It probably won't come as a surprise to hear that for a low income student like me, paying for college is a major challenge. It can be done, but you need to make some difficult choices, work hard, and take whatever help is available.

I started out at a community college, where my tuition was fully paid for because I was awarded a full academic scholarship. That decision helped me avoid taking out student loans for my first two years. For my junior year, I transferred to University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, where I just received my bachelor's degree in business administration with a focus in business analytics and management. I'm graduating with $15,000 in debt, which isn't fun, but it's manageable, and a lot less than some other people I know.

Having a smaller loan balance makes a huge difference. My student loan repayment is going to be $153 a month; that's less than a car payment. A graduate with little or no debt could choose pretty much any job at any salary. So it's affected me only minimally. I have an internship with Tennessee Valley Authority and I'll start grad school in the fall. I will have to get a job, but I can also take the time to get an advanced degree, which will lead to much better potential earnings.

My brother, on the other hand, is about to graduate with his master's degree along with $86,000 in debt. As he looks for a job, he has to make sure the pay is high enough to cover his loan payments along with his other expenses. Even though he had a full tuition scholarship at University of Alabama, along with Pell Grants and other aid, he had to borrow thousands of dollars a year to cover his living expenses on campus. My decision to start at community college is paying off now through lower loan payments and more career flexibility.

The other important choice I made was to work multiple jobs while I was in school. I worked for the college as a campus tutor and did some private tutoring. I worked several fast food and retail jobs, and did some photography on the side. I was hoping to avoid taking out any loans. My jobs paid all of my living expenses. But it also about killed me. After my first semester as a junior, I decided it wasn't worth it just to avoid borrowing money. Taking out loans allowed me to have a somewhat better lifestyle, so I'm grateful that I had the ability to do so.

So loans turned out to be a great option to help pay for college and a valuable bridge to the future. They helped me focus on my studies and get more sleep. But too much debt can limit your choices later. There's a decision to be made: do you want to trade hard work today for more flexibility tomorrow, or vice versa?

If you do borrow money to pay for college, the Federal Student Aid office offers a lot of resources to help understand the process. This includes exit loan counseling and an analysis of your repayment options. They can tell you exactly how much your loan repayment will be and how long it will take. They actually make you write out your salary expectation upon graduation, and then the expenses that you intend to cover, to calculate which plan you should take. That was very helpful.

Having to work and borrow my way to an undergrad degree wasn't easy. I can't say that it didn't take a toll on me. But at the same time, I've always known I was going to have to have this debt. Growing up, I knew that if I wanted to go to college, it was going to have to be on my own dime.

In some ways, that was an important part of my education. I know the value of my degree, because I know what I've had to do to earn that value. Yes, it's going to take me 10 years to pay off my loans. But I know that I put myself in that position. That was my decision.

Teva Seale

Teva Seale is a recent graduate of the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga where she majored in Business Analytics and Management. She is now pursuing a Master of Science at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga.