Saturday, September 15, 2012


Will you be applying for graduate financial aid?

Um. No? Never again.

Indicate yes if you wish to be considered for scholarships, fellowships, student employment or any other form of university sponsored financial assistance.

Ok. Yes.

My financial services ostrich pulls its head out of the sand for a moment. Ostrich suggests I get in touch with the Department of Education and check the status of my student loans before my bad decisions of 2007 take a bite out of my rear end, seeing as how it’s aimed at the sky anyway.

The new Federal Direct Loan website is meant to look cheerful. Friendly. Accessible. It asks me to name the person I first kissed to access my forgotten password. The combination of baby blue and teal sans serif font and memories of the first romantically exciting moment of my adolescence mollify me for a moment. Who knew Direct Loan people were so soppy? I silently salute the underpaid, fresh out of college web designer who created the new forms. Well done, comrade. Were you in debt too? Did you think this would help?

Loading, loading, loading.

My failure to make payments over the unpaid summer, provide additional paperwork about my income and various other stupid decisions have put me, I think, in a pretty bad place. My ostrich desperately contemplates the head-in-ground position again, but distant hopes of further education prevent it from acting on the impulse. I take down the phone number on the website and dial, trying not to think about my phone bill for international calls.

A recorded message asks me to enter my account details. It plays and replays a sentence about how anything I say can and will be used against me in the collection of my debt. I feel like a criminal. My palms get clammy as I imagine begging and pleading, desperately explaining my work at nonprofit, effort to educate the underprivileged, troubles with the exchange rate and so on, when someone finally answers the phone and puts me out of my misery. He doesn’t care about my story. I answer ten minutes of questions. I don’t own a car. I do not own a home. My husband does not earn in dollars. He asks if I would like to pay all my student loans in full to be out of default status. I panic. I thought I had ten years to pay the full amount! He gives a reassuring laugh. I like his voice.

No, Ma’am, I understand that. It’s just that it’s illegal for me not to give you this option.

Damn this obsession with the law. Sometimes it’s so counterproductive.

I’m connected to another representative, who informs me I am eligible for a reasonable monthly payment plan. I almost laugh with relief. Thank you so much, I say. The woman on the other end is surprised by my gratitude. No problem, she says. You have to hand it to Americans for being polite. Two minutes later, my happiness evaporates when I am informed that my debit card isn’t working because the bank in Pakistan won’t authorize it. I apologize, hoping against hope they don’t think I’m one of those sad people who simply have no money in their bank account and don’t even know it, simultaneously wondering why I care about their opinion. I call the local bank, determined to give them a piece of my mind.

The irritable representative from my own city doesn’t win any points for good manners, but he is-like all Pakistanis-determined to give me “good advices” about how I should go about my private business.

Phone banking very risky. Better you not do it, ma’am. Anyway, not my business how your card doesn’t work. Un ki apni business hai jin ka system cheques allow nahin karta. Un say jaa kar behess karain.

Five minutes of fruitless shouting about wasted international call minutes, demands to leave the Stone Age behind and other exhortations later, I give up. 

Larry or Harry or someone from somewhere in the midwestern United States calls me back, asking for an update on my situation. I spend approximately one hundred rupees on phone minutes, setting up alternate payment arrangements. I pray for the god of student loans-William D. Ford, namesake of the Direct Loan system, I’m thinking of you-to grant me extra points for making this month’s payment without ripping anyone’s head off. Until next month, Department of Education, my ostrich awaits.