Battling the debt demon: One veterinarian's quest to survive

The conclusion of a three-part series featuring stories from veterinarians on the front lines of the war on student debt.
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Feb 01, 2014


(GETTY IMAGES/CSA IMAGES)
This month we're concluding our series highlighting the stories of three veterinary professionals, all in very different financial circumstances and stages in their careers. But despite their differences, one thing rings true for all three—each one has their own story of struggle and survival and each story sheds light on the greater issue of debt management within our profession.

Emily Southward, DVM, DACVECC: Battling the debt monster

Age: 44
Graduation year: 1997
Total debt in 1997: $130,000


Emily Southward
Southward earned her veterinary degree at Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine. After graduating, she spent an extra year on clinics at the University of Minnesota to meet the requirements for obtaining her Educational Commission for Foreign Veterinary Graduates (ECFVG) certificate.

An internship in anesthesiology followed, with a salary less than $20,000. At the cost of accruing interest, Southward had to defer her loans during the internship. Her understanding of her loans and repayment options were limited at that time. The next two years were spent in private clinical practice and she began to repay some of the debt.

Being set in her professional goals, in 2001 Southward began an emergency and critical care residency with a master's degree. During those four years, she placed her loans on deferment for economic hardship because her salary started at $20,000 and gradually increased to $32,000.

Since completing her training in 2005, Southward has been practicing as a critical-care specialist in Southern California, earning on average $150,000 yearly. While earning what would be considered by most to be a respectable salary, once all loans entered repayment, Southward could barely afford living expenses while making the minimum required payments. She also found that her lenders were inflexible in terms of reducing her monthly payments to a level that would allow a reasonable level of take-home pay.

Things were at least manageable until Southward lost her job and subsequently her home in the midst of the economic downturn. Since regaining full-time employment, she continues to struggle with loan payments—a struggle that extends far into the foreseeable future. Since she's not considered a "new borrower" under Obama's student loan forgiveness program, Southward will be ineligible for forgiveness as well as the newer pay-as-you-earn programs.

As is true for many of us, Southward experienced mixed emotions about her loans and what they represent. The means to fulfilling her goals has become a tiresome burden. "The loans weigh heavily upon me as I got a great education and I am practicing veterinary medicine," she says. "I do not want to be in debt to anyone. I worked and trained hard to be the clinician I am today."

Southward received little to no financial education during the critical time when she was taking on loans to fund her academic and professional goals. While she concedes that she incurred the debt willfully, she urges prospective veterinarians to exercise extreme caution in planning for their financial future. "Have a financial plan ready to go when the loans come due," she says. "Understand interest rates and compounding interest. Get a financial planner to help manage the repayment of loans."