By Savannah Sicurella

I mentally prepared myself to take out student loans long before I began applying to college. I distinctly remember spending hours studying university financial assistance webpages and scouring student loan debt forums to make sense of collegiate financial aid on my own — and that doesn’t account for the time I spent losing myself in the deep abyss of scholarship aggregator websites that wouldn’t stop sending me emails.

Bad teen television and success stories on the nightly news skewed the perception my parents and I had of financial aid — it seemed so easy to get a full ride, particularly if you were from a lower economic class. This wasn’t the case as I began receiving acceptance letters without enclosed funding letters.

I was unsuccessful in receiving scholarships in high school, contrary to what most collegiate financial aid or scholarship aggregator websites tell students. The applicant pool for most national scholarships — from larger essay-based awards to those with outlandish, niche eligibility (win $500 if you wear glasses! Or have curly hair! Or can turn a roll of duct tape into, like, a prom dress!) — can be large and overwhelming, and I didn’t appear to be an unparalleled student on paper.

I was lucky to receive the Zell Miller Scholarship, a merit-based full tuition scholarship program for Georgia residents, to cover my tuition, and a Pell Grant to partially cover the costs of a meal plan and housing, but it wasn’t enough. I needed outside help. Entering college with no outside scholarship money in my pocket, I followed the same path of 69% of all undergraduates seeking a bachelor’s degree — I applied for federal student loans.

The choice was strategic. I wanted to stay true to the rough five-year plan I sketched out for myself before I graduated: to find my footing in college and work in student media to prepare myself for a career in journalism. I viewed taking out student loans to support myself as I navigated that goal as an investment in my future.

This commitment, however, came with its own set of fears. Terrified of graduating in debt and knowing that the journalism field is notoriously underpaid, I embarked on another feverish goal — to save up as much money as I could to pay the loans off when I graduate. This process began with working odd jobs: I tutored children, began pet-sitting and made a decent amount of money selling vintage clothing online.

As I moved out of the freshman bubble, I managed to accomplish part of my five-year goal by landing a paid job in student media — I then saved every penny I made from that job. I ate scrambled eggs, frozen peas and carrots and oatmeal for every meal because I wouldn’t let myself spend frivolously on food.

The biggest help toward accomplishing that goal, surprisingly, was applying to scholarships. I labored in applying to both national and departmental scholarships, the latter of which I found great luck with receiving. I begrudgingly applied to the glasses-wearing and duck-tape-prom-dress scholarships.

It eventually came full circle: the investment I made into my future by taking out loans to work in student media allowed me to earn scholarships and grant money to pay off those loans. As I entered my senior year, I surpassed the halfway mark of repaying my student loans. My dedication to saving has allowed me to worry just a little less about my debt once I graduate — and taught me more about extreme couponing and zhuzhing up frozen peas than any book ever will.

Savannah Sicurella is studying journalism at the University of Georgia. She is a 2020 Cox-SABEW Fellow, a training program in partnership with UGA’s Cox Institute for Journalism Innovation, Management & Leadership.