakota students hope for student loan forgiveness

By on May 19, 2022 0

President Joe Biden has signaled in recent weeks that he is considering fulfilling a campaign promise to provide student borrower relief of up to $50,000.

In South Dakota, 73% of graduating class of 2020 had an average of $32,029 in student loan debt, according to a report by the Institute for College Access & Success.

For students like Grace Bucklin and John Walker at Augustana University, student loan forgiveness could affect their long-term financial well-being.

And, for students like 2021 Roosevelt High School alumnus Etta McKinley, the student loan forgiveness could be the difference between staying in Sioux Falls to work in the restaurant business and returning to New York to pursue her Broadway dreams.

Here’s how student loan forgiveness would impact students like McKinley, Bucklin and Walker.

Etta McKinley (right) poses with her friend Sierra Queen on the New York subway.  The two met while McKinley was living in New York and attending the American Musical & Dramatic Academy in the fall of 2021. Now McKinley needs financial help to get back to the college of her dreams.

Future “on pause” without further financial support

McKinley, an HRH alum who once made headlines in Sioux Falls for speaking out against hair discrimination and participating in anti-racism protests, needs help re-entering a prestigious music college in New York: l American Musical & Dramatic Academy (AMDA).

She thinks the support through a GoFundMe, or the potential for student loan forgiveness, would help her get back to school.

After:Is student loan cancellation on the horizon?

Abigail Turner, who now goes by her birth name Etta McKinley, is pictured here delivering the commencement address at the Roosevelt High School graduation at Sioux Falls Arena on May 30, 2021.

Shortly after graduating from HRH last spring, McKinley moved to New York and lived in the AMDA dorms.

“It was the best experience of my life,” McKinley said of the move from South Dakota to the Big Apple. “It was magical. It was everything I had dreamed of and more.

McKinley was in New York at AMDA until October when things got tough financially for her.

Etta McKinley (right) poses with her friend Matthew Gardner at the New York City Pride Parade.  The two met while McKinley was living in New York and attending the American Musical & Dramatic Academy in the fall of 2021. Now McKinley needs financial help to get back to the college of her dreams.

She received help from the FAFSA, scholarships and her birth mother, but when her birth mother told her in October that she couldn’t make the next payments, McKinley could no longer pay on her own.

Coming back to Sioux Falls and having to leave AMDA “honestly broke my heart,” McKinley said.

McKinley’s friend Lisa Bjorneberg helped set up a GoFundMe for McKinley so she could start pursuing her dreams again by studying musical theater and the performing arts.

Bjorneberg said she knew AMDA was a life-changing opportunity for McKinley and gave her a head start to break into the music business.

Etta McKinley poses outside the Walter Kerr Theater in New York City in fall 2021 between classes at the American Musical & Dramatic Academy.  Now McKinley needs financial help to get back to her dream college.

“In a world where incredible amounts of money are spent on spaceflight, political campaigns and wasteful projects, the idea that $60,000 could absolutely change (McKinley’s) life inspired me to take action,” Bjorneberg said.

For now, McKinley is working as a waitress at Swamp Daddy’s Cajun Kitchen and as an intern at Levitt at the Falls, she said, until she can save enough money to return to AMDA.

Canceling the student loan would allow McKinley to return to school and complete his education, which I “deeply and very much want to do.” Until then, she said she felt her future was “on hold”.

The Augustana logo on the back of the press box at Bowden Field

“Try not to let the threat of loans weigh on my passion for knowledge”

Augustana University students Grace Bucklin and John Walker also said they will receive student loan forgiveness in the future.

Bucklin, 22, a graduate in sociology, Spanish and environmental studies, is graduating with an undergraduate degree this month. They owe $46,000 in federal loans and will begin paying them back within the next six months when their post-college grace period ends.

They plan to take a year off before going to college, and they’re working to have enough money to complete their future education and pay off financial responsibilities as well as student loan debt, Bucklin said.

The monthly payments will arrive between the time after the grace period and the time Bucklin attends graduate school, they said, but Bucklin does not yet know how much their monthly payments will be.

“I’m sure student loan debt will affect my financial well-being in the future,” they said. “My purchasing power will be limited by my monthly payments. I am currently trying not to let the threat of loans weigh down my passion for knowledge.”

Augustana University returning royalty candidates in 2021. Top row, left to right: Brayden Harris, Jason Becker.  Middle row, left to right: Noah Hovorka, John Walker, Ted Van Alstyne, Kyja Norris.  Bottom row, left to right: Taha Afzal, Sheldon Jensen, Alexa Lammers, Amara Rodis, Rebecca Ziems.

Canceling student loans affirms the American educational value of the pursuit of knowledge for social betterment, not just for a paycheck, Bucklin said.

Student loan cancellation would be ‘a weight on my chest’

Walker, 22, a senior government/international affairs, philosophy and classics majoring in pre-law at Augie, said he currently owes the private college $20,000 in student loans.

He thinks he’ll end up owing about $28,000 in loans when he graduates as a fifth-year student, and he’s not sure how much his payments will be.

Knowing the amount of his loan is overwhelming and fuels Walker’s anxiety, he said.

John Walker participates in a women's march in response to Texas' restrictive abortion laws on Saturday, October 2, 2021, marching from Carnegie Hall to the Minnehaha County Courthouse in Sioux Falls.

“Forgiving my student loan would be a weight on my chest,” he said. “I often consider how long it will take me to pay it back and I know there are plenty of students who have more to pay than me, but I just know it will be an obligation that will hold me back financially.”

As he plans to go to law school, Walker said he knows he’ll have to take out more student loans for it, which will affect long-term decisions like where he will work after graduation and how much his career will pay “which can do the most good,” he said.