Melisa Boutin wished for the American dream and opportunity. Originally from St. Kitts-Nevis in the Caribbean, she emigrated to the United States when she was just a teenager.
She did everything by the book. She entered Florida on her own and became a legal permanent resident. Although the federal government offers financial aid to eligible non-citizens, Melisa faced unique hurdles because of her home country’s approaches to education and aid.
“Because I graduated [from high school] outside of the United States, it was difficult completing financial aid and application forms,” she says.
To finance her education, she ended up borrowing nearly $70,000 in student loans, some which had interest rates as high as 9.00%. Now, she’s tackling that debt head on and educating other recent immigrants about managing student loan debt and financial aid.
Financial aid obstacles as an immigrant
When Melisa entered the U.S., she had just graduated from high school in the Caribbean. She settled in Florida because she had an aunt who lived in Miami and worked for the University of Miami.
Determined to go to college and get her degree, she started to research financial aid options.
“Living in Florida as a new immigrant, I thought it made sense to check out the University of Miami,” she says. “The school gives grants to high school graduates from Florida. But even though I was living in Florida legally, I didn’t qualify because my high school was outside the U.S.”
Unable to qualify for those school grant programs, Melisa looked into federal financial aid and started to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). However, she found even more obstacles.
“Where I come from, there are no income tax returns,” she says. “So I had no way to enter that information.”
Melisa’s parents remained in St. Kitts-Nevis. She was on her own in Florida and sent money she made from part-time jobs back to her family in the Caribbean. But in the eyes of the federal government, she was a dependent. Her dependency status limited the number of options she had.
Applying for federal assistance
Working with the University of Miami’s financial aid office, she was able to complete the FAFSA as a dependent with her aunt as the guardian. With that change, and entering the numbers on her aunt’s tax return, she was able to access federal student loans.
However, the amount she could borrow wasn’t enough to cover the full cost of attendance. To fill the gap, she needed additional help. Since she was a recent immigrant, she turned to a Caribbean company for a loan. With that money, she was able to pay for school. However, those loans would come back to haunt her.
Melisa’s student loan wake-up call
In her freshman year, Melisa looked at her debt and was shocked by the numbers.
“I realized I would be on track to graduate with over $100,000 in debt,” she says. “I had to figure out a way to get off that path and take control of my financial future.”
She transferred after sophomore year to a less expensive four-year school in Texas and went on to graduate school to study engineering. She applied — and won — several scholarships through FastWeb, a site that has a database of thousands of scholarships.
But she still graduated with over $58,000 in student loans. Thanks to high interest rates, that balance quickly ballooned to over $70,000.
However, one of the toughest obstacles she faced was the private loan she borrowed from a Caribbean lender. After graduation, she paid over $4,000 toward that private loan, only to find out later they applied it only to the interest charges, not the principle.
“Banks in the Caribbean have limited regulations, and there are few financial protections,” Melisa says. “You can go over a year without receiving a statement, and they can apply your payments differently without telling you. I felt they took advantage of me.”
Managing student loan repayment
After she graduated with her master’s degree, it took Melisa nearly eight months to find a job in her chosen field. She deferred her loans while job searching until she got back on her feet. Once she got her first full-time job, she reviewed her debt and came up with an aggressive plan.
“I got my job, tallied up everything I had and owed, and came up with a plan to prioritize,” she says.
Her loan with a foreign lender had a 9.00% interest rate, so she focused her efforts on paying off that one first. By coming up with a budget, tracking every dollar, and limiting any extra spending, she was able to pay off $13,000 in debt in one year.
Because of her hard work, she was able to pay off her student loan debt in full just five years after completing her graduate degree — all while sending money back to St. Kitts-Nevis for her family.
Paying it forward
With her debt gone, Melisa is focused on helping other students navigate the financial aid process and manage student loans. She became a certified financial education instructor to help recent immigrants and millennials develop a plan to repay their debt. She also launched the blog Your Money Worth to share advice.
For those struggling to handle their own loans, Melisa recommends tackling your debt directly.
“My advice is that the first thing you do is release any stress or shame debt causes you,” says Melisa. “No matter how you fell into debt, whether you had to borrow to cover the gap or chose the wrong school, the first step is taking responsibility for the debt you have now. Get on top of the debt you have, and create a vision for the life you want without the debt.”
If you’re ready to aggressively pay down your debt, these tips can help you eliminate your student loans faster.
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