Graduates follow their hearts in college majors with little concern about student debt

Graduates follow their hearts in college majors with little concern about student debt

May 25th, 2014 by Susan Pierce in Local Regional News

Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy valedictorian Guilda Xiloj poses for a portrait with her daughter Estrella, 3, at her home in Chattanooga. Xiloj, whose family immigrated from Guatemala, is the first in her family to graduate from high school.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

At age 18, Guilda Xiloj is a single, working mother of a 3-year-old daughter - and class valedictorian of Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy.

She has juggled school with a 30- to 40-hour workweek, a schedule that few adults could maintain. In the fall semester of her senior year, she was up at 7 a.m., in school from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., then on the job as a cashier in a Mexican store on 23rd Street by 4:30 p.m.

"I'd get home from work at 10 or 10:30 p.m. and start homework," she said, "and get to bed around midnight."

She earned enough credits to finish high school in December. Since then, she's been supporting her family and child as a waitress at a Hamilton Place restaurant while waiting to walk with her class at graduation.

Xiloj admits the birth of her child at age 15 almost led her to drop out, but her mother took over child care so she would graduate from high school -- the first in her family to do so.

"I wanted to do something different from my parents because they never got an education," said the daughter of Guatemalan immigrants. "They told me to get good grades and achieve in life."

So she's following her goal of becoming a nurse. "What I've always dreamed of doing, which is helping others in their hour of need."

Xiloj is not alone in her pursuit of a career that will bring personal satisfaction over wealth.

In a survey the Times Free Press sent to all valedictorians in its circulation area, 90 percent of the seniors responding said they were choosing a major/career that will make them happy rather than one that will earn them tons of money. Yet, even by doing so, 70 percent said they expect their chosen careers will give them a higher standard of living than their parents have now.

"I'm planning to major in biology and would like to become an environmental lawyer," said Peter Lugthart, McCallie valedictorian. "I think that will strike a balance between making money and making me happy, because I know that protecting the environment will be extremely rewarding for me."

Elle Johnson, Sequatchie County High School's valedictorian, has a personal reason for pursuing a degree in chemical and biomolecular engineering.

"My father received a kidney transplant that he had been waiting on for over a year and a half," she said. "I hope to one day develop pharmaceuticals related to organ donation. This decision is based more on happiness than money as it is a cause very near and dear to my heart."

Like Xiloj, 10 percent of the local valedictorians in the class of 2014 are fulfilling the dreams of their parents. They are children of families who immigrated to the United States to pursue the American dream.

Rasim Kazic's parents grew up in Bosnia and Herzegovina before immigrating to the United States. The East Ridge High School valedictorian said they came here specifically "to provide me a higher chance of success in life as well as a wider range of careers from which to choose."

"Money is a necessity, but being happy throughout life is more important to me," he said. "Helping others is something that I would love to do, so pre-professional biology gives me a good start to physical therapy. I would much rather have a heart full of pure happiness than a bank account full of money."

Keri Shackelford, valedictorian of Bradley Central High School, admits that "all teenagers expect to have a higher standard of living" than their parents.

"However, money is not what drives me. I would rather be content with my job and my life instead of always chasing a dollar," explains Shackelford, who plans to attend the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, but hasn't decided on a major.

Megan Storey, Sale Creek High School's valedictorian, said she plans to get an education degree, knowing full well that she won't make a lot of money in that career. But teaching and coaching are where her heart is.


And not only are most valedictorians unworried about money when it comes to a career, they're not even worried about it when it comes to paying for the college degree that will get them to that career.

The College Board reports that the national average for annual in-state tuition at a public two-year college is $3,264 and $8,893 for in-state tuition to a four-year school.

Tuition to a public, four-year school out-of-state is $22,203 a year while going out of state to a private four-year college averages $30,094, the board said. On top of that, add about $10,000 for room and board and you hit a whopping price tag of $128,000 for four years.

Yet local seniors say they've got it covered.

Ninety-two percent of the valedictorians answering the survey said they have college paid for in full-ride scholarships or combination packages of scholarships and student loans with their parents paying incidentals. Many respondents expressed a belief that this is the payoff for hard study and academic achievement in high school.

"Through my hard work and determination in and out of school, I was blessed to be accepted in the Haslam Scholars Program at UTK, which covers tuition, room, board and books," said Sequatchie's Johnson.

Scottsboro High School's J.D. Reynolds said Auburn University has offered him full tuition, "plus a little extra money for books and housing. Because of these scholarships, I am not concerned about the accumulation of debt."

Baylor School valedictorian Ashley Augustine has a full-tuition scholarship to Vanderbilt University, but she does have some financial concerns.

"I am downright terrified about the possibility of amassing any serious amounts of debt. I do not want to do that to my parents or myself," she said.

Elaina Wood, a harpist who was valedictorian at the Center for Creative Arts, said she and her parents sat down and discussed finances when she began the college application process. She will attend the University of the South and major in creative writing.

"I knew I had to do many things to get grants and scholarships, such as good grades and participate in as many extracurricular activities as I could," she said. "I went to Governor's School and Sewanee Young Writers Conference, and was a Girls State delegate."

By the end of her senior year, Wood had received three scholarships and a grant to the University of the South totaling $39,645 -- part of $181,425 in scholarship offers she received.

Although 8 percent of valedictorians expressed concern over college debt, only 11 students out of just over 50 who responded to the survey said they were working to pay all or even a portion of their college expenses.

"I thought becoming valedictorian would bring me scholarships, sadly it has not," said Alexis Bivens from Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School. "I will have to take out student loans to afford college."

Brooke Angela Pugsley at Heritage High School said her parents plan to pay for her undergraduate schooling in life sciences, but she hopes to attend medical school, and paying for that will be up to her.

"I do worry about debt, but the value of my gained education will be worth it," Pugsley said.

"I am paying for college through working, loans from my parents and scholarships," said Notre Dame's Rebecca Simerly, one of four valedictorians at the private school. She will major in wildlife biology in hopes of possibly returning to Chattanooga to work at the zoo or Reflection Riding Arboretum.

"I am very worried because my future jobs will not allow me to pay off debt very fast," she said.

Miana Mahaffey, valedictorian at Richard Hardy Memorial High School in South Pittsburg, has already mapped a plan to work off any college debt.

"I have applied for many scholarships in hopes of getting accepted for some. One includes a Chattanooga State scholarship that will pay my whole tuition for at least two years if I receive it," she said. "Otherwise, I plan to do work-based learning and to apply for student loans.

"Once I receive my associate's degree for registered nursing, I will start working, which will help me pay off my student loans. I'm not worried about amassing large debt because I am doing everything that I can to make sure I won't be drowning in debt 10 or 15 years from now," she said.

Contact Susan Pierce at or 423-757-6284.